The Book of Nahum is one of the Books of the Minor Prophets in the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament), and was ostensibly written by the eponymous prophet. Unlike the vast majority of prophetic books, which tend to concentrate on the moral failings of the Hebrew nation, Nahum spends the entirety of its three chapters espousing a particularly war-like characterization of YHWH and describing the vengeance that He will wreak on the Assyrian empire. Though the text is renowned for its poetic force, this narrow, nationalistic (and arguably amoral) focus has minimized the relevance of the text for later historical contexts.
Authorship and Historical Context
As with many of the Biblical prophets, little is known of Nahum, the author of the seventh text in the Hebrew Bible's minor prophetic corpus. In fact, the only extant information on his character is provided by the book's superscription, which describes the text as "the book of the vision of Nahum the Elkoshite" (1:1). Rather than offering any additional biographical details, this snippet merely deepens our uncertainty, as the location of Elkosh (the prophet's hometown) is unknown. Davidson concurs that the various "conflicting traditions leave the prophet's birthplace quite unknown" (13).  Etymologically, the prophet's name signifies "comfort" or "consolation," though it could also be a contracted form of Nehemiah.
Unlike the enigmatic prophet himself, it is relatively straight-forward to assign a date to the composition of the text itself. Given that the text unequivocally references the sacking of Thebes at the hands of the Assyrian army, it cannot have been composed prior to the transpiration those events in 663 B.C.E. Likewise, as it is a prophetic (rather than historical) text, it seems equally reasonable to assume that it was composed prior to the actual fall of Nineveh in 612 B.C.E.;  This being said, considerable evidence suggests that the book's modern form is heavily redacted, meaning that the dates postulated above simply pertain to the composition of the original prophecy rather than the text's final form. O'Brien provides a concise summary of these issues:
- The final form of the book is probably exilic or even post-exilic, given allusions to Isa 40-55 and other prophetic materials. Further problematizing the dating of Nahum is the possibility that Assyria may represent less a historical entity than a symbolic enemy, much as Edom serves as a symbol of evil in many of the prophets, and Babylon stands for Rome in Revelation. The readiness with which Nahum's language could be read symbolically is attested in the Nahum pesher from Qumran, in which the writers' contemporary foes are labeled 'Assyria.'
This being said, the analogy with "Babylon" in Revelations is an instructive one, as that text's allegorical use of Babylon was predicated on numerous historical uses in the prophetic corpus. For a similar reason, it seems reasonable to assume that the Book of Nahum (or at least its oldest constituent parts) describes the actual historical conflict between the Hebrew homeland and the Assyrian nation.
From a socio-political standpoint, the Book of Nahum encapsulates the eventual Israelite response to the military depredations and repressive rule of the Assyrian people. Indeed, the prophet's bilious oracular utterances can be correlated with the insults borne by the twelve tribes (in general) and the Temple cult (in specific) in their years as a vassal state:
- After the Assyrian king Sennacherib had withdrawn from Jerusalem in 701 and had received King Hezekiah's oath of allegiance, Assyrian rule was firmly established. For a long time, any attempt at rebellion was useless. Year by year, little Judah paid a considerable tribute to Nineveh. In the Temple at Jerusalem the altar to the god of the super-power, the god of Assyria, stood in the centre of the forecourt. Under the title 'Lord', Baal (the Judeans were spared from having to use his proper name, Assur), he received regular sacrifices, as did the army of the heavens, the stars, on which the Assyrians laid great stress. The altar to Yahweh did, it is true, stand next to the Assyrian one, but it was pushed to one side, no longer in the central position.
As such, when the dominant empire overextended itself by committing to a war on two fronts (including an ultimately abortive foray into Egypt), the Judean prophetic tradition responded with oracles of their impending collapse. Nahum represents one of these sources. The impetus that could have inspired such a prophecy is evocatively described by Garcia-Treto:
- It is easy to see how a Judean consciousness, formed by well over one hundred years of Assyrian hegemony and buttressed by brutal militarism and propaganda, could react with elation at the news of Assyria's collapse. The Judahites perceived that Yahweh had accomplished Nineveh's downfall. What could be more natural than to cast the defeat of a long-hated oppressor as the long-sought after deliverance finally granted by a "jealous and avenging God?"
In a general sense, the subject matter of Nahum's prophecy is the incipient ruination of Nineveh, the capital of the great and (seemingly) flourishing Assyrian Empire. In fact, with the exception of the text's initial, psalm-like meditation on the power of YHWH, the entirety of the text consists of a lengthy description of Assyria's sins and the righteous manner in which their kingdom will be purged from the surface of the earth by the wrath of God. A representative sample can be found in the final passages of the first chapter:
- The Lord has given a command concerning you, Nineveh :
- "You will have no descendants to bear your name.
- I will destroy the carved images and cast idols
- that are in the temple of your gods.
- I will prepare your grave,
- for you are vile."
- Look, there on the mountains,
- the feet of one who brings good news,
- who proclaims peace!
- Celebrate your festivals, O Judah,
- and fulfill your vows.
- No more will the wicked invade you;
- they will be completely destroyed (1:14-15 (NIV)).
The Book of Nahum is notable on two stylistic fronts. First, it is generally recognized as an apex of prophetic rhetoric, making extensive and effective use of imagery, metaphor, alliteration, and various other literary techniques. Souvey summarizes the author's achievements thusly:
- There is no doubt that the book of Nahum is truly "a masterpiece" (Kaulen) of literature. The vividness and picturesqueness of the Prophet's style have already been pointed out; in his few short, flashing sentences, most graphic word-pictures, apt and forceful figures, grand, energetic, and pathetic expressions rush in, thrust vehemently upon one another, yet leaving the impression of perfect naturalness. Withal the language remains ever pure and classical, with a tinge of partiality for alliteration (i, 10; ii, 3, 11) and the use of prim and rare idioms; the sentences are perfectly balanced; in a wordNahum is a consummate master of his art, and ranks among the most accomplished writers of the Old Testament.
Second, the hymn to YHWH in its opening verses seems to be constructed in an acrostic style, a poetic device that is considered by some scholars to evidence a text's usage in a cultic context. Though the majority of biblical scholars attest to the presence of this literary device, ;; Souvay (1911).</ref> some question whether it is simply being read into the text by overzealous interpreters.
YHVH as vengeful warrior
The most striking element of the Book of Nahum, especially to a modern reader, is its brutally vengeful characterization of the Divine. This aggressive theology is propounded from the text's first verses which describe the deity as follows:
- The Lord is a jealous and avenging God;
- the Lord takes vengeance and is filled with wrath.
- The Lord takes vengeance on his foes
- and maintains his wrath against his enemies.
- The Lord is slow to anger and great in power;
- the Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished.
- His way is in the whirlwind and the storm,
- and clouds are the dust of his feet.
- Who can withstand his indignation?
- Who can endure his fierce anger?
- His wrath is poured out like fire;
- the rocks are shattered before him.
- The Lord is good,
- a refuge in times of trouble.
- He cares for those who trust in him (Nahum 1:2-3, 6-7).
This potential for violence comes to fruition throughout the second and third chapters of the text, with the most shocking example consisting of a sexualized portrayal of the wrathful god's assault upon (and shaming of) Nineveh (standing in as a metonym for her citizens):
- Charging cavalry,
- flashing swords
- and glittering spears!
- Many casualties,
- piles of dead,
- bodies without number,
- people stumbling over the corpses-
- all because of the wanton lust of a harlot,
- alluring, the mistress of sorceries,
- who enslaved nations by her prostitution
- and peoples by her witchcraft.
- "I am against you," declares the Lord Almighty.
- "I will lift your skirts over your face.
- I will show the nations your nakedness
- and the kingdoms your shame.
- I will pelt you with filth,
- I will treat you with contempt
- and make you a spectacle.
- All who see you will flee from you and say,
- 'Nineveh is in ruins—who will mourn for her?'
- Where can I find anyone to comfort you?" (3: 3-7).
As can be imagined, this characterization of God as murderous, wrathful warrior has proved deeply problematic for many religious people — with the passage quoted above proving especially offensive to feminist scholars. Though the appeal of such a message to the downtrodden Judean people would have been unmistakable, this grim, martial depiction of the divine lacks the emphasis on justice and love developed elsewhere in the Biblical corpus. As Garcio-Treto sardonically comments, "it is clear that the [Christian] church has not been able easily to integrate Nahum's message into its liturgical usage; Nahum shares with Obadiah the dubious distinction of the being the only prophetic books that do not appear in the Revised Common Lectionary, and probably for similar reasons."
- ↑ Francisco O. Garcia-Treto, "Nahum." The New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. VII. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994-2004), 599.
- ↑ Charles L. Souvay, "Nahum" in The Catholic Encyclopedia. (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911) Souvay, (1911) adds to the confusion by suggesting that "Elkosh" could, at least in theory, refer to the author's father (rather than his town of origin). Assuming that the more typical reading is correct, he then outlines the various abortive attempts to locate the community, after which he acknowledges that a location in southern Judah is most likely.
- ↑ Ibid., 599. Souvay (1911).
- ↑ This reference can be found in Nahum 3:8-10 :
Are you better than Thebes,
situated on the Nile,
with water around her?
The river was her defense,
the waters her wall.
Cush and Egypt were her boundless strength;
Put and Libya were among her allies.
Yet she was taken captive
and went into exile.
Her infants were dashed to pieces
at the head of every street.
Lots were cast for her nobles,
and all her great men were put in chains.
- ↑ Julia M. O'Brien. "Nahum." The Oxford Bible Commentary, Edited by John Barton and John Muddiman. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 599; Garcia-Treto, 597
- ↑ A. B. Davidson (Reverend). The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1905), 13-19.
- ↑ O'Brien, 599-600.
- ↑ Klaus Koch. The Prophets: The Assyrian Period. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press,) 157. See also: Garcia-Treto, 593-595.
- ↑ Garcia-Treto, 595.
- ↑ The passage's psalm-like character is discussed in Souvay (1911).
- ↑ SouvaySouvay (1911). See also: O'Brien, 600, who argues that "despite its textual difficulties, Nahum manifests evident literary skill. … Assonance, alliteration, repetition, and wide-ranging metaphors abound."
- ↑ O'Brien, 600.
- ↑ S. J. de Vries, "The Acrostic of Nahum in the Jerusalem Liturgy." Vetus Testamentum 16: Fascicle 4 (October 1966): 476-481, 476.
- ↑ O'Brien, 600; Garcia-Treto, 600-603
- ↑ de Vries, passim.
- ↑ See, for example, Michael H. Floyd, "The Chimerical Acrostic of Nahum 1:2-10." Journal of Biblical Literature 113 (3) (Autumn 1994), 429, who examines the Masoretic version of the Book and concludes that "the text shows no traces of an alphabetical sequence that might qualify as acrostical."
- ↑ O'Brien, 600; Garcio-Treto, 596-597.
- ↑ Garcio-Treto, 596.
- Davidson, A. B. (Reverend). The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1905.
- de Vries, S. J. "The Acrostic of Nahum in the Jerusalem Liturgy." Vetus Testamentum 16: Fascicle 4 (October 1966): 476-481.
- Floyd, Michael H. "The Chimerical Acrostic of Nahum 1:2-10." Journal of Biblical Literature 113 (3) (Autumn 1994). 421-437.
- Garcio-Treto, Francisco O. "Nahum." The New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994-2004. ISBN 0687278201.
- Hirsch, Emil G. and Ira Maurice Price, "Book of Nahum" in The Jewish Encyclopedia. 2002.
- Koch, Klaus. The Prophets: The Assyrian Period. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982. ISBN 0800617568.
- O'Brien, Julia M. "Nahum." The Oxford Bible Commentary, Edited by John Barton and John Muddiman. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. ISBN 0198755007.
- Souvay, Charles L. "Nahum" in The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911.
This entry incorporates text from the public domain Easton's Bible Dictionary, originally published in 1897.
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