Nahum

After a long hiatus, I am finally returning to my analysis of the prophets.  The next prophet is Nahum.

Nahum identifies himself solely as being from Elkosh.  He gives no hint as to his parentage, instead choosing to emphasize his place of origin and his message about the demise of Nineveh.  Elkosh was, and is, a trade city abut 75 mIles from Nineveh.  In Nahum’s time, it was within the Assyrian Empire. Today it is in the Ninawa Province of Iraq. Some scholars believe that he was actually from Caoernaum in the Galilee, but the Iraqi city makes much more sense, given the content of Nahum’s work. We know from archeological evidence that Israelite captives were transported, among other places, to Elkosh in the aftermath of the Assyria Conquest.  Presumably, Nahum was descended from those captives.

Names also have meanings.  Elkosh is believed to mean “El’s [G-d’s] bow” or “G-d is my arrow” in Aramaic, which was the vernacular of the Assyrian Empire.  It is no coincidence that Nahum emphasizes his place.  HaShem’s “bow”, after all, is the rainbow, symbolizing His promise never to destroy the world again.  Nahum makes further reference to the Deluge in likening the invading Chaldeans to a flood at 1:8-9,  much as Yoel likened them to a wild fire:

But with an overrunning flood He will make a full end of the place thereof, and darkness shall pursue His enemies. What do ye devise against the LORD? He will make a full end; trouble shall not rise up the second time.

Nahum’s poetry emphasizes Nineveh’s reputation as a force of regional destruction, not only of Israel, but of Lebanon, among others. HaShem will not permit indefinite destruction, and will take up His bow (Elkosh) to stop it. While his poetry is vividly violent on its surface, it serves Nahum’s Israelite audience as a reminder of the Covenant and of HaShem’s faithfulness, a fitting purpose for a man who refers to himself as the “comforter” (the meaning of Nahum).

But what of content?  Nahum speaks in chapter 1 as an Assyrian captive foretelling the fall of his captor, whose capital is Nineveh. As such, we can say that Nahum was roughly contemporary with Yeremyahu (Jeremiah), who spent most of his energy on the Chaldean Conquest, which replaced the Assyrian captivity.

Nahum can also be seen as a bookend with Yonah. Yonah tells the story of HaShem selecting Nineveh to be the instrument of His wrath against Israel. As Yeshayahu (10:12) prophesied before Nahum,

When the Lord has finished all his work against Mount Zion and Jerusalem, he will say, “I will punish the king of Assyria for the willful pride of his heart and the haughty look in his eyes.

In Yonah, the instrument is chosen.  In Yeshayahu, we learn the narrative, that Assyria will chastise Israel for her unfaithfulness and then be destroyed for its own hubris by Persia.  In Nahum, we are told that the time for that destruction has arrived.  Yeremyahu witnesses that destruction from afar (Yehuda also being among the conquered).  And Yehezkel (Ezekiel) prophecies from the new Exile, anticipating the light at the end of the tunnel (Persia).

Nahum bluntly, brutally, beautifully informs Nineveh of the finality of its conquest and destruction, which were ultimately accomplished by the Chaldeans in 612 BCE.  While all is not immediately returned to normal for the Israelites as Nahum seems to hope it would be, Chaldean rule appears to have been an improvement.  In the end, an era of peace, prosperity, and piety commences under Persian rule, belatedly fulfilling Nahum’s prophecy.

In chapter 2, Nahum refers to Nineveh metaphorically as a queen who will be uncovered.  This is a reference to the city’s patron deity, the Assyrian goddess Ishtar.  Originally, the city had been named for a local river goddess called Nina, and the Nina cult had been absorbed by the larger Ishtar cult. Ishtar is also mentioned as the harlot at 3:4-7.

As for the sack of Ninevah, Nahum’s description is startlingly vivid, 3:3 being an excellent example:

The horseman charging, and the flashing sword, and the glittering spear; and a multitude of slain, and a heap of carcases; and there is no end of the corpses, and they stumble upon their corpses

The Chaldeans razed the city, which housed approximately 100,000 people at its height, to the ground.  The archeological and historical records attest to mass graves, bodies left to decompose in open air, refugees chaotically fleeing into the countryside.  Chaldean forces torched the city, going house to house. The government was forced to withdraw to Kalhu (now called Nimrud).  The final holdouts of the conquest were banished to the contreyside and massacred, much as Nahum foretold at 3:12:

All thy fortresses shall be like fig-trees with the first-ripe figs: if they be shaken, they fall into the mouth of the eater.

Indeed, while Nahum’s first chapter is a pronouncement of judgment on Nineveh and hope for Israel, the remaining two chapters appear to be in the present tense.  The prophet appears to bear witness to the carnage.  Rather than prophesying the invasion, he seems to focus on telling Nineveh the outcome of the present invasion.  The horses are in the streets, the bodies do lie in heaps in his present tense quite literally.  This is the fulfillment of prior prophecy.  The new content is the completeness of the destruction, that there will be no abatement or mercy.  And there wasn’t.

After Nineveh’s destruction, the place remained a ruin, essentially uninhabited, for centuries; and Assyrian culture, let alone power or autonomy, was no more.  Much like the prophecy and testimony of Yoel (echoed in Nahum’s references to horses, chariots, and locusts), Nahum provides an account of the fulfillment of prophecy, with a few new proptic insights skillfully woven through his narrative.


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