This week I spoke to our adults and presented the book of Nahum in light of the other books we have been reading. I presented how reading Nahum in the context of the other Minor Prophets enhances the message of the opposing faithfulness of the Lord and the fickleness of Israel.
In our Bible the book of Nahum existed as part of a bigger whole, and the ancient evidence we possess also reflects this structure. We call these books the “Minor Prophets” because they are shorter than the other prophetic books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah. Scholars also refer to the Minor Prophets as the Book of the 12, because of the number of minor prophetic books. This number immediately sounds significant because the number of times the number 12 appears with significance in the Bible (eg, 12 tribes of Israel, 12 apostles). The earliest copy we have of the Book of the 12 was found in the Judean desert. We have never found any of these twelve books on their own. As a result, I am choosing to read the Book of the 12 as a single narrative–twelve beads on a single string.
The Book of the 12 does not have meaning without the meaning of the individual prophetic books (chapters?), so a deep understanding of each book is important. Often these books are boring: God gets angry, God smashes, people feel sorry. It’s hard to see why this boring, sometimes depressing message has to be repeatedly told, let alone read. This reaction makes sense; the story arcs of each of these books bear close resemblances to one another. However, on deeper examination, one can ferret out the differences, which contain the overall movement of the Twelve.
So we quickly went through the book of Nahum. (We’ll read it closely over the next few weeks.) The Lord appears as a destructive force of nature, ready to destroy his enemies. Nineveh, the capitol of the Assyrian empire, will be destroyed, but Israel will be restored (ch. 1). Those who are righteous have a chance for salvation, though they will not avoid the catastrophe–an upcoming war (ch. 2). The harlotries of Nineveh will become her shame, and as Nineveh defeated the world power of Egypt, so Nineveh will suffer humiliating defeat (ch. 3). Nahum is a story of defeat, but instead of Israel being crushed by its enemies, Israel is lifted up as its enemies are crushed.
Because this book speaks in Israel’s favor and against Israel’s enemies, it resembles on the surface a propaganda piece for Israel. While we have a typical story of God wreaking havoc, instead of against Israel, the Lord is working against Israel’s enemy. The text creates an odd reality. While it addresses the Ninevites, the text is in Hebrew; Assyrians couldn’t understand it. This address speaks to Israelite ears in Hebrew. This effect is as if Al Qaeda addressed the US for its rejection of God–but in Arabic. Americans would not ever hear this invective against them; the message is for Arabic-speakers and no response from the US is expected.
The Lord is telling Israel that no kingdom is eternal. As Israel was defeated, so is Nineveh, and for many of the same reasons. The accusation of “harlotry” was used everywhere from the beginning of the Twelve, in Hosea 1, to the most recent, Micah. No one is born safe; no one is born in danger. Unfaithfulness is the unwavering criterion of righteousness, whether for the Lord’s chosen people or for the Gentiles.
In the broader context of what we have read, the Lord shows no favor, except on the faithful. Jonah displayed a chosen prophet who could not live up to the faithful standard of the Ninevites, who were quickly and easily forgiven. Micah described the consequences on Israel for their lack of faithfulness: Assyria, with the Lord’s help, would defeat Israel. Now Nineveh must learn the same lesson. Israel cannot complain about unfairness; Nineveh is seeing the same consequences as Israel.
To human beings, the Lord looks like a yo-yo. Once he’s up, filling the cup of blessing; next he’s down, ready to crush his people. Why does the Lord treat his people like this? Habakkuk, the prophet following Nahum, begins with these very questions. “How long?” the prophet asks in the beginning of the book, as the people have experienced defeat anew, this time at the hands of the Babylonians (Habakkuk 1:2).
Saving grace comes when one realizes that the Lord is constant, though humans may not be. The Lord shows constant faithfulness to his people, offering blessings at times and correctives at others. The people, though, might show their faithfulness, counting on the Lord for help; at other times, they count on their own armies or the armies of their allies–harlotry–rather than on the Lord’s help. The Book of the 12 thus outlines the stalwart faithfulness of the Lord in opposition to the people’s mixed actions of faithfulness and treachery.