Ominous delight: Nahum 3

The second chapter of the book of Nahum continues on the theme of the Lord as the whole system: the good and the bad, the up and the down, the victory and the defeat.  As the whirlwind of the Lord becomes painfully concrete in war, the Israelites learn from their victory over Nineveh how easy a fall from grace is no matter what the height, as soon as she thinks that she controls and maintains her power.  The Lord alone stands atop the food chain.

Nahum begins with preparations for war.  Nineveh, the addressee of the prophecy, must get ready for an attack (v. 1).  The next verse, verse 2, is puzzling in the NKJV because it has parentheses around it.  One participant in today’s class asked, “Why are there parentheses?  It seems like this verse applies perfectly to the situation.”  Scholars believe that the second verse would make more sense if it switched places with the first; both sections would be more congruous, about lifting up Israel from the end of ch. 1 and about preparing for war in 2:3.  In its current place, though, 2:2 breaks the flow of preparations for war with a reminder that the war and the restoration of Israel depend on each other.  Raising up Israel comes at a cost of bringing Nineveh down.

Nahum depicts war with distinct poetic devices.  He describes war first in stark, concrete terms (vv. 3-5), and then in metaphor (6-9).  One participant noted that this chapter sees particularly poetic, with a clear meter.  The rhythm is staccato up to this point–short lines of only a few words.  While the words evoke chaos the style of the writing pulls us through like we’re riding a horse: da-da-DUM, da-da-DUM.  (The Hebrew of v. 10, moreover, offers wonderful alliteration: buqah u-mevuqah u-mevullaqah!  “Devastation, desolation, and destruction!”)  First, crimson and chaos characterize the war in stark, concrete terms.  Next, the author describes the defeat of Nineveh with metaphors.  The city floods out as the moaning women flee (vv. 6-7).  The flood continues as the city’s treasures are ransacked (vv. 8-9).  The starkness of war ends with the dissipation of the great city.

The images contrast sharply with the image of Nineveh previously in Jonah, where the “great city” was a three-day journey across (Jonah 3:3).  Now it is being drained of everything.  What was a vast lake is reduced to a puddle.  But rather than a slow, methodical drain, the loss comes through chaotic, bloody violence brought by the Lord.

Nineveh was amorally looking out for its own interests without any opposition, like a lion (vv. 10-12), but now is brought down in stature.  The lion is an image that would have resonated in the ancient Near East.  A Somali friend described to me the terror of night falling in the desert and the threat of lions in East Africa–this is the feeling Nineveh evoked.  Lions, though, are not evil, but amoral.  They eat to survive and to feed their young.  So Nineveh’s power operated amorally; for the strong to survive, they need to take the necessary resources.  The problem comes when Nineveh assumes that they are at the top of the “food chain,” which is the Lord’s position.  Pride is the downfall of Nineveh.  Nineveh will end with complete annihilation (v. 13).

The deliberate chaos of the Lord works against Nineveh but in Israel’s favor.  Nevertheless, as I mentioned early on, this invective against Nineveh is in Hebrew and thus aimed at an Israelite audience.  What purpose does it serve, then, other than propaganda?  On the one hand, the Lord reminds Israel that Nineveh–the overwhelming threat–is brought down so that Israel can be lifted up again.  On the other hand, pride of being at the top brought Nineveh down.  As we saw in Jonah, Nineveh is not always so proud; she is capable of profound repentance.  Nineveh became a constant threat to the weak, not out of malice, but out of the nature of its power.  Coming out from under oppression is good news for Israel, but rising to the top can be dangerous for Israel, as well.  As Israel rises in stature, she must cautiously and deliberately focus on her inability to gain or maintain her own power.

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