The Lord selects his people, the humble: Zephaniah 2

The Lord’s people will triumph—but who are the Lord’s people?  They are those who accept the Lord’s mercy in humility.  As opposed to those in 1:12-13 who believe that the Lord can neither do good nor evil, these humble ones understand that their survival proves the Lord’s mercy.  They are “martyrs” or witnesses that the Lord can and does do evil–by destroying the civilizations of the known world–and does good–by saving the humble ones who accept the Lord’s power.

Humility accepts the Lord’s mercy—he was leveling everyone and he could have not spared you.  Haughtiness assumes one’s own power—you don’t see any problem, so you assume you have it all under control.  This is only a dream, and the Lord destroys to awaken the people.  They can live and thrive as the Lord’s nation only if they submit to his ultimate power.

The Lord’s people must gather

Danger is coming, as the Lord announced in ch. 1, so ch. 2 begins with the Lord warning his people to be humble and gather together (vv. 1-3).  Gathering together displays the people’s humble recognition that the Lord’s day of judgement is approaching.  By listening to the prophet’s warning, they come together as one, humble people.  The resulting gathered individuals will comprise a humble nation that the Lord will favor.  One must decide now to join this people by heeding the warning.

The people will triumph like Israel in Joshua and Judges

While the most common reference to Torah we find in the Book of the XII points to Exodus, this chapter refers to Joshua and Judges as the Lord conquers the land again–this time, from the Philistines, the principle antagonist in Judges.  The first phase is destroying the Philistines (vv. 4-7).  The Philistines lived in a five-city confederation called a “Pentapolis,” consisting of Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath.  In this passage the first four are destroyed (Gath is not mentioned in this passage), and the prophet describes their fates through word-play on their names:

  • Gaza will be “abandoned”.  This plays on the Hebrew name for the city, ‘azah, and “abandoned,” ‘azuvah;
  • Ashkelon will be a “desolation”.  There is not much of a word-play here, unless one infers a potential play on the root sh-q-l, meaning “weigh.”  This verb sometime comes in the context of judgement, but that is not clear here;
  • Ashdod will be “destroyed”.  The name Ashdod, includes the root sh-d-d, meaning “destroy”, and the text says they will be “driven out”;
  • Ekron will be “uprooted”.  The clearest word-play comes here as the city name includes the root ‘-q-r which means “uproot”, just as the Lord threatens.

The cities thus live up to their “nature” as revealed by their names; their names “prove” that they were destined for destruction.  Beyond the fate of the Philistine cities, the Lord holds the whole area in his sites.

  • Woe to the dwellers of the “sea coasts”.  The literal translation of this phrase is “region of the sea.”  The word for “region” is xevel, which can alternatively be translated as “destruction”.  The latter meaning produces the phrase, “Woe to the dwellers of the destruction of the sea”, which fits this context well;
  • The nation of the Cherethites will be “cut off”.  The nature of these people is obscure, but their name includes the root k-r-t, meaning “cut (off)”.

The Lord contextualizes the process of destruction through the image of the displacement of the Canaanites.  The reference to Joshua comes as the prophet equates “Canaan” with the “Land of the Philistines.”  The people will conquer the Philistines as the Israelites conquered Canaan in Joshua.

A final, dark play on words concludes this section.  The Lord will “visit them” and will “return” on them their “payment.”  The ambiguity expresses the dual nature of the Lord’s judgement: either a visit will be good news with a beneficial payment, or bad news with harsh payment.  The sentence is unclear as judgment has not taken place.

Pride: The nemesis of the Lord’s people

The Moabites and Ammonites display the central characteristic of the Lord’s enemies–pride–and the Lord’s humble people will inherit their land, as a result (vv. 8-11).  The insults and haughtiness against the Lord’s people merit utter destruction, just like Sodom and Gomorrah.  Moreover, it will be the “remnant” of Israel–those that humbly gathered in the beginning of the chapter–that will destroy them.

The language describing the Moabites’ and Ammonites’ sin is ambiguous.  They “boast about their border,” but the word for “boast” here means “make large; grow”, so the boast also sounds like a land-grab: they grow (themselves) over their borders.  Since the land belongs to the Lord, and he has given portions to all the nations, the Moabites and Ammonites rebel against this deity by attempting to take what the Lord gave to another nation.

As a result of the Moabites’ and Ammonites’ sin, the remnant of Israel will inherit their land.  The humble will now inherit the land that was previously owned by the proud.  Only the Lord among all the deities will remain in this place.

Israel, as the Lord’s people, are defined by gathering humbly.  The Lord’s enemies are recognized as proud, insulting the humble, and growing beyond their allotted borders.

The land belongs to the Lord

The Lord will take over the entire world (vv. 12-14).  In the US we have the expression “from sea to shining sea” that signifies the country in its entire expanse.  “From Cush to Assyria” functions the same way for the ancients.  For the ancient world, Cush lies in the extreme southwest of civilization, along the Nile river, while Assyria lies in the extreme northeast, along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.  The Lord will destroy the entire expanse of the Near East, from river to river, from Southwest to Northeast.  He will return the world to its natural state, destroying civilizations and reducing Nineveh to nothing.  No longer a home to the most powerful people in the world, these cities will house wild animals–with no humans to shoo them away.

Verse 15 ends the chapter with a statement of ultimate pride: “I, and nothing else besides me” (אני ואפסי עוד).  This is the statement of the rich and comfortable, who have no concern, who believe themselves to be masters of their own destiny.  Like those in 1:12-13 who say, “The Lord will neither do good nor do evil,” they don’t think that the Lord can have any effect on their lives.  By spreading complete destruction, the Lord hopes to teach about reality: that he can do good and do evil, that there is someone besides the rich and comfortable, so that the people can become humble and decide to submit to becoming members of the Lord’s people.

Choosing humility

The people must choose between reality, that the Lord is all-powerful and can spare you from destruction, and fantasy, that they can protect themselves from destruction.  The Lord will bring destruction across the known world, erasing its civilizations.  If one is spared, survival results from the Lord’s mercy; he did not have to spare you.  He will restore the land to its original state, and offering it as an inheritance to his people, the humble recipients of mercy whom he spared.  His people, though, will consist of those who are willing to submit to him, recognizing his ultimate ability to do good and evil.  Comfort beguiles the people, thinking that they have control.  Thus they have a choice: submit to the Lord’s ultimate power or attempt to control their own destiny and rebel.

How do the people reject the Lord?: Zephaniah 1

Zephaniah, like the other prophets among the 12, asserts the Lord as the entire system of the universe.  He is, as I always tell our class, the bad and the good, the storm and the shelter from the storm (from Nahum 1).  The first chapter of this book presents Zephaniah as a brash insider, a relative of the royal family, yet two generations younger than the king.  He fiercely attacks the lukewarm faith of the rich, who believe that they have secured their own well-being.  Because of these people’s lack of complete trust in the Lord, the same god will bring war and violence to teach them that he alone can save and protect them.

A genealogy begins the chapter, laying out the prophet’s royal lineage (v. 1).  Zephaniah is the great-great grandson of the famous king, Hezekiah, and he prophesied during the reign of King Josiah, the grandson of Hezekiah.  So Zephaniah was prophesying to his grandfather’s cousin (technically, Zepheniah’s first cousin, twice removed).  The Bible does not mention Amariah, son of Hezekiah, elsewhere, so it could be that Zephaniah’s relative, Hezekiah, was different from the king’s grandfather with the same name; the name was relatively common.  Nevertheless, the image of a young prophet confronting his esteemed, elderly relative, as well as a blue-blood speaking against his own family, begins the book with a significant reversal of the reader’s expectations.

The Lord levels creation

To begin the prophet’s speech, the Lord “levels” all of creation, both in the sense of “flattening” creation through destruction and of “equalizing” everything.  First, he reverses the process of creation by wiping out humans and land creatures, then birds, and then fish (vv. 2-3; compare Genesis 1).  Then he emphasizes destroying all of humanity in v. 4, reminiscent of the same action in the flood in Genesis 6.

Second, every human–Israelite and Gentile–receives equal treatment, which would have scandalized an ancient reader.  Every inhabitant of Jerusalem and Judah will be destroyed.  The Baals will be destroyed, and the name of every priest–significantly, priests both of the Baals and of the Jerusalem temple–along with them (v. 4).  The Hebrew text says “every remnant of Baal.”  King Josiah was famous for eliminating the Baals and the high places of Canaanite worship from the land.  Since the king is already old, his reforms already took place–and did not succeed entirely.[1]  The prophet thus indicts Josiah for not completing his reform.  Zephaniah scandalously condemns both the reform of this “good” king and the “legitimate” priests of Jerusalem.

Third, the Lord condemns every shade of disloyalty towards him (vv. 5-6).  Those who soundly reject the Lord and bow down to the heavenly host and those who hedge by swearing both to the Lord and to Malcam (probably an Ammonite deity); those who have turned away from the Lord altogether; and those probably should turn to him, but don’t bother; all of these are under judgment.

The Lord would like to have you for dinner . . .

In light of the impending destruction and the condemnation the people have brought upon themselves, the Lord is preparing a feast–but are the people the guests or the main course (vv. 7-11)?  In the ancient world, the feast was not simply about killing an animal, but also about cooking and sharing the animal with the family and community.  So preparing a feast at first sounds like good news: an invitation to a feast.  The Lord sanctifies them so that they can partake in this holy meal.

Or does he sanctify them to serve them as the main course?  While he prepares the feast, he is punishing the king’s officials and sons for dressing like foreigners, ritually recognizing foreign deities by “stepping over the threshold,” and sowing violence and rebellion in the court.  Here it sounds like the slaughter will take place among the people, not on behalf of them.  The Lord’s wrath will first come as an economic crisis, eliciting howls and groans from the people, from which their money cannot preserve them.  The Lord will not serve but consume the rich and wicked.

Rejection of those who are comfortable

Once the Lord removes the obviously bad people from the land, he will search out the lukewarm for destruction (vv. 12-18).  He will search through every corner of Jerusalem for the people for whom the Lord is irrelevant, who don’t believe the Lord will act (v. 12).  These people are the comfortable ones, and the Lord will destroy their homes and vineyards through war and violence (vv. 13-17).  The prophet emphasizes that wealth will not help them when the whole land is “consumed” (v. 18).  The wealthy are comfortable with their wealth, unconcerned with what the Lord does; they believe have secured themselves.  As violence comes upon them, they realize the false nature of what they believe to be a safe existence, free from the possibility of being derailed by the Lord.

Equality under the Lord

The Lord plans to equalize the classes.  The rich will learn that their wealth cannot preserve them when confronted by the Lord.  Moreover, they will learn that the Lord, while he is the source of the battle and violence to come, is the only shelter from destruction.  The Lord is the entire system: he is the storm and the shelter from the storm.  They would like to think that the storm comes by itself, and wealth–with its foreign alliances, houses, and comfort–is the shelter from the storm.  The Lord plays no part, in their minds.  As a result, the Lord has to teach them that he brings the violence and he can protect them from it.  The prophet challenges his own royal family with the hope that complete dependence on the Lord for all things may result from this violent action–if they learn their lesson.

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[1] Cutting off the priests of Jerusalem along with those of the Baals proved too scandalous even to the translators of the Greek Septuagint, who translate this verse as, “…and I will cut off from this place the names of the Baals and the names of the priests,” which would have been interpreted as the priests of Baal, without reference to the Jerusalem priests.

A Psalm of Victory in Defeat: Habakkuk 3

Among the minor prophets, Habakkuk displays more personality than most because we see an evolution in his thinking.  He moved from questioning the Lord in chapter 1 to relying utterly on him in chapter 3.  He speaks of the cycle of the Lord’s actions the defeat of the Babylonians at the hand of the oppressed ones whom they defeated, which builds on the reader’s previous experience of the Assyrians’ defeat of the haughty Israelites, and the Babylonians’ defeat of the haughty Assyrians.  The Lord brings in an army to defeat the haughty, and then the army becomes haughty.  And repeat.  Breaking the cycle, the Lord himself came for the final battle against the foreign gods and the prophet took his place as one of the lowly so that he can ultimately experience victory from the Lord through the Lord’s glory.

The odd terminology of this chapter made an impression on readers.  Words like “shigionoth” (v. 1) and “selah” (vv. 3, 9, 13) are left untranslated in most Bibles because they are technical musical terminology.  Significantly, these words appear most often in the Psalms.  The odd vocabulary of this chapter gives it a particular tone, evoking the Psalms and the that book’s typical themes of defeat and victory.

The Lord appears on the scene quickly and fiercely in the first verses of chapter 3 (vv. 2-7).  The prophet first declared the great work of the Lord, about which he listened in fear and requested mercy (v. 2).  We next see an epiphany, like we saw in Michah 1 and Nahum 1, when the Lord came from the mountains in greatness (v. 3) and bright (v. 4).  He arrived not with life, though, but with death through pestilence and sickness (v. 5).  He surveyed his creation, and startled the nations, mountains, and hills (vv. 6-7).  With his terror demonstrated by weapons and great size, the Lord arrived as a great warrior.

The Lord is prepared as a warrior to fight in the primeval battle against the waters and chaos, whose armies are the nations (vv. 8-15).  In Babylonian mythology, the creation of the heavens and earth came about when the champion of the gods, Marduk, raised an army to defeat the horrific troops of the god of the rivers, Apsu, and the goddess of the salt waters, Tiamat.  In Habakkuk 3, the Lord acted like Marduk, but on his own and without an army rode against the “rivers” and the “sea” (vv. 8-9).  All of nature trembled to see this battle among the forces of nature (v. 10).  Even the sun and moon–important Babylonian gods–froze in fear before the weapons of the Lord (v. 11).  He tromped through the nations–the troops of the other gods–to give victory/salvation to his own anointed king and defeat the waters (vv. 12-15).

This image of war terrified the prophet (v. 16), but he hoped in the Lord despite appearances (vv. 17-19).  The prophet was not cheering on the Lord as he came in victory but was afraid.  He understood that the Lord is a whirlwind, as we saw in Nahum 1:3, that takes out anything in its path.  In our own times, even if someone believed that hurricane Katrina struck our shores to express divine wrath, even the most pious believer would take shelter in fear.  Habakkuk knew that the Lord is essentially dangerous, expressed in v. 2 by his request that the Lord remember mercy in his wrath.  Nevertheless, Habakkuk settled on hoping in the Lord as the only real victory (vv. 17-19).  Even in the face of utter drought and famine, he promised to rejoice in the Lord (vv. 17-18).  The Lord will provide him strength (v. 19).

This change of heart came abruptly and its naivete is troubling.  Why would the prophet hope in this destructive, terrifying deity?  Doesn’t he sound like the abused wife giving her husband “one more chance” to be kind?

Just like in the Psalms, Habakkuk recognizes that he must be the humble one if he wants to be victorious.  The Bible seeks to make the case for the Lord as the only (relevant) deity.  As a result, everything must come from the Lord, the good and bad.  Ultimately, the destruction that the Lord causes brings down the haughty and raises up the lowly; the defeated receive victory, and the victorious are defeated.  If the lowly remember that they are lowly before the Lord, that they were raised up in charity, they will have nothing to worry about.  Logically, then, the Lord is irresistible, and the only ones who would resist are those who put faith in their own strength.  Those who do not resist, put faith in the Lord’s strength.  The Lord, as we saw in Nahum, is the whirlwind and also the shelter from the whirlwind.

The glory of the Lord is that he can make something out of nothing.  He targets the powerful because they think they have produced something.  He emasculates them by claiming that he was the one who allowed them to produce something and by proving his point by taking away by violence what they thought the produced.  Moreover, he uses the weak to do so, further demonstrating that he alone controls their fate.  Once the weak are on top and believe that they have produced something, the cycle continues.  In this chapter, the prophet describes the final battle, when the Lord evens all the scores and ends the cycle.

Condemnation to Babylon, warning to Israel: Habakkuk 2

Chapter 2 of Habakkuk answers the prophet’s questions of chapter 1.  Habakkuk asked in ch. 1 how long the Lord would afflict them and why he would use such rotten means of affliction.  Here in ch. 2 the Lord explained that the cycle of oppression is not about the participants but about their attitudes.  If anyone trusts in the Lord, they will be safe; if not, their selfish ambition will prove their downfall.

After reading through the chapter in class, the participants couldn’t help but notice the coming word of judgement, especially in v. 3.  But when is it coming?  Will it tarry or not?  The verse is unclear.  Another item confused people, that is, who is being addressed precisely.  At times, Babylon is addressed as “he,” such as in v. 5, but elsewhere as “you,” such as in v. 7.  Sometimes, the “you” can start to sound like Israel.  Reminiscent of Nahum’s word from the Lord, Babylon is condemned directly, but Israel is warned indirectly.  Combining these two ambiguities–the time of judgement and the addressee of the judgement–Habakkuk accuses Babylon for now while he warns Israel about a potential future where Israel takes on the condemned traits of Babylon.

Habakkuk received the word of judgement wherein only those who trust in the Lord will be safe.  The chapter began with Habakkuk awaiting the answer to his questions (v. 1), and followed with the Lord’s answer (v. 2).  The Lord wanted to be absolutely clear, commanding the prophet to post the word on a billboard.  The word will come, sooner or later (v. 3).  Then the word finally came, and it separates the one who is proud and not upright from the one who shall live because he trusts in the Lord (v. 4).  Whether you trust in yourself or in the Lord determines your fate.  Just as the Lord is the whirlwind (Nahum 1:3), he is also the protection from danger (Nahum 1:7).

Those who victimize others on the way up will themselves eventually fall victim to their victims.  In a more concrete way, the one who steps on people to their rise to the top will have to answer to those they stepped on (vv. 5-8).  The ambitious Babylonians became proud and as insatiable as death (v. 5).  The poor whom the ambitious one put down along the way will end up to be his undoing (vv. 6-8).  The ones he took collateral from will take from him; the ones who were plundered will plunder him.  The means of success for the proud man will be the means of his downfall.

Once the proud person builds himself up, he entrenches himself to stay safe but condemns himself in the process.  He gathers in resources–coming from the poor people mentioned above–so that he can build a safe home for himself, like an eagle with a nest in a cliff (v. 9).  Then he teaches his children to do the same (v. 10).  His house, though, testifies to his pride and covetousness and exploitation (v. 11), and the scope of this testimony extends out to the city established by the same greed and love of gain (v. 12).  A safe, protected house built with these ill-gotten gains ironically condemn him to judgement.

The Lord leads the uprising of the people against the powers that be, not to help out the poor but so that all can know his glory (vv. 13-17).  He leads the weak to destroy the powerful so that “knowledge of the glory of the Lord” spreads throughout the world (vv. 13-14).  This news is not necessarily good.  We see a similar scene in Numbers 14, where Moses talked down the Lord, who wanted to wipe out the Israelites because of their rebellion; at that point, the Lord ominously parallels the signs (plagues) he made in Egypt and his glory (Num 14:22).  The Lord’s glory is that he uses the weak to shame the proud.  Normally, the proud survive off of the shame of the weak; soon the proud will be shamed by the Lord because of the violence caused by the proud (Hab 2:15-17).  The Lord ultimately lifts up the lowly against the proud so that the earth will know that no pride can hinder his glory.

Finally, the Lord compared the works of proud, human hands with the Lord himself (vv. 18-20).  People create idols so that they can take a life of their own.  Then they sit at the feet of their idols waiting in wonder for wisdom (vv. 18-19).  In reality, they are inanimate, incapable of creation or teaching.  In contrast, the Lord sits invisibly, in silence, and evokes true wonder (v. 20).  His wonder, though, comes not from sitting in awe, but remembering the deeds of the above verses.  One keeps silence before the Lord because he is more powerful than any person, group of people, or force in the world.  He defeats the strong through the weak, reversing the way of the world, and revealing his glory; even the fantasy of the proud cannot make the inanimate animate.

Since the time of judgement is still undetermined, anyone can still be subject to it.  In addition, the ambiguity convicts the Babylonians of pride and ambition, and whose sentence will be carried out by their victims.  At first, Israel may see this as good news.  Since judgement has not come yet, Israel still could potentially fall into the same sin as Babylon.  Should they begin to trust their ambition and the work of their own hands more than the Lord, they could find themselves destroyed by the whirlwind, rather than protected from it.

Bully on the Playground

bully Habakkuk draws its reader right in, questioning the Lord’s dominion over the enemies of war, famine, poverty, and injustice.  What kind of Lord won’t listen and won’t save?   Habakkuk doesn’t mess around with niceties, listing the Lord’s steadfast love, mercy, patience, justice, and strength.  He goes straight for the jugular.

And teaching Habakkuk to young children can be especially difficult in a land that strives to create a safe and fair world for its children.  Habakkuk is essentially asking the Lord,  “How could the playground bully be doing the work of the Lord?  The bully is mean and unfair and “bent on violence.” (1:9)

A boy named Peter studied the children at play.  From the park bench where Peter sat, he sized up the playground bully, and Peter watched him like a hawk.   The playground bully threw rocks at the spinning carousel, stood at the top of the slide and wouldn’t let anyone pass without a “leaf ticket,” and always beat his friends in a race to the best swing.   And Peter’s Mom didn’t even notice when the bully started kicking Peter’s ball that he left on the edge of the playground.

“Why doesn’t Mom do something??!   It’s my ball!  How can she let that bully do whatever he wants?”  fumed Peter.

“Peter,” Mom turned away from her conversation with the other ladies.  “You can get up from the bench now and come out of time-out.  Go apologize to the little girl you pulled off the see-saw.  Then why don’t you go play with that boy over there who’s kicking your ball around with the other kids?”

Will Peter ever learn?

 

 

 

Why establish justice with the unjust?: Habakkuk 1

We continued to discuss the theme that has been developing in the past several books (Jonah, Michah, and Nahum), that the Lord is the entire mechanism of affliction and comfort, the storm and the shelter.  Habakkuk continues to argue this point, but while questioning the Lord’s methods.

This book takes place after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, also known as Chaldeans.  After the stern punishment by Assyria in Micah, and the Lord’s retribution against the pride of Assyria in Nahum, the Israelites likely thought things would go smoothly.  Hence the shock of Habakkuk in the first chapter: “How long?!”

A crisis arose at the sack of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple.  Either the Lord willed his house to be destroyed or did not will it.  If he did not will it, then a force superior to the Lord must exist.  This answer is left unaddressed.  If the Lord willed its destruction, what would be his reason?  The book of Habakkuk addresses this question, trying to figure out why the Lord would allow such death and destruction and why by means of the Chaldeans.

One of the questions that arose after we read through the chapter is whether Habakkuk changed his point of view.  The prophet began asking questions of the Lord, receives a response, and then continues questioning.  In other words, after the Lord answered the prophet’s question, did Habakkuk progress in his thinking as he continued to interrogate the Lord?  Did Habakkuk learn anything from the Lord’s response?

The prophet began his questions wondering why the Lord doesn’t care that justice has been turned on its head (vv. 2-4).  When Habakkuk cries out, the Lord doesn’t respond.  The land is full of violence and devoid of justice, yet the Lord refuses to act.  The Lord seems to have abdicated his position as one who establishes justice.  The universe is unfair, and the Lord is letting it happen.

Unexpectedly, the Lord extolled the fighting ability of the ones perpetrating this violence, though they are not flawless (vv. 5-11).  First, the Lord depicted the greatness of his action of raising up a fantastic force (vv. 5-7), and then he illustrated the swiftness of the Chaldeans (v. 8).  These fighters fought without worry about any leader or fortification (vv. 9-10).  However, the weakness of these warriors arose from their pride: they attributed their success to their own god (v. 11).

Habakkuk responded with more questions–why would the Lord use wicked people to establish his justice (vv. 12-17)?  Once the prophet established that the Lord is eternal and he does not want to eliminate his people completely, he admitted that this attack is judgement and correction for Israel (v. 12).  Then Habakkuk ran into a problem.  The Lord cannot even look on anything wicked, yet used the unrighteous Babylonians to destroy his people (v. 13).  The Lord created people like fish, and now the Babylonians are “fishing” them to eat (vv. 14-15).  Instead of accepting their subservience to the Lord, they worship their nets–and the Lord keeps letting them fish with abundant success (vv. 16-17).

Between the first and second round of questions, Habakkuk changes in that he becomes more specific.  He complains at first that the Lord is allowing injustice to prevail.  The Lord then focuses on the instrument he chos; in the second round of questions Habakkuk admits the justice behind the action, but questions the Lord’s choice of instruments.  If the Lord is in control of the whole system, how can he be just yet employ the unjust?  “I can understand why you punish us, O Lord, but why by THEM?!”

The prophet waits for a response for his last question.  In 2:1, the prophet–reminiscent of Jonah 4–stands and waits for the Lord’s response.  The Lord may be in control of the entire system, but why does he use the unjust and wicked to manifest his will?

The uncomfortable question of self-preservation: Nahum 3

The Lord immediately comes after Nineveh in this violent, chaotic final chapter of the book of Nahum.  The author justifies the attack and then brings the reader into the midst of battle.  The Lord lays Nineveh open to her enemies, just as her enemies were once open to Nineveh’s attacks. The great city thought that she could control her own destiny, but the Lord displays his ultimate power over her fate.  The chapter uses extensively the image of the city as a woman, as an unfaithful wife and as a victim of rape.  This chapter critiques the necessary means of establishing one’s power by reversing those means against the powerful, ultimately demonstrating the Lord’s supreme power.

The first verse of this chapter directs the brutal strength of this chapter on the dishonorable, thieving city, Nineveh.  “Chaos” is how one reader in the class described her impression of this chapter.  The chaos and violence are squarely aimed at the one who brings chaos and violence.  This scene recalls the beginning of the book, in 1:2, where the Lord is characterized an avenger, one who settles scores.

The poet brings us into the midst of the battle in vv. 2-3.  First come the noises: whips, wheels, horses, chariots.  Next come the sights: weapons, and bodies, bodies, bodies.  The horror comes alive here as we see the Lord’s whirlwind manifested in the vengeance against Nineveh.

Nineveh’s unfaithfulness is reversed back upon her because she tried to wrest control of her destiny from the Lord (vv. 4-6).  Before I explain these verses, I need to mention that ancient literature–including the Bible–often depicted cities as women.  (This correspondence is clear in the Orthodox Christian Paschal hymn to the Theotokos: “Rejoice, O Pure Virgin! . . . Shine, shine, O New Jerusalem!”)  So the invasion of a city is likened to rape.  Similarly, a city is like the wife of her protecting deity.  The diety provided for his city in the form of wealth and prosperity, as a husband provides for his wife.  When Nineveh looked for provision outside the Lord, she Nineveh became a “harlot.”  She did not count on her husband alone to provide, but on any man who was willing to offer something.  In addition, by her “sorceries” she tried to control nature–similarly bringing her prosperity.  As Nineveh sought help from her “lovers,” the Lord now exposes her nakedness to all.  As her sorcery made her unclean, so the Lord now makes her unclean.

In the end, no one will feel sorry for her because she brought misery on all the nations around her (v. 7); as Nineveh raped others, so she will be raped.  For a nation to become an empire, as Nineveh did, she had to take over cities.  She had to keep growing, and so took the resources of the cities she conquers.  Each time Nineveh entered another city, Nineveh committed another act of rape, which she did countless times.  Rape is an inherently masculine act.  In v. 5, though, the Lord shows that she is truly a woman as he exposes her to be raped by other invaders.  Ultimately, she acted like a man, raping the cities around her; now she will be raped; she committed adultery like a bad wife; now she will be given over to be ravished.

In vv. 8-10, the Lord compares the defeat of Egypt to that of Nineveh, contrasting Nineveh’s relative weakness to Egypt’s strong geographical position.  Egypt was impenetrable.  One could only invade Egypt from the sea through the Nile delta in the North (v. 8); to the East and West were desert and allies (v. 9).  Nevertheless, the Lord defeated her previously at the hands of Nineveh (v. 10).  I reminded everyone that any mention of a defeat of Egypt obliquely refers to the Exodus–the basic narrative of the entire Bible–where the Lord displays his “outstretched hand” for his glory.

Nineveh, the “great city” of Jonah 1:2 and 3:2, will be utterly helpless (Nahum 3:11-13) in spite of its attempts to defend itself (vv. 14-15).  The people will be senseless like drunkards (v. 11).  They will be “ripe for the picking” by the enemy (v. 12).  The citizens of the city, both individually (i.e, the troops are “like women”) and collectively (i.e., the city gates are “wide open”), will be defenseless like women to be ravished by the enemy (v. 13).  Preparations to defend the city will prove useless before the invasion initiated by the Lord (vv. 14-15).

As all those with power–the merchants, scribes, and princes–are scattered about, defenseless (vv. 16-17), Nahum reminds the city of its ignominy to end the chapter and the book (vv. 18-19). With the citizens already taken from the city, the leadership fled, unable to be found.  The Lord reminds Nineveh and the reader of the reason for the great city’s defeat: cruelty.  As the city did what it had to do to amass the resources to keep itself safe and flourishing, it treated others cruelly.  As Nineveh is raped now, so she raped the other cities; as she put others to shame, now she is being put to shame.  Nothing will be left of this superpower except its reputation as an evil empire.

In the beginning of this book I discussed the message that a book about the fall of the Ninevites that would be named at Israel, and we see that the book warns against the “natural” needs of a power.   The power fulfills its needs through exploitation, and the Lord turns back this exploitation back on the superpower in order to even the score.  As Israel no longer finds itself at the bottom of the heap, Nahum warns against trying to make itself strong and secure again.  Prosperity and safety come exclusively from the Lord, and those who seek the Lord will be safe from the whirlwind when it comes for vengeance and settling scores.

The response to Nineveh as she seeks growth and security seems cruel.  She does what she has to survive as an empire.  By extension, every reader who wants to keep him- or herself safe must doubt that the action is acceptable from the Lord’s point of view.  In light of Christ’s self-sacrifice, in which he did nothing to preserve himself, or of Paul’s willingness to suffer for the gospel, we must wonder whether our self-preservation is of the Lord or against the Lord.  Normally, providing for oneself or for one’s family is automatically considered good and even admirable.  In light of Nahum, however, we must consider that we are the ones exploiting others for our own safety, in which case our provision for ourselves and our families will be brought under judgement.  Nahum forces an uncomfortable question.

He who must not be named

This week, the youngest class completed the first chapter of Nahum. In addition to continuing our study of key terms like “vengeance,” and “whirlwind,” we took the opportunity to practice Hebrew vocabulary, using the words “Yahweh,” and “shalom” to help illustrate the “good news” at the end of chapter 1:

14 The Lord has issued a command concerning you: “Your name will no longer be perpetuated. I will cut off idol and image from the house of your gods. I will prepare your grave, for you are contemptible.” 15 Behold, on the mountains the feet of him who brings good news, Who announces peace! Celebrate your feasts, O Judah; Pay your vows. For never again will the wicked one pass through you; He is cut off completely. (Nahum 1:14-15)

Instructing the kids to trace the words יהוה (Yahweh) and שָׁלוֹם (peace) on the board, I explained that since ancient times, many of God’s people were afraid to say the word Yahweh out loud. Curious, not puzzled, the children wanted to know why. I asked two students to get up from their seats and stage a pretend fight. Everyone was delighted, and pleasant chaos ensued. Finally, a third child was informed that I would leave the room. “I will return,” I grinned ominously, “when you say my name.”

“What is your name?”

“Yahweh.”

The first time the Lord’s name was called, I did not respond and the ruckus continued. Finally, after a few attempts, I returned proclaiming “shalom! peace!” in a booming fatherly tone. The noise and the mock fighting came to an abrupt halt. Everyone quickly jumped back into their seat. There was silence in the room.

“Good news brings peace and keeps us safe. Like children,” I explained, “who stop fighting when dad comes home.”

We then celebrated the good news with a light snack after class.

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.

The One Who Creates the Trouble IS the Refuge in Times of Trouble

The older children and teens began the study of Nahum and were immediately struck by the wrath of the Lord–vengeance, punishment, whirlwind, storm, dried up sea and river, withering blossoms, earthquakes, indignation, anger, fire, shattering rock–this is the fury of the Lord.  In the midst of all these descriptions of wrath, the text barely mentions, “The Lord is slow to anger” (Nah. 1:3)  Let’s hope He is really slow to anger.

And then a word of hope in the midst of chaos: “The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble.  He cares for those who trust in him.” (Nah 1:7)  Could it be the very one who creates the trouble serves as a refuge for those who trust Him?

I likened this tswimo the time my dad began teaching my sister and me to swim.  We were on the farm, and our swimming hole was a muddy pond.  We couldn’t see the bottom and creatures of moss floated everywhere.  We were young, probably ages 2 and 3.  Because I showed my fear, my younger sister was determined to express her confidence.  She jumped in first and squealed with delight as Dad swam with her on his back.  Dad bobbed in the middle of the water with his arms extended toward me, “Jump.  You can’t learn to swim if you don’t get in.  Don’t worry; you’ll be safe if you keep hold of me.”   Disobedience was never an option in dealing with my dad, but I remember two distinct feelings.  1) I was upset that he should cause so much trouble for me.  2) Once I was in the water, no matter how angry I was at my dad, there was no way I was going to let go of him.  While Dad was trying to peel my tight grip from his neck, I imagine my sister got a little cocky and swam out too far on her own.  We saw her arms flailing and a look of panic between facefuls of water.  My dad reached her quickly and reminded her of the boundary he had marked for her to swim safely.

Trouble will come and go for all people.  For those who think they can conquer it alone, it is an “overwhelming flood” of destruction (Nah. 1:8).  But for those who trust in the one who controls the chaos, they will be saved.