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.

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