Reading the text of the prophet Nahum is an exercise in theology in the service of imagination, and imagination in the service of theology.
Yes, it is a “text of terror,” a tour de force description of the defeat, fall and ultimate humiliation of Nineveh, the greatest imperial power of Nahum’s times.
Nahum reads like a series of taunt songs, strung together with poetic narrative and sparkling with metaphors and images of military maneuvers, besieging strategies and punishing campaigns that overthrow and overwhelm the power base of the Assyrian Empire.
All that is clear from even a first reading of Nahum.
Rereading, and lingering over the text, the reader is drawn into the emotional payload delivered by Nahum’s words.
The dialectic between theology and imagination electrifies the text, which at times is shocking in its explicit celebration and gloating at the humiliation and destruction of the rhetorical target – Nineveh.
That city was the seat of Assyrian power, and the symbol of a powerbase unimaginably strong, durable and indestructible.
Except that Nahum imagines the unimaginable and portrays the supposedly impregnable imperial city being easily invaded, violated, humiliated and utterly dismantled as a political entity.
The devastating truth that shatters the walls and foundations of this empire – and each empire – is stated by God, “I am against you, declares the Lord Almighty” (Nahum 3:5).
There follows one of the most controversial and coarse passages in the entire Hebrew Bible.
Many commentators feel the need to become apologists for the crudity, misogyny and dangerously abusive imagery of Nahum 3:1-7. I have every sympathy with them.
Nahum’s choice of imagery and words are shocking in the intensity of the mockery, cruelty and humiliation that is heaped on a city that specialized in the mockery, cruelty and humiliation of other people they had conquered, plundered and slaughtered.
Now the boot is on the other foot, and it is Nineveh’s neck it stands on.
But how else to confront the hopelessness of those whose horizons of hope have long been shut down?
How else but by a re-educated imagination can a prophet create a new and vocal defiance of the very hopelessness that would guarantee permanent subjugation?
How else conquer the powerlessness of those facing intolerable abuse?
Much of Nahum brings comfort to Judah by portraying a different reality in which Assyria is on the receiving end of what it had handed out to others for centuries – irresistible power, remorseless cruelty and the destructive energy of an enemy who could punish with impunity.
What we have here is a strategy for defiance of that hopelessness – “resistance is futile” – that empires always strive to instill.
The flashing images in Nahum 2:1-4, of military power invading the invader, are there to help people witness the devastation of the powers that enslaved them and whom they had thought invincible.
There is a theological tension that is first clearly stated in Nahum 1:2-7, and then woven throughout the entire book. “The Lord is slow to anger but will not leave the guilty unpunished. The Lord is a jealous and avenging God, but the Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him, but with an overwhelming flood he will make an end of Nineveh.”
The prophet Nahum would scorn as sentimental, self-indulgent, anthropocentric and theologically one-sided any emphasis on God’s steadfast love that ignores the realities of human suffering, the evils of the powerful and the blatant signals of defiance to all that God purposes for created and human life.
No, God is not mocked. And, yes, the Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished.
In the end, this is a book about divine judgment.
The three chapters are almost entirely devoted to an empire getting its comeuppance.
Nothing about repentance, mercy or forgiveness for Nineveh. They have met their nemesis, the mirror image of their own ways of being.
Kingdoms may rise and fall but the word of the Lord endures forevermore – and that word to the complacently powerful, and to those who flourish on the suffering they inflict on others, is unequivocal, uncompromising and swiftly approaching judgment.
Myanmar. Uyghur. Yemen. Name your oppressed people of choice. Human history is replete with atrocity, oppressive policies, military suppression and violent discrimination.
Ask how the text of Nahum would read to such peoples faced with endless trauma, long drained of hope, many never having lived free of fear.
Words that imagine the defeat of your worst enemy are hard to find and formulate.
But words that take the imagination in hand and compel us to think the unthinkable, conceive inconceivable possibilities, teach us to say again after ages of silence, “but what if.”
Such words must have some substance, some hold on reality, but also a capacity to reframe how we think of that reality.
I think that is one way of taking Nahum seriously as a text for today.
For Nahum, God is not mocked – and every time people made in God’s image are brutalized by the powers that happen to be in those moments of history, those powers mock God.
And Nahum will have none of it. He brings a theology of God’s judgment into the service of imaginations long trained to operate in the interests of the empire.
This is Nahum’s message: The empire in any time and place that inflicts untold suffering on others is not unaccountable.
To those who inflict suffering on the innocent and powerless – “I am against you says the Lord Almighty.”
To those whose trust is in militarism, materialist consumerism, economic leverage against others or all of these, and whose political shenanigans make life Hell for other people – “I am against you says the Lord Almighty.”
To those who create and sustain institutions of discrimination, who form and inhabit systems of oppression of others, whose ruthless pursuit of profit, gain, power and influence ignore the cost to others who are simply ground under the wheels of the global machine – “I am against you says the Lord Almighty.”
This is not so much a text of terror as a text for building resilience in the hopeless, and hope in the despairing.
Part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy.