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Nahum on Ninevah: Whatever Happened to Jonah?
The Journey with Jesus July 29, 2002

by Dan Clendenin

Not too long ago I enjoyed a cartoon in the Wall Street Journal that captures an uneasy feeling that I suspect most Bible readers have felt at one time or another. A person has died, gone to glory and stands before the pearly gates. This person immediately has a question for the heavenly gatekeeper who sits behind a desk: "Is He the Old Testament God or the New Testament God today?"

A few weeks ago in Jonah we observed a remarkably New Testament-like God in Yahweh, a God who exuded tender compassion for Israel's cruelest conqueror, Nineveh (the capital of Assyria). His love and grace to Nineveh were so pronounced that it angered Jonah. But in this week's minor prophet, Nahum, it would be hard to conjure a more different message about this same Nineveh or the God who delivers it. Nahum is barely four pages in my Bible, and from start to finish it is a torrent of divine invective, detailing an unmitigated and relentless destruction of Nineveh at the hands of Yahweh.

The first verse of Nahum's short prophecy sets the tone by telling us that Yahweh is a jealous and avenging God. He is full of vengeance and will disgorge His wrath against Nineveh. Many prophets ease into their subject matter, but not Nahum. These opening verses hit like a sledge hammer. They send a chill up your spine and cause the hair on your neck to stand straight up. This is not a God you would want to meet on a bad day. Before Him the mountains shake, the earth trembles and the rocks shatter. He is a God, says Nahum, of "fierce anger" who will pour out His wrath like fire (1:6). "I am against you," declares the Lord Almighty to Nineveh (2:13).

Nahum portrays this divine annihilation of Nineveh in the most graphic and poetically powerful language. God will plunder, pillage and strip bear Nineveh so that it will be "completely destroyed" (1:15). Today we would call that a genocide. In what must be read as x-rated language, Nahum says that Yahweh will shame and humiliate Nineveh by revealing her nakedness: "I will lift your skirts over your face. I will show the nations your nakedness...I will pelt you with filth, I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle" (3:5-6). In addition to this humiliation there is taunting: "Look at your troops — they are all women!"(3:13). In short, this is a "fatal wound" from which Nineveh will never escape, and it is a wound administered by none other than the God of Jonah.

What gives? How do we put together the God of Jonah and the God of Nahum? How should we think about Nineveh?

Nahum reminds us that the Bible speaks with many different voices.1 These voices are very human voices, limited as they only could be by the times, places and cultures of their authors. The Hebrew Bible, for example, was written by numerous authors across about eight hundred years; the New Testament was written across about fifty to one hundred years. These same human limitations would be true if the Bible were written today. In our conservative zeal to insist that the Bible is a divine word — which it is — we sometimes forget or overlook the implications of its very human nature. So, Nahum tells us some things about Nineveh that are true, not everything about Nineveh that is true, and even the content of his truths are limited by its human form.

So what is it that God is saying through the very human voice of Nahum? Is He saying that He abhors the Assyrian Ninevites and loves Israel? I don't think so, for to say that would construe Him as a tribal, nationalistic, vindictive and even violent god. Plus, to read Nahum this way one would have to ignore many other voices, like Jonah's, that we must also hear. Instead of saying that Yahweh hates Nineveh, I think what Nahum is saying is that He hates what they have become, and remember, even in Jonah, where God's love is showcased, we are told that Nineveh was an exceedingly wicked city (Jonah 1:1).

Here is an example from the New Testament that might help to show how two such radically different perspectives can both be true. In Romans 13:1-7 we read that somehow in God's economy human government is divinely ordained as His servant. This might be easy to affirm for Switzerland, say, or Canada, but less so for North Korea or Iraq. But for all four governments we would somehow affirm this truth. But that is not all that we could affirm. When you turn to the book of Revelation, for example, John paints a drastically different picture of political power, government and the state. John indicts Rome as the incarnation of tyranny and oppression, the "domination system" of its day,2 which leads to a tantalizing question: what countries, rulers or social systems would find a place in John's book of Revelation if it were written today?

What has Rome done to deserve John's opprobrium?! Didn't Rome give us highways, a language, the rule of law, and the Pax Romana? True, but they also martyred Christians (cf. Nero). Consider, too, the claims that were made for Caesar in that day. Roman emperors assumed divine titles like "son of God", "lord" and even "god." Here is an inscription from Asia Minor in about 9 BC that describes Caesar Augustus:

The most divine Caesar...we should consider equal to the Beginning of all things...Whereas the Providence which has regulated our whole existence...has brought our life to the climax of perfection in giving to us the emperor Augustus...who being sent to us as a Savior, has put an end to war...The birthday of the god Augustus has been for the whole world the beginning of good news (the Greek word here is euaggelion, commonly translated “gospel”).
Thus in the book of Revelation John raises the question: who is Lord, Caesar or God in Christ? Now read Revelation 1:5 that Jesus is "the ruler of the kings of the earth" and you will see why John pictures Rome as the harlot, the dragon, the beast. Yes, government is divinely ordained, but remember, "Jesus is Lord; Caesar is not."3 As Borg writes, Rome "designates all domination systems organized around power, wealth, seduction, intimidation, and violence. In whatever historical form it takes, ancient or modern, empire is the opposite of the kingdom of God as disclosed in Jesus."4

I think Nahum is saying something similar about Nineveh. God does not hate its people. But look at the very last verse of his prophecy. This is a city of "endless cruelty" (3:19). Nineveh is a city of lies, plunder, blood and oppression, so much so that it is "never without victims" (3:1). God's character of mercy and justice is not neutral toward such atrocities, whether they come from governments, religious groups, the economy, or any other human power. He is opposed to oppression and exploitation in Nineveh as well as in Jerusalem.

In the language of John's Revelation we might understand Nahum to say, "Yahweh is Lord, not arrogant and cruel Nineveh." And in the language of Ezekiel's prophecy, I think we can understand Jonah to say that Yahweh takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but instead He longs to redeem them (Ezekiel 18:23). Both of these very human, truly Biblical voices demand our attention.

  1. Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time (San Francisco: Harper; 2001), p. 297. [back]
  2. Borg, p. 286. Cf. Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers (Minneapolis: Fortress; 1992). [back]
  3. Borg, pp. 280–281. The inscription comes from Borg. [back]
  4. Borg, p. 288. Emphasis mine.[back]

This essay is part of the "Journey with Jesus" series.
Biblical quotations in this essay are from the New International Version.



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