Friday, February 15, 2013

Bible Study - Jonah and Nahum (Part 3 of 3)

Our final session in this study brings us to the book of Nahum. Try to read it all in one sitting if possible.

  • Consider Nahum 1:1-11. Nahum says that God is ‘slow to anger.’ Are there times where we might wish that God would act against evil in the world more quickly? Are there times when we appreciate his patience?
  • Consider Nahum 1:12-3:19. How does this poem that rejoices in the promised destruction of Nineveh affect you? Can you celebrate with Nahum over the destruction of evil, or do you find the vengeful spirit of the book unsettling?
  • Read Exodus 34:1-9. After reading Jonah and Nahum how do you think we can make sense of the tension between God’s justice and God’s mercy and forgiveness?

The Prophetic book of Nahum is one of the lesser known parts of the Old Testament and can be a challenging one to read. The prophet's name means 'comfort' or 'consolation', but the comfort he talks about is a comfort taken from the promise that the enemy city of Nineveh will be violently destroyed. As much as Jonah is a book about God's radical mercy and forgiveness, Nahum is a book of God's justice and vengeance (keeping in mind that to most ancient people these were not two separate categories). This book which contains some of the most beautiful and sophisticated Hebrew poetry in the Bible, also contains some of its most violent passages.

The key to understanding the prophet's perspective and why God would judge the people of Nineveh so harshly is found in the last verse of the book: "All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you. For who has ever escaped your endless cruelty?" (Nahum 3:19) What we as modern readers need to understand is that Nineveh was not just any city it was the capital of one of history's first and most brutally effective empires - Assyria.

The light green areas show the Assyrian Empire at its greatest extent

Among their conquests was the Israelite Northern Kingdom, which was utterly destroyed in 722 BC. Much of the population was deported to other parts of the Middle East and was replaced by tens of thousands of foreigners (this mix of Israelites and foreigners became the Samaritan people we read about in the New Testament). The Southern Israelite Kingdom of Judah barely survived Assyrian retribution for a revolt in 701 BC. The Assyrian king Sennacherib utterly destroyed 46 fortified towns and villages, deported over 200,000 people, laid siege to Jerusalem itself and only turned away when a plague nearly wiped out his army.

Sargon II who destroyed Israel
Now it should be said that there are no kind and gentle empires, and ancient Middle Eastern warfare was brutal. Yet the Assyrians took this to a new level. They invented siege weapons that could break down city walls and routinely destroyed entire cities. Their most devastating tactic was deportation. Israel and Judah weren’t the only nations to suffer this fate. Over the course of 150 years the Assyrians deported hundreds of thousands of people (at least half a million) destroying whole cultures and nations forever.

They also made frequent use of terror tactics such as impaling people on stakes and mass beheadings. We know this because their kings produced huge wall sculptures for their palaces depicting their military campaigns.

It's a bit hard to see but this picture includes 3 men being impaled as well as prisoners having their throats cut.

 Therefore it becomes quite understandible as to why a prophecy about the destruction of the Assyrian Empire might be comforting news to not only the Israelites of Judah, but to people of all nationalities throughout the region: "All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you. For who has ever escaped your endless cruelty?" (Nahum 3:19)

All of which raises the question of how we understand justice, our desire for God to bring justice to the earth, and what God's justice really is? I have found many people today judge the prophet Nahum quite harshly yet forget the victory celebrations held when modern enemies are killed (Osama bin Ladin comes to mind) and how often people espress the wish that criminals be executed (a 2012 poll showed that 61% of Canadians would support the return of the death penalty). The vision of God's mercy and justice we see in Jesus Christ should lead us to read Old Testament books like Nahum with care under the Spirit's guidance, yet we should not make the mistake of dismissing them and claiming  a 'modern' moral superiority.

Exodus 24 and the book of Jonah remind us that God's forgiveness and mercy was well known to the ancient Israelites (and often resented by those who wanted to see the wicked severely punished), yet they took the reality of evil and brutality in the world very seriously and as a result they celebrated their understanding of God's justice. We too must face the reality of evil in the world (and there's no less of it today than in the past) and how a God of justice and mercy deals with it.

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