8 Aug 2023

NO HUMAN HEROES: Nahum vs The Illiad (Good News for Victims)

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Christian hope, eschatology, Exegesis, Holding On, Nahum, Salvation, Suffering

Today’s Thru the Bible in a Year reading is Nahum. So I offer a few reflections on reading and meditating on these sacred words of Scripture (2 Timothy 3.14-17).

The is a book of brilliant Hebrew poetry. The prophet poet has few equals in the Bible in mastery of the language. Given the negative view of Nahum by a large number of modern thinkers it is ironic in the extreme that the word Nahum means comfort. Nahum is the book of comfort! Comfort for who? Not for everyone indeed.

European Protestant scholars and North American Evangelicals almost always read the Bible from the position of privilege and status, not from the position of suffering and the oppressed. Nahum is a message of comfort for the victims of horrific violence. Those who benefit from such a history of violence have never liked this book. Robert McAfee Brown’s old work, Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes can be a liberating experience.

I. Hearing Nahum (i.e. Comfort)

As I read Nahum, it took 15 minutes, it occurred to me how different biblical accounts of “holy war” are from some other ancient classics of like Gilgamesh or the Illiad. In the classic biblical examples of “holy war”: the Exodus, the “conquest,” and now Nahum there is no or very little human action. Ronald Hals in his classic, Grace and Faith in the Old Testament, was the first to open my eyes in 1993 to how the Hebrew Bible understands this kind of material. So, two quick quotes along those lines from two studies.

The holy war [is] sheer miracle; [God’s] saving act is entirely self-sufficient and does not allow any human co-operation” (Gerhard von Rad, Old Theology vol 2, p.160)

Biblical references to the conquest generally omit all mention of specific battles and human activity. It is God’s deed; he is the sole actor; there are no human heroes” (G.E. Wright, Old Testament and Theology, p. 123).

There are no “human heroes” in Nahum. There are no Achilles. No Odyesseus. No Hektor. There isn’t even a David. There are no human warriors, no human victories. Israel did not lift a finger against Egypt nor against Nineveh. Yahweh dealt with them.

So, first thing we need to grasp firmly to hear Nahum correctly is the fact there is no violence by God’s people in the book. There is ASSYRIAN violence in the book. It is not merely God’s people who rejoice in the destruction of Assyria but “all who hear” (3.19). God’s people in Nahum have been the object of horrific violence not the perpetrators of it. Such rejoicing has been bemoaned by those in positions of power and privilege as proof of Nahum’s lack of the “spirit of Christ.”

This is a fascinating criticism. I hasten to point out that in the NT the destruction of horrific evil is the occasion of celebration and praise. Reading Revelation 18 and 19 along with Nahum just may prove to be a worthy exercise. Note carefully Revelation 19.1-8 that is in fact some ways modeled on Nahum 3. Just a few verses.

I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting:
Salvation and glory and power belong to our God,
for true and just are his judgments.
He has condemned the great prostitute
who corrupted the earth by her adulteries.
He has avenged on her the blood of his servants.”

And again they shouted:
The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever.

(Revelation 19.1-3)

II. The God Creed in Nahum (i.e. Comfort)

Nahum demonstrates the function of the God Creed in Exodus 34.6-7. God will be merciful to the millionth degree but he will deal with horrific evil. The last part of the Creed is quoted in v.3,

and great in power;
the LORD will not leave the guilty unpunished.

The “God Creed” is not only divine commentary upon the divine Name but divine commentary on the history of God’s relationship with Israel and all Creation. Yahweh is “slow to anger” (long suffering/incredibly patient), “gracious/merciful/FULL of Hesed,” and committed to justice. According to Genesis God was all three with the Canaanites. God was all three with Egypt. God was all three with Nineveh. Canonically, “Nahum” in the “Book of the Twelve” comes after Yahweh’s intense and undeserved grace reported in the Book of Jonah. Indeed, Yahweh has been intensely patient and full of Hesed toward Nineveh.

But that last part, in Nahum/Comfort’s words, “will not let the guilty go unpunished” is COMFORT to those under the threat of death and oppression. If this was not true then Israel’s baby boys would still be slaughtered by Pharaoh and Israel still slaves, if not extinct. If this was not true than the “widows, orphans and aliens” do not stand a chance. This is a statement of justice. Justice is, as Cornel West once said, “what love looks like in the public arena.”

III. Some Background for “Hearing” Nahum/Comfort

Now we must HEAR what that line actually says and means. These words in v.3 are not applied mere mistakes. Frankly this is not even applied to something we might call “petty” sin like cussing. Now God may disapprove of foul tongues but in the biblical narrative that is not the “target” of this statement.

Rather it is applied to what we may call “evil incarnate.” I will expand on that in a moment. But for centuries and centuries Assyria had butchered the Ancient Near East, not only Israel/Judah. Assyria has brutalized the peoples of Turkey, Egypt, Persia, the Caucasus region with forms of subjugation and terror that were shocking to the ancients. God’s non-human creation was also brutally assaulted by Assyria as Isaiah reports. Sennacherib of Assyria is described by Isaiah as one who

laid waste to all the nations {the people} and their lands {the dirt}

He threatened little Judah and bragged of his destructive power. Isaiah sent a letter to Hezekiah delivering the judgement of God against him. God said that among Sennacherib’s crimes was a war on the trees of Lebanon. Yahweh himself quotes the king’s arrogant boast of making war on the forests.

I have gone up the heights of the mountains,
to the far recesses of Lebanon;
I felled its tallest cedars, its choicest cypresses


Humans and non-humans suffer Assyrian brutality. God is concerned about both as Amos 1 (a catalog of war crimes) makes clear.

The evil that is in Assyria is called the prophet, biliya’al in 1.15, “No more will the wicked invade you.” It is often translated as simply “evil” in the NRSV/NIV.

Now if we do a little research and pull down our New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, vol 1 (standard five volume dictionary of Hebrew words) and turn to pages 661-662 (I almost thought it would be 666!! lol) we learn interesting facts about “Belial” (you might recognize that word). The word is reserved for special people who have “become so wicked and corrupt that he or she is detriment to society.” This term is not just for ordinary “bad people” so to speak. It is “evil.” This word becomes a proper name for the satanic prince and is used throughout second temple literature to refer to the Evil One. It is also the root for Paul’s famous phrase “man of sin” in 2 Thess 2.3. Commentators note the word in 1.15 takes on the character of “almost a proper name.”

The history of Assyria is that of a city that gorges itself on blood (3.1-4, cf. 2.12, etc). There is delight in violence in Assyria’s history. This is why Jonah refused to preach the possibility of grace to them (but Yahweh is full of Hesed even to a penitent Assyrian!). Israel, and many others, had suffered greatly, for centuries, at the hands of seemingly “evil incarnate.” Note that the plotting of Evil is against Yahweh! Thus we read in 1.11.

From you, O Nineveh, has ONE [singular]
come forth who plots evil against Yahweh
.” (note v.9).

IV. Yahweh Acts, No Human Hero

I have already called attention to the significance of the “evil” that will no longer attack God’s people in 1.15 (belial). Note in 2.13,

I am against YOU …
I will burn up your chariots
[i.e. weapons of aggression/war]
I will leave YOU no prey

Then again in 3.5

I am against YOU …” (singular)

Assyria is no run of the mill bad person. Evil has become incarnate within the empire. Yahweh is against it.

V. The Good News

Yahweh is GOOD,
a refuge in times of trouble.
He cares for those who trust in him
” (1.7)

This brings us back to the God Creed. It is GOOD NEWS that God is destroying “belial” who has drunk the blood of the nations and raped God’s creation. God is an avenger “against HIS enemies” is stated three times in the opening lines in 1.2.

Yahweh has been sloooooooooooooooooooooooow to anger even with Assyria. Every Israelite thought God too gracious, too merciful, too patient with Assyria. The Empire had been around for centuries (literally) and God has been too patient. In fact, the Empire was used by God to discipline his covenant breaking people but his patience has run out. Assyria is a harlot filled with “wanton lust” (3.4) for violence and blood.

But God’s intolerance for gross evil, the abuse of the powerless leads to the destruction of that evil. The Slowness to anger is a big deal. God has not rushed to destroy even Assyria. It seems that there are three things that finally elicit God’s wrath. Three Characteristics of Evil that arouse God’s Anger in Nahum.

1) this evil is unwavering.

2) this evil is pervasive.

3) this evil is horrendous.

Nahum is not about saying a cuss word. It is not about failing to precisely worship with correct ritual form. It is frankly not remotely about instrumental music. Nahum tells us what drew God’s anger was unwavering, pervasive, horrendous EVIL to the point that it is as if satan has taken up residence there. This is seen in the addiction to violence and blood.

VI. Hearing Nahum from the Vantage of the Victims of Violence

God’s destruction of such evil is as good news to the Ancient Near East as it was to the Jew in Auschwitz learning that Berlin had fallen and Hitler was dead. Sherman’s march through Georgia was Good News to Black Women sexually assaulted for generations by “masters” for the sake of Mammon driven slavery in the United States Parties erupted! They celebrated every bit as much as those who hear of the destruction of Assyria (3.19)! Nahum tells us that Yahweh will remove the knee that is placed upon the neck of the powerless.

So, Nahum has an epic passage ends with those words in 1.15 with a proclamation of shalom.

Look on the mountains,
the feet of the one who brings
who proclaim peace

Peace/Shalom reigns because evil is vanquished. So, does Paul quote Nahum 1.15 in Romans 10.15, or Isaiah 52.7. They are the same. But it is great news that “belial” will never invade and destroy again.

God is not a God of Wrath. Nahum does not say that. God exhibits wrath for the sake of the powerless and for Hesed. Nahum declares the comfort that comes from knowing that God will finally deal with horrific evil that has vandalized the shalom of his good world. God is a Refuge for the Victims of Violence.

The God of Israel is patient, nearly to a fault. Yahweh is slow to anger … even this kind of sin he is slow to punish. But this kind of evil God in fact will destroy so that shalom will fill God’s creation. He does so because the God Creed says Yahweh loves his people and will protect them in the end.

And in destruction of Evil, Yahweh will “remember mercy” (Habakkuk 3.2). So, in the end Yahweh will have mercy even on the Assyrian people (Nahum does not speak of the annihilation of the people, many assume that but it does not in fact say that). Nahum says, with Jonah and Isaiah, God will bless even that place of incarnate evil …

On that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians. ON that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, whom the Lord of Hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hand, and Israel my heritage” (Isa 19.23-25).

Comfort Indeed

I hope these ruminations on Nahum have been worth your time and help us understand the message of a profound book of comfort to the victims of profound evil. There are no Human Heroes in Nahum. There is no act of violence perpetuated by the people of God against the Assyrians. Israel does not defend themselves. They do not take vengeance. Rather they look to the mountains where help comes from (1.15). The Savior, the Hero, is the God of the God Creed, Yahweh who rescues the oppressed but remembers mercy even for the oppressor.

I recommend Psalm 124 after meditating on Nahum. I close with those words.

If the Lord had not been on our side—
let Israel say—
if the Lord had not been on our side
when people attacked us,
they would have swallowed us alive
when their anger flared against us;
the flood would have engulfed us,
the torrent would have swept over us,
the raging waters
would have swept us away.

Praise be to the Lord,
who has not let us be torn by their teeth.
We have escaped like a bird
from the fowler’s snare;
the snare has been broken,
and we have escaped.
Our help is in the name of the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth

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