Nahum: A Prophet for Our Times

Sunday’s discussion was dense and far-flung. Much of it centered on biblical interpretation, but that concern arose as we read Nahum, which is filled with misogyny. It is what we call a “text of terror.” Specifically, it imagines Nineveh, the capitol of fallen Assyria, as a woman being sexually assaulted. Worse, it imagines that God is the agent of this assault. Here is the passage in question (3.5-6, NRSV):

5 I am against you, says the LORD of hosts, and will lift up your skirts over your face; and I will let nations look on your nakedness and kingdoms on your shame.
6 I will throw filth at you and treat you with contempt, and make you a spectacle.

And continues (3.13a, NRSV):

13 Look at your troops: they are women in your midst. The gates of your land are wide open to your foes;

It is critical to recognize and engage with the misogyny of the Bible. It is also important to think about how the Bible intersects with our experience, which is the rationale for our current reading of the minor prophets. For the most part, I have wanted to highlight the social justice message of the minor prophets. But Nahum presents a challenge, but it is a challenge that parallels our current challenges. Nahum is an expression of violent, misogynistic, nationalism, which is precisely where we find ourselves.

In Nahum, Assyria is presented as completely evil and Judah is presented as completely good. Most of the prophets pronounce oracles of God’s judgment on other nations and then bring the hammer down on Israel. But Nahum eschews step two. This allows the Judean hearer of this prophesy – most likely the king and his court – to imagine that their virtue won the day. But the truth is that Assyria over-extended itself and, when the strong king Ashurbanipal III died, Assyria descended into civil war. Perhaps the lesson should have been that power only holds for so long.

Instead, Nahum invests his hope in the power of God. It is the Chaldeans (Neo-Babylonians) who sack Nineveh. So the language that Nahum uses to describe the Chaldeans is also the language he uses to describe God. They are instruments of God’s judgment and Nahum celebrates that expression of violent power, but assumes that Judah is exempt from such judgment. Zephaniah, which we also read, makes no such exception. Rather, the destruction of Judah’s enemies is understood to be a sign to Judah: practice justice or you’re next! It is, of course, dangerous to assume that we will suffer no consequences for our actions as a nation, either at home or abroad. But perhaps even more dangerous is the idea that power, especially power without critique, is the key to our blessings.

Our president recently lamented about immigration: “The dilemma is that if you’re weak, if you’re weak, which some people would like you to be, if you’re really, really pathetically weak, the country is going to be overrun with millions of people. And if you’re strong, then you don’t have any heart. That’s a tough dilemma.” First, let’s be clear: this is a lie. Speaking of our country being “overrun” is a racist trope that imagines human beings seeking a better life as a faceless mob trampling Americans to death. It’s also a lie that we have to choose between strength and compassion. There is only no room for compassion if our national identity is constructed around the violent exercise of power. Sadly, it is. Whether domestically concerning guns, policing, and prisons or abroad where our foreign policy centers on war and the threat of war, toxically masculine American muscle is who we are. This president revels in violence and his supporters, including prominent Evangelical leaders, thrive on it. This is their vision of what America should be. This was also Nahum’s vision of Judah and the God who blessed them.

So what do we do with this? A supporter of violence can rightly claim that the Bible gives permission for their violence. If we claim “that’s not who God is” and we want to take the Bible seriously, we have a problem. And it’s not just Nahum; misogyny and violence are found throughout our Scriptures. This is where hermeneutics, the way we read the Bible, makes a big difference.

First we have to accept that we all have lenses we put on when reading the Bible. Everything we know, all of our experiences, create those lenses. But we can also choose different lenses.

When we read the Bible, the way we choose to read it determines how we are transformed. How we are transformed determines what we embody in the world. If we imagine God as a powerful being bent on comand and control, that is what we will value in the world and it is the world we will create. Christianity, having been overwhelmingly controlled and explicated by men for two thousand years, has been shaped by the way we construct masculinity. Power and control. But we can also read it through the lens of the poor, which the law, the prophets, and the gospels all lift up. We can also read it through the lens of environmental justice to see how, throughout our Scriptures, the Earth is our valued, integral home. We can read it through the lens of women to see if there are liberating messages to be found. Or people of color. Or queer people.

But regardless of which of these lenses we try on, there should be an overarching concern for justice. That is, there is an ethical dimension to how we read Scripture. However we read it, there is an array of good questions to ask beyond “What does the Bible say?” Who is helped and who is harmed by this reading? Who do we become in believing this? What is the promise and what is the peril in this text? One of my Hebrew professors once likened the reading of Scripture to Jacob wrestling with God: we wrestle with the text until it blesses us. He admitted that he’s still wrestling with a lot of it because he can’t find a blessing in it.

Now, I’m sure some will say that this means I read selectively, that I don’t take the Bible seriously, that we have to take all of what the Bible says because it is the Word of God. They may be right. I certainly prioritize some texts over others precisely because some texts are harmful. The problem, though, is that they do not realize they are doing the same. The Bible is a library. It holds both Nahum and Jonah, which have very different takes on prophesies about Nineveh. It holds both the abusive God-husband of Hosea and El Shaddai, the many-breasted nurturer. It holds both Leviticus’ (possible) condemnation of homosexuality and the love story of Jonathon and David. It contains the full range of human experience and should be honored for it. Fundamentalists instead focus entirely on power and control because it provides a comfortable place in the hierarchy. The God they want to embody is a God that empowers them with and for violence, so they read Scripture to find that God. And they can; we can’t pretend otherwise.

Nahum is a part of our Scripture, but what is the real lesson? Though Nahum was crowing about Judah’s “victory” over Assyria in 612 BCE, it would only be four short years before the death of Josiah at the hands of Pharoah Neco of Egypt. His first heir would be captured and imprisoned by Egypt while his second son would remain a puppet. Twenty years later, Jerusalem would fall at the hands of Babylon and all the remaining Israelites would be sent into exile. Perhaps the lesson is that power eventually comes for us all. If that is where we invest our hope, if that is how we read Scripture, if that is the God we seek to embody in the world, if that is the national identity we project, it’s only a matter of time before we are destroyed.

Fortunately, there are also models of weakness and vulnerability in Scripture. As Christians, we have claimed one in particular, Jesus on the cross, as the one we will follow. Feed the hungry. Heal the sick. Welcome the outsider. Sacrifice everything for justice. We are the Body of Christ. Let’s live like it.

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