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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on Nahum

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( 1:1 )

The designation of this anti-Assyrian prophecy as a ‘burden’ (maśśā᾽) parallels closely the similar designation of Oracles against the Nations in Isa 13–23 , as well as the superscriptions of Zech 9:1; 12:1; and Mal 1:1 . ‘Nahum’, which means ‘comfort’, echoes the beginning of Deutero-Isaiah, a somewhat ironic designation for the harsh voice to follow. The significance of the description of the prophecy as a ‘book’ is debated, but may indicate final redaction in a period in which prophetic books (and perhaps collections) were being formed.

( 1:2–8 )

That Nahum opens with an acrostic has been noticed at least since the mid-nineteenth century, though its origin is debated. The acrostic's incomplete state (it continues only as far as the letter kap and manifests two breaks in the alphabetic sequence) has enticed many commentators to emend it to various degrees. Nogalski (1993: 104–7) convincingly argues that a redactor incorporated and altered a ‘loose’ acrostic in order to apply an earlier Nahum corpus to a new situation in the exilic or post-exilic period; the effect of its inclusion is to stress God's universal sovereignty beyond the book's specific historical context. This powerful poem imputes to YHWH strong feelings and awesome power. Alluding to the credo found in EX 34:6–7 and elsewhere, the author highlights the deity's insistence on vindicating his friends and ensuring that his enemies do not escape punishment. The dichotomy of the fate of friends and enemies is especially strong in v. 3 : God is ‘slow to anger’ and ‘will not acquit’. Similarly, vv. 6–7 explain that no one can withstand the inferno of God's anger and that he is a place of safety for those who take refuge in him. YHWH's ability to effect his will is underscored by the strongly mythological language of the passage. Ancient Near-Eastern motifs of storm gods and geological upheaval, as well as epithets commonly used for other deities, reinforce the image of the powerful, vindicating God.

( 1:9–11 )

The shift from the previous hymnic description of God to an address to ‘you’, as well as cryptic references to concrete events, indicates the beginning of a new section. According to Nogalski (1993 ), these verses serve as a transition from the imported acrostic to the original Nahum corpus which begins in 1:11–14 . The ‘you’ of v. 9 is the first of many unspecified pronouns in this section and the next. Ambiguity attends v. 11 (‘from you an evil plotter came out’) both in terms of the pronominal antecedent and in the identification of the ‘plotter’, though Isa 10 's designation of Assyria as the ‘plotter’ may serve as a close parallel. ‘Belial’, both in 1:11 and 1:15 (HB 2:1 ), seems a generic reference to evil rather than indication of a personified demonic power. The lack of antecedents to the many pronouns of this section, as well as the lack of any reference to Assyria so far (apart from the superscription), has been variously assessed. It may indicate that much traditional, generic material has been gathered for later application to the Assyrian context; or, conversely, it may indicate that the superscription itself is presupposed by and integral to the remainder of the book. v. 10 introduces a literary technique frequent in Nahum: the concatenation of similes/metaphors. Within the course of one verse, ‘they’ are interwoven thorns and drunkards who will be burned like chaff.

( 1:12–2:2 ) (HB 2:3 )

While ‘you’ in 1:12–13 refers to Judah (‘I will afflict you no more,’ ‘I will break off his yoke from you’), in 1:14 God addresses an individual ‘you’ whom most commentators identify as the king of Assyria. 1:15 (HB 2:1 ) again addresses Judah, while 2:1 (HB 2:2 ) announces to Assyria that a ‘scatterer’ (variously considered an epithet of YHWH or an allusion to the Babylonians) has arrived. This volley of addressees betrays, as do earlier verses, the book's extended redactional history. 1:15 is a clear reference to Isa 52:7 , one of the many connections between Nahum and Deutero-Isaiah.

( 2:3–13 ) (HB 2:4–14 )

This unit portrays the attack of Nineveh, identified in 2:8 (HB 2:9 ) for the first time since the superscription. Well-dressed warriors storm the city, their chariots dash in madly, and the city walls cannot hold them back. While some mythological motifs are evident in this section (‘waters run away’, 2:8 , HB 2:9 ), various literary devices attempt to capture the feel of an actual siege: staccato sentences, some without verbs; and alliteration in 2:10 (HB 2:11 ) (bûqâ ûmĕbûqâ ûměbullāqâ, ‘Devastation, desolation, and destruction’). 2:7 (HB 2:8 ) has proved problematic for interpreters. The MT reads ‘she is exiled’. While NRSV links ‘she’ to the city Nineveh, Sanderson (1992: 218) relates the reference to Ishtar, the city goddess of Nineveh. Others have suggested that the reference to ‘handmaids’ later in the verse suggests that ‘she’ is an Assyrian princess. The lion imagery in 2:11–12 (HB 2:12–13 ) draws upon the iconographic connection of Assyria with the lion.

( 3:1–19 )

v. 1 begins with hôy (‘woe’), a form-critical marker of the ‘woe-oracle’. While this genre often bears funerary connotations, Roberts (1991: 118) well demonstrates its utilization in other contexts. As in Nah 2, literary devices attempt to capture the feel of attack; 3:2–3 strings together phrases without verbs, heaping up images of the devastation of Nineveh. While other prophets frequently compare sinful Israel and/or Judah to a prostitute, Nahum directs this imagery towards Nineveh in 3:4 . The sexual violence in 3:5–6 is graphic: YHWH himself uncovers the woman's genitals for all nations to see and throws filth upon her. vv. 8–11 taunt Nineveh, asking it to compare itself to Thebes, a well-defended Egyptian city conquered by the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal in 663 BCE. Even Thebes went into exile, even her children were dashed to pieces, and Assyria can expect to fare no better than its own victim. v. 13 again turns to derogatory feminine imagery: Assyrian warriors are shamefully compared to women, and the double entendre of ‘gates opened wide to your enemies’ promises the horror of sexual violation. Sanderson (1992: 219), who explains both the social setting from which the rape/war connection arises and its problematic character for modern readers, highlights the irony of this passage: Assyria's brutal warfare was perpetrated by men, and when women were involved at all they were victims. Facetiously, vv. 13–14 encourage the Assyrians to try to defend themselves, though v. 15 makes clear that all resistance is futile. Locust vocabulary is used extensively in vv. 15–17 , where three different Hebrew words are used to describe these devourers. In this regard, Nahum shares with Joel (esp. ch. 1 ) the comparison of invading armies with locust plagues.

Nahum ends with a mock funeral dirge for the Assyrian king in vv. 18–19 , in which the Assyrian leaders are called ‘shepherds’ (cf. Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zech 9–14 ). v. 19 performs an important theological function, forcefully reminding the reader that the preceding exultation in Assyria's downfall issues not from free-floating hatred but from the community's own suffering. This concluding rhetorical question leaves the reader with another, implicit one: is delight in an oppressor's defeat morally justified?

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