Image above – The Assyrian King Sennacherib on his throne at Nineveh (British Museum)
No consolation for this nation – Friday, 18th week in ordinary time – Nahum 1:15;2:2;3:1-3. 6-7
The text of today really pops out of nowhere and today’s first reading of the Eucharistic liturgy covers the entire book of the prophet Nahum; all three chapters! Perhaps this book would have liturgically fitted in better if it was placed after the book of Isaiah and Micah and before the prophet Jeremiah.
Israel, in the northern kingdom had fallen to the Assyrians in the year 723 BC. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, located near Mosul in modern day Iraq. The RSV Bible tells us that Nahum begins to prophecy this ‘burden’ against Assyria in the year 713 BC. It’s been just ten years since Israel has fallen to a cruel nation and the wounds are still raw, the memories of pain are still alive. However other scholars think a bit differently and while we don’t know exactly when Nahum gave this prophecy there are a couple of clues in the oracle. Nahum mentions the destruction of the Egyptian city No Amon (Thebes) in Nahum 3:8 and Thebes fell to the Assyrians in 663 B.C., so Nahum must have been written after that. Nineveh was destroyed 50 years after No Amon (612 B.C.). Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon with the assistance of the Medes attacked and destroyed Nineveh.
Nahum is the only prophetic work to be called a ‘book’(Nahum1:1). It is described as a ‘burden’ (Hebrew – massa) or an oracle. An oracle, by its very nature, indicated that it was directed against a foreign nation. The fact that this is an oracle makes it clear that Nahum was directing this prophecy against a hated enemy, namely Assyria (referred to by its capital, Nineveh). Make no mistake, the words are shrill and vitriolic. The prophet Nahum has been ‘criticized’ for his unmitigated glee over the fall of the enemy. The destruction of Nineveh finally did take place in 612 BC. The oracle has several images that compare Nineveh negatively; the nation is called a pool, den of lions, prostitute, yielding fig trees and a swarm of locust.
Nahum’s singular focus on the impending judgment of Nineveh, offers a continuation of the story that began in Jonah. God had sent Jonah to Nineveh to preach repentance and hope to the Assyrian people, a message they heard and adopted—at least for a time. Years later, during the time of Nahum, the Assyrians had returned to their bullish ways, conquering the northern kingdom of Israel and lording their power over Judah in the south (2 Kings 17:1–6; 18:13–19:37). Jonah failed to realize what Nahum reminded the people of Judah: God’s justice is always right and always sure. Should He choose to grant mercy for a time, that good gift will not compromise the Lord’s ultimate sense of justice for all in the end.
And so, God executed vengeance against Nineveh while he comforted his people. Nahum, whose very name means ‘consolation’ proclaims the impossibility of the consolation of Nineveh. This destruction of Nineveh will bring joy to God’s people who were taken into exile by Assyria and who suffered at the hands of Nineveh. The fall of Nineveh is the wrath of God and an act of divine justice in favour of God’s people. Assyria, who had plundered the nations and torn them like prey for its voracious appetite, will now herself be plundered and become the prey of another nation.