AN INTRODUCTION TO THE BOOKS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT. by W. O. E. Oesterley, D.D., Litt.D.,& T. H. Robinson, D.D., Litt.D. Hon. D.D. (Aberdeen), Hon. D.Th. (Halle Wittenberg). © W O E Oesterley & T H Robinson 1934. First published SPCK. 1934. - This edition prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2003.

THE BOOK OF NAHUM

HOME | Place in the Canon. | Historical Background. | Structure and Contents. | Date and Authorship. | The Man and his Message. | The Hebrew Text and the Septuagint.

I. PLACE IN THE CANON

In all forms of the Bible this book stands seventh in the list of the "Twelve", following Micah in the Hebrew Bible, the Peshitta, the Vulgate, and the modern versions, and Jonah in the Septuagint. It invariably precedes Habakkuk. top

II. HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

After the death of Ashur-bani-pal, the last of the great kings of Assyria, in 626BC, the empire fell rapidly to pieces. Babylon at once secured its independence under the vigorous Chaldean dynasty now headed by Nabopolassar, and henceforward a dangerous enemy to Assyria.

The Scythian inroads, though no permanent dominion resulted from these, weakened the northern defences of the kingdom, and made it impossible to maintain the Assyrian supremacy over the western parts of the empire. (See below, p.400.)

Egypt had finally revolted before the death of Ashur-bani-pal, and the reform of Josiah of Judah, in 621BC, may be regarded, in one of its aspects, as a gesture of independence. [Cp. Oesterley & Robinson, Hist. Israel, i. Pp.423 f.]

We shall probably be justified in assuming that all the outlying dependencies threw off the Assyrian yoke about the same time.

Such details as we have of the next few years come to us from a Babylonian Chronicle, which belongs to the reign of Nabopolassar. [See Gadd, The Fall of Nineveh (1923).]

The story of Assyria's last war begins with the advance of Nabopolassar northwards in 616BC. He won a great victory, but Necho, king of Egypt, joined forces with the Assyrians and compelled the Chaldaeans to retreat. Nabopolassar met with no better fortune in the following year, but, in 614BC, the Medes took the field and destroyed Ashur, the ancient capital of Assyria. The Chaldaeans joined the victors, and in 612BC the joint armies succeeded in capturing and sacking Nineveh itself. Resistance was still maintained further west, and in 610 BC Harran was captured.

Here our records break off, but there are grounds for believing that an attempt was made to preserve the Old Kingdom at some centre still further east, possibly at Carchemish. We know, at least, that Necho continued his pro-Assyrian expeditions; one is mentioned as having taken place in 608BC, and he suffered a decisive and crushing defeat at Carchemish in 605BC. top

III. STRUCTURE AND CONTENTS

The book of Nahum opens with a portion of a psalm, which extends from i.2 to ii.2, and originally formed an alphabetic acrostic. [Heb. Ii.3; the numeration of the verses in ch. ii differs accordingly in Hebrew & in English.]

It has, however, suffered badly in course of transmission, and the acrostic is not obvious after verse 8 (the Hebrew letter Kaph ), though it may be recovered conjecturally down to verse 10 (the Hebrew letter Samekh ).

Various attempts have been made to restore the remainder, but without much success.

Verse 11 is sometimes regarded as belonging to the prophetic portion of the book, and it is possible that i.12-ii.2 did not belong to the original psalm at all, but were attached to it, or rather to the fragment that survives.

The oracles proper are contained in ii.3-iii.19.

It seems that not more than five or six can be distinguished, and all refer to the sack of the city.

It should be remarked that most modern commentators put together the fragments now found in i.11, 14, ii.1, to form a part of the oracular section. But this arrangement is difficult to justify, since there seems to be no reason why such pieces should have been inserted in the midst of a psalm.

But we can certainly find a continuous passage in ii.3-9, where the street fighting and the plundering are described. ii.10-13 depict the desolation of the city after its sack.

In iii.1-4 we have another picture of the horrors of the assault, which possibly continues down to iii.7.

In iii. 8-13 there is a comparison between the fate of Nineveh and that of the Egyptian Thebes, sacked by Ashur-bani-pal in 663BC.

Ch. iii.14-17 describes the feverish but futile efforts of the defenders, and the whole collection closes with a brief dirge over the fallen city, iii.18-19. top

IV. DATE AND AUTHORSHIP

The book of Nahum resembles that of Obadiah in being (apart from the introductory psalm) a collection of oracles directed against a single foreign people.

In every other respect, however, it is unique.

There is little doubt as to the common authorship of all the oracles. They present us with a style that, for vividness and force, has no parallel elsewhere in the Old Testament and very rarely in other literature. The prophet is a master of word painting. He flings words at the reader, yet his clipped, disjointed sentences are pregnant with meaning.

Here is an example, being more or less a literal translation of the Hebrew:

"Crack of whip; and rumbling wheels; Galloping riders; Rattling chariots; Plunging steeds; Flashing sword; Glittering spear; Mass of slain, and weight of corpses."    (iii.2, 3).

That describes the entry into Nineveh!

In a miscellaneous collection, such as we so often find in other books, differences of style are usually noticeable. The homogeneity of these oracles makes their common authorship practically certain, especially when we remember the extraordinary character of the whole.

The earliest possible date is determined by the reference to the sack of Thebes (No-Amon) in iii.8, which, as we have seen, took place in 663BC. The latest possible limit is supplied by the fall of Nineveh itself in 612BC, and the actual date must lie somewhere between these two. The fact that the fall of the city was expected would tend to place Nahum's oracles during the final war, i.e. in or soon after 616BC. The only objection to this is the long time that had elapsed since the fall of Thebes. There does not seem, however, to be any decisive difficulty here, since so striking an event might well be remembered for fifty years.

The date of the psalm is more difficult to determine. While a superficial reading of it might suggest that it, too, referred to the fall of Nineveh, closer examination shows that this is very unlikely, since the language of i.15 implies that the enemy had interfered with the cultus. This is generally held to point to a Maccabaean date, and, if this were correct, we must assume that the book had existed for some centuries before the psalm was prefixed to it. top

V. THE MAN AND HIS MESSAGE

We know nothing of Nahum except what we can gather from the book itself. Elkosh is named as his birthplace, but the-site has not been identified.

Tradition held that he lived and died in Mesopotamia, but the evidence of the book itself makes it clear that he was a Judean.

No details of his life have been preserved, but his style shows him to have been gifted with a vivid imagination and an extraordinary power of expression.

No writer in the Old Testament suffers so much in translation; his vigour defies reproduction in any other language.

We do not expect much of the characteristic teaching of the prophets in a book that is wholly occupied with songs of gloating exultation over the fall of a hated enemy. Yet we have hints of the inexorable law of retribution. As Assyria had done to others, so shall it be done to her. We have also, underlying the whole, the sense of the supreme prophetic demand for the recognition of the rights and needs of humanity. In the last resort, it is because Nineveh has neglected these, and has used her power tyrannously, that she must perish.

The book might serve as a commentary on Isa.x.5-15. top

VI. THE HEBREW TEXT AND THE SEPTUAGINT

Except in the psalm, where the aberrations from the acrostic suggest corruption, the text is fairly well preserved.

The versions exhibit no peculiarities, though they, especially the Septuagint, are sometimes helpful in restoring difficult passages, e.g. in ii.4, 9, 12; iii.9, 17. top