Nahum’s prophecies are among the most graphic prophetic oracles from the ancient world. He describes how YHWH defeats the previously mighty Assyrian empire (see also this site on the Assyrian empire) for their hubris. This theme has often been taken up by those who want to criticise oppressive powers.
Nahum (נחום – ‘comforted’) is the name of the prophet to whom the oracles in the book are attributed. He is ‘a man from Elkosh,’ which might be a place-name or an ancestor, but neither a location nor a person Elkosh is known today. The book is its own composition but also part of the Book of the Twelve, usually in the seventh position, and many scholars hold that it has been influenced by the editing of the Twelve and of the prophetic corpus as a whole.
The short book (44 verses) contains oracles of salvation for Judah and doom for her enemy the Assyrian capital Nineveh (in modern day Mosul). After ruling large parts of the Middle East for over 100 years, the Neo-Assyrian capital was destroyed by an alliance of Medes, Persians, and Babylonians in 612 BCE. The language and imagery of the book are particularly powerful. It ends with a (mock-)dirge for the Assyrian king. Already in antiquity readers understood references to the Assyrian king as references to their own enemies at the time they were reading the book (see, e.g., the Qumran Pesher; see below).
Date and authorship
Ostensibly, the book is set in the years around the destruction of Nineveh in 612 BCE. There are no external factors to indicate that the book is unlikely to have been written in those decades before the end of the kingdom of Judah as an independent political state in 587 BCE.
The many allusions to other prophetic books, especially Habakkuk, Micah, and Deutero-Isaiah indicate that the process of editing lasted (perhaps quite far) into the post-exilic period. Opinions as to whether the partial acrostic in Nahum 1:2-8 was part of the original or early composition or whether it was added later differ. Those who date the acrostic early often think that the book was originally written for the liturgy of the Jerusalem temple.
Nahum is often seen as the first of the second half of the twelve ‘minor’ prophets, followed by Habakkuk and Zephaniah, the other two late pre-exilic prophets. The main topic of Nahum’s oracles is the righteousness of YHWH and the destruction of Nineveh the capital of the Neo-Assyrian empire in punishment for their iniquity. This puts the book in contrast with Jonah whose mission to Nineveh saves the city from destruction previously (Duane L. Christensen 1996: 187). The language of Nahum is stark and graphic, and his tone is often close to gloating.
Since antiquity, the book has been read together and in contrast with Jonah (see, e.g., Lives of the Prophets 11:2). However, the book has also been read as containing unfulfilled prophecy. Prime examples for that approach can be found in the Qumran Pesher Nahum (4QPNah [=4Q169]), in the book of Tobit 14:3-4, and remains popular in some circles.
Recent scholarly discussion reflects the concern among modern readers about the glorification of divine violence that can be found in the book (e.g., Julia M. O’Brien 2004: 20). Other scholars have emphasised that YHWH promises to overcome tyrannical states and powers, even if they appear to be unsurmountable, thereby freeing the oppressed from their overlords.
The book features in the writings of Church Fathers as well as rabbinic writings from antiquity to the Middle Ages. But it is mostly absent from the lectionaries of churches and synagogues where it appears only rarely and if so only in weekday readings.
Paintings that take the destruction of Nineveh as a subject sometimes feature the figure of Nahum looking on. He is also often featured on biblical codices holding a scroll.
Christensen, Duane L. “The Book of Nahum: A History of Interpretation.” Pages 187-94 in Forming Prophetic Literature: Essays on Isaiah and the Twelve in Honor of John D.W. Watts. Edited by James W. Watts and Paul R. House. JSOTSup 235. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996.
Coggins, R., and Jin H. Han. Six Minor Prophets: Nahum, Habakuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi Through the Centuries. Blackwell Bible Commentaries 29. Oxford: Blackwell, 2011.
O’Brien, Julia M. Nahum. Readings. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002.