Scarcely a day goes by without new reports of atrocities committed by the terrorists who call themselves (despite the protests of Muslims around the world) the Islamic State, ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), or ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant: that is, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria). The Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation reports that the number of hostages ISIS has taken from Christian villages in Syria may be as high as 150. According to the AsiaNews service, “There are numerous unconfirmed reports that some hostages have been killed, some rapes committed, and ‘blood everywhere.'” Churches destroyed in the conflict include “the church in Tel Hurmiz, one of the oldest churches in Syria, the Mar Bisho church in Tel Shamiran, the church in Qabr Shamiy and the church in Tel Baloua.” The murder of 21 Coptic Christians in Libya by forces claiming allegiance to ISIS, as well as the numerous horrific videos of brutal executions carried out by this regime, make any reasonable person fearful for the fate of those Syrian and Iraqi Christians taken by this cruel regime.
So what are we to do? Not surprisingly, many around the world are calling for vengeance. Arkansas State Senator Jason Rapert wrote in a Facebook post:
Faced with such horrors, the desire to respond to violence with violence, to atrocity with atrocity, is understandable, even appealing. Yet Bishop Georges Abou Khazen, of the Latin (what we would call Roman Catholic) diocese of Aleppo, told the AsiaNews service: “This will not be be solved with bombs.” Instead, Bishop Khazen urges, “What we ask is for others to stop supporting these people, to stop selling them weapons. We have been saying this for some time but no one has been listening to us.”
The Bible often frankly addresses our desire for vengeance (see, for example, Jeremiah 11:20; Ps 3:7; 104:35; 137:8-9). But perhaps nowhere in Scripture are such passions given as free and full an expression as in the book of Nahum, one of the Twelve.
No selections from this difficult and disturbing little book appear in the Common Lectionary–and no wonder. Nahum gloats over the collapse of Nineveh, capital of the oppressive Assyrian empire, which fell in 612 BC. Poetically, Nahum is a masterpiece: even in English translation, its vivid imagery and striking use of language and rhythm come through:
Cracking whip and rumbling wheel,
galloping horse and careening chariot!
Charging cavalry, flashing sword, and glittering spear;
countless slain, masses of corpses,
endless dead bodies—they stumble over their dead bodies! (Nah 3:2-3)
But appreciating the poetic artistry of Nahum is not unlike appreciating the cinematic breakthroughs and innovations achieved by D. W. Griffith in his horrifically racist film “The Birth of a Nation.” Whatever the artistic value of the work, the purpose to which its artistry is directed remains repulsive.
Most disturbing of all, however, is the way that Nahum describes Nineveh’s fall. He personifies the city as a woman, so that its siege becomes a mugging, and its fall a rape:
Look! I am against you, proclaims
the Lord of heavenly forces.
I will lift your skirts over your face;
I will show nations your nakedness
and kingdoms your dishonor.
I will throw disgusting things at you;
I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle (Nah 3:5-6).
Of course, Griffith’s cinematography manifested the culture of the powerful, while Nahum represents the voice of the powerless. As John Goldingay observes, “Nahum is divinely-inspired resistance literature” (Minor Prophets II; NIBC 18 [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2009], 18). Viewing Nahum from a South African context, Wilhelm Wessels argues that the violent language of Nahum both “served as an outlet for suppressed or cropped-up emotions” of an oppressed people and also imaginatively created “a world free from the domination of the cruel Assyrians, stripped of their power”; it is not to be taken literally “as a call to violence or a legitimation of violence” (Wilhelm J. Wessels, “Nahum, An Uneasy Expression of Yahweh’s Power,” in Old Testament Essays 11 : 625).
But while knowledge of Nahum’s historical context may explain the book’s violent, hateful content, it surely does not excuse it–as Wessels indeed recognizes (pp. 615, 627). In fact, the scribes responsible for preserving Nahum and incorporating it into the Book of the Twelve wrestled with these questions as well. They have given Nahum’s oracles against Nineveh (Nah 2–3) a poetic preface that places Assyria’s fall in a theological context. An opening psalm (Nah 1:2-11) affirms that God is not a capricious, violent deity, but a God of justice: “The LORD is very patient but great in power; the LORD punishes.” (Nah 1:3).
Next, this preface ascribes Judah’s oppression at Nineveh’s hands to God:
The Lord proclaims:
Though once they were a healthy and numerous force,
they have been cut off and have disappeared.
I have afflicted you;
I won’t afflict you further, Zion.
Now I will break off his yoke from you
and tear off your chains (Nah 1:12-13).
Another way into Nahum as Christian Scripture comes through John Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. Here, Wesley writes,
We ought quietly to suffer whatever befals us, to bear the defects of others and our own, to confess them to God in secret prayer, or with groans which cannot be uttered.
As United Methodist theologian Marjorie Suchocki observes, Wesley extraordinarily calls upon us to “confess the sins of others as though they are our own” (Albright-Deering Lectures, April 24, 2008, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary). Particularly in this season of Lent, Nahum prompts us to confess the sins, and pray for the redemption, of a world still in bondage to violence and retribution.
Reading Nahum in these troubling times, we can recognize his zeal for vengeance in our world and in ourselves. But by acknowledging our violent impulses before God in prayer, we can vent those dark passions and be freed to live our lives in joy, not anger; in love, not hatred. Nahum may then lead us, not to jingoism and the pursuit of vengeance, but to earnest repentance and the pursuit of peace.
As you pray for our sisters and brothers facing persecution, imprisonment and death at the hands of ISIS, remember too before God the names, and the families, of those 21 Coptic Christian martyrs: