The proclamations of the ancient Hebrew prophet Nahum make it easy to reduce the world to “us” and “them.”
The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble.
He cares for those who trust in him, but with an overwhelming flood
he will make an end of Nineveh; he will pursue his foes into the realm of darkness. – Nahum 1:7-8
This is especially true for those for whom the proclamations of Nahum are God’s word. In readings without nuance the prophecies are good news for those whom God loves and defends and protects—or at least avenges—and they are bad news for those on whom God takes revenge.
The desire for an omnipotent, responsive avenger, if not protector, in this crucified and crucifying world is entirely understandable.
As a black woman raised in the black church on stories of deliverance, I want God to defend and protect me against racism and sexual violence in every space in which I find myself.
And in some cases, after the fact, I too want vengeance on an epic scale.
When I read Nahum I see rhetoric based on the presumption it doesn’t matter what happens to some bodies, and the bodies of women, non-Israelites and gentile women in particular, can be brutalized in fact or in rhetoric to make a point.
I also find a corollary for the assault on Nineveh in American history; it is akin to a spectacle lynching whose victim survived. Neither the horrors born of the poet-prophet’s pen nor those of the lynching tree are relegated to the biblical or more recent past.
Nahum’s Iron Age value system is alive and well in the Digital Age.
I am writing after the emergence of the Black Lives Matters movement and find parallels between the disregard for the lives of the people of Nineveh (and others in the canon) and the disregard for the lives of whole populations in the present age.
The disparate rate of police shootings of black men when compared to other demographics, murder rates of black and brown transwomen, rates of crime against non-gender conforming people, and rampant islamophobia all point to disposable populations in the eyes of some…
Zephaniah’s God is wrathful on behalf of her people. This God seems like a monster about to devour everything in its path.
God in Zephaniah is like the bear robbed of her cubs in Hosea 13:8 and Proverbs 17:12.
Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and rip them open; like a lion I will devour them — a wild animal will tear them apart. – Hosea 13:8
This image of God is potentially comforting: God will avenge her people, and their enemies will finally get what is coming to them. This God is like an action hero in a movie playing for a cheering crowd and blowing up villains with little regard for collateral damage.
The recent proliferation of superhero movies with characters that sometimes do
as much harm as good suggest that people are hungry for stories of superhuman
avengers to set the world to rights.
Strikingly, those heroes are often deeply flawed, even anti-heroes—immoral or amoral characters—who perform heroic or even moral deeds often while leaving carnage in their wake. In Zephaniah God is both monster and hero.
The book of Zephaniah gives voice to the sense that more wrong exists with the world than can be patched and repaired, and more than a hero or anti-hero can set out to right by defeating a monstrous villain.
The sense is that the universe would be better off if the earth were scrubbed clean, down to its mantle or core, and if God began the work of creation again. Accordingly, the scope of the destruction is monstrous and indiscriminate, decimating whole nations and cities. Yet in spite of all that is wrong with the world, the dread warrior chooses restraint in Zephaniah 3:12 to save some lives, hoping, predicting, or prophesying that they will in turn seek God.
But I will leave within you the meek and humble. The remnant of Israel will trust in the name of the Lord. – Zephaniah 3:12
In many post-apocalyptic movies a small band of survivors is left to make a new life and a new world from the remnant of the old.
In similar fashion the book of Zephaniah ends with a promise of rebuilding and restoration. The mother bear has put her claws away and tends to her cubs.
This article is an excerpt from Wil Gafney’s 3-in-1 commentary of Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah.