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77

CHAPTER VI

THE BOOK OF NAHUM

The Book of Nahum consists of a double title and three odes. The title runs Oracle of Niniveh: Book of the Vision of Nahum the Elḳôshite. The three odes, eager and passionate pieces, are all of them apparently vibrant to the impending fall of Assyria. The first, chap. i. with the possible inclusion of chap. ii. 2,[199] is general and theological, affirming God’s power of vengeance and the certainty of the overthrow of His enemies. The second, chap. ii. with the omission of ver. 2,[200] and the third, chap, iii., can hardly be disjoined; they both present a vivid picture of the siege, the storm and the spoiling of Niniveh.

The introductory questions, which title and contents start, are in the main three: 1. The position of Elḳôsh, to which the title assigns the prophet; 2. The authenticity of chap. i.; 3. The date of chaps, ii., iii.: to which siege of Niniveh do they refer?

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1. THE POSITION OF ELḲÔSH.

The title calls Nahum the Elḳôshite—that is, native or citizen of Elḳôsh.[201] Three positions have been claimed for this place, which is not mentioned elsewhere in the Bible.

The first we take is the modern Al-Ḳûsh, a town still flourishing about twenty-four miles to the north of the site of Niniveh,[202] with “no fragments of antiquity” about it, but possessing a “simple plaster box,” which Jews, Christians and Mohammedans alike reverence as the tomb of Nahum.[203] There is no evidence that Al-Ḳûsh, a name of Arabic form, is older than the Arab period, while the tradition which locates the tomb there is not found before the sixteenth century of our era, but on the contrary Nahum’s grave was pointed out to Benjamin of Tudela in 1165 at ‘Ain Japhata, on the south of Babylon.[204] The tradition that the prophet lived and died at Al-Ḳûsh is therefore due to the similarity of the name to that of Nahum’s Elḳôsh, as well as to the fact that Niniveh was the subject of his prophesying.[205] In his book there is no trace of proof for the assertion that Nahum was a descendant of the ten tribes exiled in 721 to the region to the north of Al-Ḳûsh. He prophesies for Judah alone. Nor does he show any more knowledge of Niniveh than her ancient fame must have scattered 79 to the limits of the world. [206] We might as well argue from chap. iii. 8–10 that Nahum had visited Thebes of Egypt.

The second tradition of the position of Elḳôsh is older. In his commentary on Nahum Jerome says that in his day it still existed, a petty village of Galilee, under the name of Helkesei,[207] or Elkese, and apparently with an established reputation as the town of Nahum.[208] But the book itself bears no symptom of its author’s connection with Galilee, and although it was quite possible for a prophet of that period to have lived there, it is not very probable.[209]

A third tradition places Elḳôsh in the south of Judah. A Syriac version of the accounts of the prophets, which are ascribed to Epiphanius,[210] describes Nahum as “of Elḳôsh beyond Bêt Gabrê, of the tribe of Simeon”;[211] and 80it may be noted that Cyril of Alexandria says[212] that Elkese was a village in the country of the Jews. This tradition is superior to the first in that there is no apparent motive for its fabrication, and to the second in so far as Judah was at the time of Nahum a much more probable home for a prophet than Galilee; nor does the book give any references except such as might be made by a Judæan.[213] No modern place-name, however, can be suggested with any certainty as the echo of Elḳôsh. Umm Lâḳis, which has been proved not to be Lachish, contains the same radicals, and some six and a quarter miles east from Beit-Jibrin at the upper end of the Wady es Sur there is an ancient well with the name Bir el Ḳûs.[214]

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2. THE AUTHENTICITY OF CHAP. I.

Till recently no one doubted that the three chapters formed a unity. “Nahum’s prophecy,” said Kuenen in 1889, “is a whole.” In 1891[215] Cornill affirmed that no questions of authenticity arose in regard to the book; and in 1892 Wellhausen saw in chap. i. an introduction leading “in no awkward way to the proper subject of the prophecy.”

Meantime, however, Bickell,[216] discovering what he thought to be the remains of an alphabetic Psalm in chap. i. 1–7, attempted to reconstruct throughout chap. i.—ii. 3 twenty-two verses, each beginning with a successive letter of the alphabet. And, following this, Gunkel in 1893 produced a more full and plausible 82 reconstruction of the same scheme.[217] By radical emendations of the text, by excision of what he believes to be glosses and by altering the order of many of the verses, Gunkel seeks to produce twenty-three distichs, twenty of which begin with the successive letters of the alphabet, two are wanting, while in the first three letters of the twenty-third, [שׁבי], he finds very probable the name of the author, Shobai or Shobi.[218] He takes this ode, therefore, to be an eschatological Psalm of the later Judaism, which from its theological bearing has been thought suitable as an introduction to Nahum’s genuine prophecies.

The text of chap. i.—ii. 4 has been badly mauled and is clamant for reconstruction of some kind. As it lies, there are traces of an alphabetical arrangement as far as the beginning of ver. 9,[219] and so far Gunkel’s changes are comparatively simple. Many of his emendations are in themselves and apart from the alphabetic scheme desirable. They get rid of difficulties and improve the poetry of the passage.[220] His reconstruction is always clever and as a whole forms a wonderfully spirited poem. But to have produced good or poetical Hebrew is not conclusive proof of having recovered the original, and there are obvious objections to the process. Several of the proposed changes are unnatural in themselves and unsupported by anything except the 83 exigencies of the scheme; for example, 2b and 3a are dismissed as a gloss only because, if they be retained, the Aleph verse is two bars too long. The gloss, Gunkel thinks, was introduced to mitigate the absoluteness of the declaration that Jehovah is a God of wrath and vengeance; but this is not obvious and would hardly have been alleged apart from the needs of the alphabetic scheme. In order to find a Daleth, it is quite arbitrary to say that the first אמלל in 4b is redundant in face of the second, and that a word beginning with Daleth originally filled its place, but was removed because it was a rare or difficult word! The re-arrangement of 7 and 8a is very clever, and reads as if it were right; but the next effort, to get a verse beginning with Lamed, is of the kind by which anything might be proved. These, however, are nothing to the difficulties which vv. 9–14 and chap. ii. 1, 3, present to an alphabetic scheme, or to the means which Gunkel takes to surmount them. He has to re-arrange the order of the verses,[221] and of the words within the verses. The distichs beginning with Nun and Ḳoph are wanting, or at least undecipherable. To provide one with initial Resh the interjection has to be removed from the opening of chap. ii. 1, and the verse made to begin with רגלי and to run thus: the feet of him that bringeth good news on the mountains; behold him that publisheth peace. Other unlikely changes will be noticed when we come to the translation. Here we may ask the question: if the passage was originally alphabetic, that is, furnished with so fixed and easily recognised a frame, why has it so fallen to pieces? And again, if it has so fallen to pieces, is it possible that it can be restored? The many arbitrarinesses of Gunkel’s able essay would seem 84 to imply that it is not. Dr. Davidson says: “Even if it should be assumed that an alphabetical poem lurks under chap. i., the attempt to restore it, just as in Psalm x., can never be more than an academic exercise.”

Little is to be learned from the language. Wellhausen, who makes no objection to the genuineness of the passage, thinks that about ver. 7 we begin to catch the familiar dialect of the Psalms. Gunkel finds a want of originality in the language, with many touches that betray connection not only with the Psalms but with late eschatological literature. But when we take one by one the clauses of chap, i., we discover very few parallels with the Psalms, which are not at the same time parallels with Jeremiah’s or some earlier writings. That the prophecy is vague, and with much of the air of the later eschatology about it, is no reason for removing it from an age in which we have already seen prophecy beginning to show the same apocalyptic temper.[222] Gunkel denies any reference in ver. 9b to the approaching fall of Niniveh, although that is seen by Kuenen, Wellhausen, König and others, and he omits ver. 11a, in which most read an allusion to Sennacherib.

Therefore, while it is possible that a later poem has been prefixed to the genuine prophecies of Nahum, and the first chapter supplies many provocations to belief in such a theory, this has not been proved, and the able essays of proof have much against them. The question is open.[223]

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3. THE DATE OF CHAPS. II. AND III.

We turn now to the date of the Book apart from this prologue. It was written after a great overthrow of the Egyptian Thebes[224] and when the overthrow of Niniveh was imminent. Now Thebes had been devastated by Assurbanipal about 664 (we know of no later overthrow), and Niniveh fell finally about 607. Nahum flourished, then, somewhere between 664 and 607.[225] Some critics, feeling in his description of the fall of Thebes the force of a recent impression, have placed his prophesying immediately after that, or about 660.[226] But this is too far away from the fall of Niniveh. In 660 the power of Assyria was unthreatened. Nor is 652, the year of the revolt of Babylon, Egypt and the princes of Palestine, a more likely date.[227] For although in that year Assyrian supremacy ebbed from Egypt never to return, Assurbanipal quickly reduced Elam, Babylon and all Syria. Nahum, on the other hand, represents the very centre of the empire as threatened. The land of Assyria is apparently already invaded (iii. 13, etc.). Niniveh, if not invested, must immediately be so, and that by forces too great for resistance. Her mixed populace already show signs of breaking up. Within, as without, her doom is sealed. All this implies not only the advance of an enormous force upon Niniveh, but the reduction of her people to the last stage of hopelessness. Now, as we have seen,[228] Assyria proper 86 was thrice overrun. The Scythians poured across her about 626, but there is no proof that they threatened Niniveh.[229] A little after Assurbanipal’s death in 625, the Medes under King Phraortes invaded Assyria, but Phraortes was slain and his son Kyaxares called away by an invasion of his own country. Herodotus says that this was after he had defeated the Assyrians in a battle and had begun the siege of Niniveh,[230] but before he had succeeded in reducing the city. After a time he subdued or assimilated the Medes, and then investing Niniveh once more, about 607, in two years he took and destroyed her.

To which of these two sieges by Kyaxares are we to assign the Book of Nahum? Hitzig, Kuenen, Cornill and others incline to the first on the ground that Nahum speaks of the yoke of Assyria as still heavy on Judah, though about to be lifted. They argue that by 608, when King Josiah had already felt himself free enough to extend his reforms into Northern Israel, and dared to dispute Necho’s passage across Esdraelon, the Jews must have been conscious that they had nothing more to fear from Assyria, and Nahum could hardly have written as he does in i. 13, I will break his yoke from off thee and burst thy bonds in sunder.[231] But this is not conclusive, for first, as we have seen, it is not certain that i. 13 is 87 from Nahum himself, and second, if it be from himself, he might as well have written it about 608 as about 625, for he speaks not from the feelings of any single year, but with the impression upon him of the whole epoch of Assyrian servitude then drawing to a close. The eve of the later siege as a date for the book is, as Davidson remarks,[232] “well within the verge of possibility,” and some critics prefer it because in their opinion Nahum’s descriptions thereby acquire greater reality and naturalness. But this is not convincing, for if Kyaxares actually began the siege of Niniveh about 625, Nahum’s sense of the imminence of her fall is perfectly natural. Wellhausen indeed denies that earlier siege. “Apart from Herodotus,” he says, “it would never have occurred to anybody to doubt that Nahum’s prophecy coincided with the fall of Niniveh.”[233] This is true, for it is to Herodotus alone that we owe the tradition of the earlier siege. But what if we believe Herodotus? In that case, it is impossible to come to a decision as between the two sieges. With our present scanty knowledge of both, the prophecy of Nahum suits either equally well.[234]

Fortunately it is not necessary to come to a decision. 88 Nahum, we cannot too often insist, expresses the feelings neither of this nor of that decade in the reign of Josiah, but the whole volume of hope, wrath and just passion of vengeance which had been gathering for more than a century and which at last broke into exultation when it became certain that Niniveh was falling. That suits the eve of either siege by Kyaxares. Till we learn a little more about the first siege and how far it proceeded towards a successful result, perhaps we ought to prefer the second. And of course those who feel that Nahum writes not in the future but the present tense of the details of Niniveh’s overthrow, must prefer the second.

That the form as well as the spirit of the Book of Nahum is poetical is proved by the familiar marks of poetic measure—the unusual syntax, the frequent absence of the article and particles, the presence of elliptic forms and archaic and sonorous ones. In the two chapters on the siege of Niniveh the lines are short and quick, in harmony with the dashing action they echo.

As we have seen, the text of chap. i. is very uncertain. The subject of the other two chapters involves the use of a number of technical and some foreign terms, of the meaning of most of which we are 89 ignorant.[235] There are apparently some glosses; here and there the text is obviously disordered. We get the usual help, and find the usual faults, in the Septuagint; they will be noticed in the course of the translation.

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