Friday of Week 18 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Nahum 2:1,3;3:1-3,6-7

Today we have a single reading from the very short Book of Nahum (just three chapters). Nahum is one of the so-called ‘minor’ prophets, as opposed to ‘major’ prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel.

Nahum made his prophecy just before the fall of the Assyrian capital of Niniveh in 612 BC. His joy over the city’s and the empire’s downfall is understandable when one considers the savage cruelty for which it was notorious over nearly three centuries. Rightly he calls it a “bloody city”.

Today’s reading speaks of the imminent collapse of Niniveh, overthrown by the new juggernaut – Babylon. It is a triumphant song of joy over the fall of a great city (remember how the Book of Jonah said it took three days to cross – mostly likely something of an exaggeration).

The passage opens with the messenger coming across the mountains of Judah with a wonderful message of peace. Such good announcements of deliverance are common in Scripture: here it is deliverance from the threat of Assyria. Later there will be the deliverance from exile in Babylon and Paul in the Letter to the Romans will speak of our deliverance from sin through the “good news” of Jesus Christ (Rom 10:15) and quotes from this passage: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

The people are now urged to “fulfil your vows”, that is, the promises made to God during the times of distress for “nevermore shall you be invaded by the scoundrel (Belial)… He is completely destroyed.” This statement was fulfilled when Niniveh fell to the Babylonians in 612 BC. The Assyrian invasion in the days of King Manasseh was to be the last – but there were, unfortunately, other invasions to come.

The Lord was now restoring the vineyard, that is, uniting the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah, which had been ravaged and ruined by the enemy.

Niniveh, on the other hand, is a city “soaked in blood”. It is a city “full of lies, stuffed with booty, whose plunderings know no end”.

There is a graphic description of the Assyrian war machine which resulted in a “mass of wounded, countless corpses…” The wholesale killings of its conquered victims was well known. The Assyrians were notorious for their ruthlessness, brutality and terrible atrocities. Many of their victims were beheaded, impaled or burned.

There is a graphic run of short phrases giving a vivid picture of a mighty army at war, over-running its weaker enemies – the crack of the whip, rumbling wheels, galloping horses, racing chariots, charging cavalry, flaming swords, flashing spears bringing death and destruction – heaped corpses, endless bodies to fall over…

We are told that the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III boasted of erecting a pyramid of chopped-off heads in front of an enemy’s city. Other Assyrian kings stacked corpses like cordwood by the gates of defeated cities. The prophet’s descriptions are no exaggeration.

In verses which are omitted from our reading, Nahum describes Assyria as a doomed harlot:

For the many debaucheries of the harlot,
fair and charming, mistress of witchcraft,
who enslaved nations with her harlotries
and peoples by her witchcraft.
I am come against you,
and I will strip your skirt from you;
I will show your nakedness to the nations,
to the kingdoms your shame.

So now Niniveh, the proud and arrogant city, is to be humiliated, “pelted with filth”. Like a disgraced harlot, she will be shamed and made a show of. She will be punished like a prostitute receiving punishment for her adulteries. She is being punished less for her idolatry or her practice of ritual prostitution, for she was a pagan city anyway, but for the terrible cruelties to her victims. Now she is utterly destroyed and there is not a shred of pity for her fate. She has received her just deserts.

There must have been times during the Assyrian conquests that God’s people wondered if it would ever come to an end. But it did. The joy of that discovery pervades the reading. Evil can never last indefinitely. It has always within it the seeds of its own destruction.

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