Monday, the fable of Jonah ends, with Jonah self-righteously angry. It’s an elegant sketch of a familiar religious personality. Jonah blames God for embarrassing him, wasting Jonah’s time in warning Nineveh. Jonah claims that his motive for fleeing the first divine call was prescience about this outcome. He asks to die, and God simply asks him if his anger is justified.
The image of Jonah, sitting east of Nineveh, watching to see what happens next, is rich. Since Nineveh repented and God relented, presumably hopes one or the other will change their mind and action again, and Jonah will have a ringside seat. God sends him a shade plant, then a worm to kill it. Jonah gets mad again at God’s natural world of fecundity ravaged by parasites and predators. Again he asks to die, and God simply asks him if he is justified. Finally, God points out that Nineveh includes 120,000 children below the age of reason, and ‘much cattle’. Why would a Creator follow Jonah’s whims?
Tuesday to Thursday, we read Nahum. Explicitly in its opening verse, it claims to be an oracle about Nineveh, and a vision of one Nahum of Elkosh. Having just read Jonah, you know that ‘Nineveh’ can stand as a term for any imperial capital, even in a fable. You know how we use ‘Washington’, or ‘London’, ‘Paris’, ‘Brussels’, ‘Teheran’, or ‘Berlin’. Why would our ancestors not generalize the shape of things ‘bigger than us, smaller than God’, in past, present and future, using the name of ‘that great city’ as code for something bigger?
Whether an imperial city is on the rise, at its peak, or in decline, it has victims and enemies who cannot overcome it, but wish it ill. They question which side God is on, and assure themselves of ultimate justice. That’s always going to be a threat to some, and a promise to others. As the Marxists say, ‘Behind every great fortune is an equally great crime’. Tuesday’s oracle sings that song.
Wednesday, enjoy the ‘taunt song’ of Nahum 2. Think of it as the kind of ‘trash talk’ used between sports teams, or today by ‘psy-ops’ trucks shouting at ISIS fighters about their mothers and daughters. It challenges the morale of the defenders of the empire, and encourages those who resist but cannot overcome, that a ‘shatterer’ is coming, and the spoils of empire will be lost.
Thursday, the cycle of Nahum’s threats is completed. God is not on the side of the winners of today, but of justice. Who will your friends be on that day, and whose hope for retribution will face you? This may indeed be focused on Assyria’s subjects, such as Israel, seeking vengeance for 8th century exiles, anticipating the rise of Babylon later in the 7th century, exiling Jerusalem’s elite early in the 6th century – but the editors already knew that Babylon would fall to the Persians within a century!
The reference to the fall of Thebes, halfway up the Nile, shows a sophisticated perspective on the world, recognizing the fall of that North African imperial capital, in the changing geopolitics of Egypt and Ethiopia and Libya. The historical event is different than the explicit date of Nahum, and one way or another, in prediction or in hindsight, editors of Nahum wove this comparison into the prophet’s final warning. ‘Were you better than Thebes’ is a challenge fit for any empire claiming ‘exceptionalism’, such as Washington claiming moral superiority of the European empires it displaced in the 20th century.
Ending the week with Habakkuk, you may recognize texts and images which I overuse in worship – watchtower, ‘write the vision’. Joy Kogawa’s novel Obasan got me to Habakkuk as an oracle to remember and publish. You may recognize the inspiration of Bob Dylan in ‘Along the Watchtower’, covered by Jimi Hendrix even better, or U2 ‘All I got is a red guitar’.
Positioned between the Assyrian conquest of Israel, and the Babylonian exile of Judah and Jerusalem, these words work. But among the Dead Sea Scrolls is a commentary on Habakkuk that shows it worked to rage against the Romans in the century before Jesus. If this overall summary of the week works for you, the Twelve shift from a nationalist (dare I say Zionist) appeal to a stance of witnesses taking a side for the oppressed without being in a position to defeat empires themselves. We can revisit that later this week!