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The Hebrew name, probably in the intensive form, Nahhum, signifies primarily "full of consolation or comfort", hence "consoler" (St. Jerome, consolator), or "comforter". The name Nahum was apparently of not rare occurrence. Indeed, not to speak of a certain Nahum listed in the Vulgate and Douay Version (Nehemiah 7:7) among the companions of Zorobabel, and whose name seems to have been rather Rehum (Ezra 2:2; Heb. has Rehum in both places), St. Luke mentions in his genealogy of Our Lord a Nahum, son of Hesli and father of Amos (iii, 25); the Mishna also occasionally refers to Nahum the Mede, a famous rabbi of the second century (Shabb., ii, 1, etc.), and another Nahum who was a scribe or copyist (Peah, ii, 6); inscriptions show likewise the name was not uncommon among Phoenicians (Gesenius, "Monum. Phoen.", 133; Boeckh, "Corp. Inscript. Graec.", II, 25, 26; "Corp. Inscript. Semitic.", I, 123 a3 b3).
The little we know touching the Prophet Nahum must be gathered from his book, for nowhere else in the canonical Scriptures does his name occur, and extracanonical Jewish writers are hardly less reticent. The scant positive information vouchsafed by these sources is in no wise supplemented by the worthless stories concerning the Prophet put into circulation by legend-mongers. We will deal only with what may be gathered from the canonical Book of Nahum, the only available first-hand document at our disposal. From its title (i,1), we learn that Nahum was an Elcesite (so D. V.; A. V., Elkoshite). On the true import of this statement commentators have not always been of one mind. In the prologue to his commentary of the book, St. Jerome informs us that some understood 'Elqoshite as a patronymic indication: "the son of Elqosh"; he, however, holds the commonly accepted view that the word 'Elqoshite shows that the Prophet was a native of Elqosh.
But even understood in this way, the intimation given by the title is disputed by biblical scholars. Where, indeed, should this Elqosh, nowhere else referred to in the Bible, be sought?
- Some have tried to identify it with 'Alqush, 27 miles north of Mossul, where the tomb of Nahum is still shown. According to this opinion, Nahum was born in Assyria, which would explain his perfect acquaintance with the topography and customs of Ninive exhibited in the book. But such an acquaintance may have been acquired otherwise; and it is a fact that the tradition connecting the Prophet Nahum with that place cannot be traced back beyond the sixteenth century, as has been conclusively proven by Assemani. This opinion is now generally abandoned by scholars.
- Still more recent and hardly more credible is the view advocated by Hitzig and Knobel, who hold that Elqosh was the old name of the town called Capharnaum (i.e., "the village of Nahum") in the first century: a Galilean origin, they claim, would well account for certain slight peculiarities of the Prophet's diction that smack of provincialism. Apart from the somewhat precarious etymology, it may be objected against this identification that Capharnaum, however well known a place it was at the New Testament period, is never mentioned in earlier times, and, for all we know, may have been founded at a relatively recent date; moreover, the priests and the Pharisees would most likely have asserted less emphatically "that out of Galilee a prophet riseth not" (John 7:52) had Capharnaum been associated with our Prophet in the popular mind.
- Still, it is in Galilee that St. Jerome located the birthplace of Nahum ("Comment. in Nah." in P.L., XXV, 1232), supposed to be Elkozeh, in northern Galilee; but "out of Galilee doth a prophet rise?" might we ask again.
- The author of the "Lives of the Prophets" long attributed to St. Epiphanius tells us "Elqosh was beyond Beth-Gabre, in the tribe of Simeon" (P.G., XLIII, 409). He unquestionably means that Elqosh was in the neighbourhood of Beth-Gabre (Beit Jibrin), the ancient Eleutheropolis, on the borders of Juda and Simeon. This view has been adopted in the Roman Martyrology (1 December; "Begabar" is no doubt a corrupt spelling of Beth-Gabre), and finds more and more acceptance with modern scholars.
The Book of Nahum contains only three chapters and may be divided into two distinct parts.
The one, including i and ii, 2 (Heb., i-ii, 1-3), and the other consisting of ii,1, 3-ii (Heb., ii, 2, 4-iii). The first part is more undetermined in tone and character. After the twofold title indicating the subject-matter and the author of the book (i, 1), the writer enters upon his subject by a solemn affirmation of what he calls the Lord's jealousy and revengefulness (i, 2, 3), and a most forceful description of the fright which seizes all nature at the aspect of Yahweh coming into judgment (i, 3-6). Contrasting admirably with this appalling picture is the comforting assurance of God's loving-kindness towards His true and trustful servants (7-8); then follows the announcement of the destruction of His enemies, among whom a treacherous, cruel, and god-ridden city, no doubt Ninive (although the name is not found in the text), is singled out and irretrievably doomed to everlasting ruin (8-14); the glad tidings of the oppressor's fall is the signal of a new era of glory for the people of God (1:15; 2:2; Hebrews 2:1, 3).
The second part of the book is more directly than the other a "burden of Ninive"; some of the features of the great Assyrian city are described so accurately as to make all doubt impossible, even if the name Ninive were not explicitly mentioned in ii, 8. In a first section (ii), the Prophet dashes off in a few bold strokes three successive sketches: we behold the approach of the besiegers, the assault on the city, and, within, the rush of its defenders to the walls (2:1, 3-3; Hebrews 2:2, 4-6); then the protecting dams and sluices of the Tigris being burst open, Ninive, panic-stricken, has become an easy prey to the victor: her most sacred places are profaned, her vast treasures plundered (6-9); Heb., 7-10); and now Ninive, once the den where the lion hoarded rich spoils for his whelps and his lionesses, has been swept away forever by the mighty hand of the God of hosts (10-13; Hebrews 11-13). The second section (iii) develops with new details the same theme. The bloodthirstiness, greed, and crafty and insidious policy of Ninive are the cause of her overthrow, most graphically depicted (1-4); complete and shameful will be her downfall and no one will utter a word of pity (5-7). As No-Ammon was mercilessly crushed, so Ninive likewise will empty to the dregs the bitter cup of the divine vengeance (8-11). In vain does she trust in her strongholds, her warriors, her preparations for a siege, and her officials and scribes (12-17). Her empire is about to crumble, and its fall will be hailed by the triumphant applause by the whole universe (18-19).
Until a recent date, both the unity and authenticity of the Book of Nahum were undisputed, and the objections alleged by a few against the genuineness of the words "The burden of Ninive" (i, 1) and the description of the overthrow of No-Ammon (iii, 8-10) were regarded as trifling cavils not worth the trouble of an answer. In the last few years, however, things have taken a new turn: facts hitherto unnoticed have added to the old problems concerning authorship, date, etc. It may be well here for us to bear in mind the twofold division of the book, and to begin with the second part (ii, 1, 3-iii), which, as has been noticed, unquestionably deals with the overthrow of Ninive. That these two chapters of the prophecy constitute a unit and should be attributed to the same author, Happel is the only one to deny; but his odd opinion, grounded on unwarranted alterations of the text, cannot seriously be entertained.
The date of this second part cannot be determined to the year; however, from the data furnished by the text, it seems that a sufficiently accurate approximation is obtainable. First, there is a higher limit which we have no right to overstep, namely, the capture of No-Ammon referred to in iii, 8-10. In the Latin Vulgate (and the Douay Bible) No-Ammon is translated by Alexandria, whereby St. Jerome meant not the great Egyptian capital founded in the fourth century B.C., but an older city occupying the site where later on stood Alexandria ("Comment. in Nah.", iii,8: P.L., XXV, 1260; cf. "Ep. CVIII ad Eustoch.", 14: P.L., XXII, 890; "In Is.", XVIII: P.L., XXIV, 178; "In Os.", IX, 5-6: P.L., XXV, 892). He was mistaken, however, and so were who thought that No-Ammon should be sought in Lower Egypt; Assyrian and Egyptian discoveries leave no doubt whatever that No-Ammon is the same as Thebes in Upper Egypt. Now Thebes was captured and destroyed by Assurbanipal in 664-663 B.C., whence it follows that the opinion of Nicephorus (in the edition of Geo. Syncell, "Chronographia", Bonn, 1829, I, 759), making Nahum a contemporary of Phacee, King of Israel, the early tradition according to which this prophecy was uttered 115 years before the fall of Ninive (about 721 B.C.; Josephus, "Ant. Jud.", IX, xi, 3), and the conclusions of those modern scholars who, as Pusey, Nagelsbach, etc., date the oracle in the reign of Ezechias or the earlier years of Manasses, ought to be discarded as impossible. The lower limit which it is allowable to assign to this part of the book of Nahum is, of course, the fall of Ninive, which a well-known inscription of Nabonidus permits us to fix at 607 or 606 B.C., a date fatal to the view adopted by Eutychius, that Nahum prophesied five years after the downfall of Jerusalem (therefore about 583-581; "Annal." in P.G., CXI, 964).
Within these limits it is difficult to fix the date more precisely. It has been suggested that the freshness of the allusion to the fate of Thebes indicates an early date, about 660 B.C., according to Schrader and Orelli; but the memory of such a momentous event would long dwell in the minds of men, and we find Isaias, for instance, in one of his utterances delivered about 702 or 701 B.C. recalling with the same vividness of expression Assyrian conquests achieved thirty or forty years earlier (Isaiah 10:5-34). Nothing therefore compels us to assign, within the limits set above, 664-606, an early date to the two chapters, if there are cogent reasons to conclude to a later date. One of the arguments advanced is that Ninive is spoken of as having lost a great deal of her former prestige and sunk into a dismal state of disintegration; she is, moreover, represented as beset by mighty enemies and powerless to avert the fate threatening her. Such conditions existed when, after the death of Assurbanipal, Babylonia succeeded in regaining her independence (625), and the Medes aims a first blow at Ninive (623). Modern critics appear more and more inclined to believe that the data furnished by the Prophet lead to the admission of a still lower date, namely "the moment between the actual invasion of Assyria by a hostile force and the commencement of the attack on its capital" (Kennedy). The "mauler", indeed, is already on his way (2:1; Hebrews 2); frontier fortresses have opened their gates (iii, 12-13); Ninive is at bay, and although the enemy has not yet invested the city, to all appearances her doom is sealed.
We may now return to the first part of the book. This first chapter, on account of the transcendent ideas it deals with, and of the lyric enthusiasm which pervades it throughout has not inappropriately been called a psalm. Its special interest lies in the fact that it is an alphabetical poem. The first to call attention to this feature was Frohnmeyer, whose observations, however, did not extend beyond vv. 3-7. Availing himself of this key, Bickell endeavoured to find out if the process of composition did not extend to the whole passage and include the twenty-two letters of the alphabet, and he attempted repeatedly but without great success ("Zeitschr. der deutsch. morg. Gesell.", 1880, p. 559; "Carmina Vet. Test. metrice", 1882; "Zeitschr. fur kath. Theol.", 1886), to restore the psalm to its pristine integrity. This failure did not discourage Gunkel who declared himself convinced that the poem is alphabetical throughout, although it is difficult, owing to the present condition of the text, to trace the initial letters X to X (Zeitschr. fur alttest. Wissensch., 1893, 223 sqq.). This was for Bickell an incentive to a fresh study (Das alphab. Lied in Nah. i-ii, 3, in "Sitzungsberichte der philos.-hist. Classe der kaiser. Akademie der Wissensch.", Vienna, 894, 5 Abhandl.), the conclusions of which show a notable improvement on the former attempts, and suggested to Gunkel a few corrections (Schopfung und Chaos, 120). Since then Nowack (Die kleinen Propheten, 1897), Gray ("The Alphab. Poem in Nah." in "The Expositor" for Sept. 1898, 207 sqq.), Arnold (On Nahum 1:1-2:3, in "Zeitschr. fur alttest. Wissensch.", 1901, 225 sqq.), Happel (Das Buch des Proph. Nah., 1903), Marti (Dodekaproph. erklart, 1904), Lohr (Zeitschr. fur alttest. Wissensch., 1905, I, 174), and Van Hoonacker (Les douze petits proph., 1908), have more or less successfully undertaken the difficult task of extricating the original psalm from the textual medley in which it is entangled. There is among them, a sufficient agreement as to the first part of the poem; but the second part still remains a classical ground for scholarly tilts.
Wellhausen (Die kleinen Proph., 1898) holds that the noteworthy difference between the two parts from the point of view of poetical construction is due to the fact that the writer abandoned halfway his undertaking to write acrostically. Happel believes both parts were worked out separately from an unacrostic original.
Critics are inclined to hold that the disorder and corruption which disfigure the poem are mostly due to the way it was tacked on to the prophecy of Nahum: the upper margin was first used, and then the side margin; and as, in the latter instance, the text must have been overcrowded and blurred, this later on caused in the second part of the psalm an inextricable confusion from which the first was preserved. This explanation of the textual condition of the poem implies the assumption that this chapter is not to be attributed to Nahum, but is a later addition. So much indeed was granted by Bickell, and Van Hoonacker (not to speak of non-Catholic scholars) is inclined to a like concession. On the one hand, the marked contrast between the abstract tome of the composition and the concrete character of the other two chapters, we are told, bespeaks a difference of authorship; and, on the other hand, the artificiality of the acrostic form is characteristic of a late date. These arguments, however, are not unanswerable. In any case it cannot be denied that the psalm is a most fitting preface to the prophecy.
Little will be found in the teaching of the book of Nahum that is really new and original. The originality of Nahum is that his mind is so engrossed by the iniquities and impending fate of Ninive, that he appears to lose sight of the shortcomings of his own people. The doom of Ninive was nevertheless in itself for Juda an object-lesson which the impassioned language of the Prophet was well calculated to impress deeply upon the minds of thoughtful Israelites. Despite the uncertainty of the text in several places, there is no doubt that the book of Nahum is truly "a masterpiece" (Kaulen) of literature. The vividness and picturesqueness of the Prophet's style have already been pointed out; in his few short, flashing sentences, most graphic word-pictures, apt and forceful figures, grand, energetic, and pathetic expressions rush in, thrust vehemently upon one another, yet leaving the impression of perfect naturalness. Withal the language remains ever pure and classical, with a tinge of partiality for alliteration (i, 10; ii, 3, 11) and the use of prim and rare idioms; the sentences are perfectly balanced; in a word Nahum is a consummate master of his art, and ranks among the most accomplished writers of the Old Testament.
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Obstat, Nihil. Lafort, Remy, Censor. Entry for 'Nahum'. The Catholic Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/n/nahum.html. Robert Appleton Company. New York. 1914.