Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Nahum: The Word of God or the Imagination of Man?

Approaching Scripture as the word of God--the way Jesus did--has consequences for what kind of conclusions one will come to when seeking to understand the text.  Conversely, viewing the text as simply the word of man--generated and driven by man's religious impulses--will also have consequences.

The book of Nahum is a good test case in this regard.  Nahum presents us with a vision of God as avenging Judge who prophesies the coming destruction of Nineveh in graphic terms.  There are those who think Nahum's vision of God's retributive justice is unbecoming and unworthy of the God of love displayed elsewhere in Scripture.  A good example of this view of Nahum as reflecting merely human religiousity is David G. Garber, Jr. and his essay "Facing Traumatizing Texts: Reading Nahum's Nationalistic Rage" Review and Expositor 105 (Spring, 2008), 285-294.  

Throughout his essay Garber repeatedly uses inflammatory rhetoric to describe the book of Nahum.  He calls it a "fantasy of vengenace," "a diatribe and vengeance fantasy," and "a vitriolic vengeance fantasy" (pp. 286, 287, 290).  Occasionally Garber does state an insightful truth, such as when he writes:
The awesome terror of God's avenging power is both frightening and reassuring to the oppressed.  It is frightening, because it is a reminder that Yahweh is a God with whom one cannot trifle, but it is also reassuring, because it affirms that the oppressor will not have the last word. (p. 288)
This is a genuine biblical perspective but it is ultimately drowned out by Garber's perspective elsewhere in the article.  For example, Garber states:
In Nahum, shalom (peace or wholeness) for the Judean will only result from the realization of violent vengeance.  The pronouncement of "good news" serves as an introduction to a vitriolic vengeance fantasy as the prophet imagines the city of Nineveh suffering military defeat from the hands of YHWH. (pp. 289-290)
Aside from the rhetoric of "a vitriolic vengeance fantasy" already noted, the key phrase in this quotation is--"as the prophet imagines."  The operating assumption here is that the destructive imagery of the book is a result of Nahum's imagination.  It is not seen to be a divine revelation given from Yahweh to Nahum that reveals the truth about God himself.

This is not simply a "slip of the pen" for it is the perspective Garber continues to push in the concluding section of the essay.  Garber begins his conclusion with these words:
The book of Nahum reminds us of the deeply ingrained human longing for vengeance. (p. 291)
The question must be asked: Is it only "the deeply ingrained human longing for vengeance" or is it not also a manifestation and revelation of God's holy and jealousy character?  Later Garber writes:
Perhaps the vitriolic rhetoric in the book of Nahum, and in the collective, xenophobic response of some to the terrorist attacks on September 11, could best be explained as attempts to reassert corporate life in the face of tragedies that force humanity to face the inevitability of its own mortality. (p. 291)
Again, there is nothing here about God revealing his character.  The rhetoric of the book is simply a human attempt to come to grips with national tragedy.  Garber goes further.  He moves to a place where we are called upon to reject the vision of God as vengeful.  Here is Garber in his own words:
Finally, one must wrestle with the image of God presented in the text.  A jealous, powerful, and violent deity is not one to whom many Christians wish to cling.  Christians are much more comfortable with the God who is slow to anger than the God who avenges.  We would much rather read of God's mercy exhibited to the foreigners in Jonah 3 and 4, than God's wrath executed on the Assyrian King in Nahum 2 and 3.  
Up to this point in this quotation it is merely descriptive but the next sentences of Garber move to a prescriptive perspective...
This, I think, is certainly appropriate.  But while we remain steadfast against this image of a violent and wrathful deity, we must also recognize the reason such fantasies exist in the first place. (pp. 292-293--bold-face added)
Here Garber pits himself against the God of Nahum.  This God of vengeance is not worthy of Garber's worship and adoration; he is someone to be opposed.  The book of Nahum is not, therefore, the revelation of God's holy character.  Rather, Nahum is only the expression of man's attempts to deal with pain.  Garber is clear about this when he writes, "Rather, we must continue to read the text and respect the representation of pain that it expresses." (p. 293)

For Garber, the book of Nahum is man's best attempt to deal with pain and crisis.  Garber doesn't like the God of Nahum and urges that the portrait of God as wrathful be opposed.  This is Garber's opinion.  There is only one problem--this is the not the view of Jesus Christ (Matthew 5.17-18)!  Jesus never treated the Scriptures like Garber treats them.  As a follower of Christ ... well, I'm going to follow Christ's viewpoint.