The Way of the Lord (Nahum 1:3)

The enigmatic reference to the “way” of the Lord (Nah 1:3) is best read in the context of the imagery in Nah 1:2-8. These verses offer a glimpse into the biblical writer’s thought process as he, in conversation with the rest of the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near East traditions, imagines the divine in the context of some greatly traumatic geopolitical events.

What is God’s Way?

This description of God’s “way” occurs in the context of a classic theophany in which God’s power is revealed in nature (see, e.g., Ps 18:2-16; Judg 5:4-5). God is manifested in “whirlwind and storm” (Nah 1:3), riding the clouds like the storm god Baal who is viewed as the quintessential cloud rider. The imagery of mountains shaking (Nah 1:5) and vegetation wilting (Nah 1:4), though, is also reminiscent of imagery in the book of Jeremiah in which the impact of the world-turned-upside-down is effected in creation with the earth being waste and void, with mountains quaking, and with the “fruitful land” being turned into “a desert” (Jer 4:23-26). The theophanic imagery in Nah 1:2-8 thus captures the trauma of a world rendered uninhabitable by means of military invasion, with famine and disease following in its wake.

The way of the Lord is furthermore framed in terms of the superscription in Nah 1:1 in which readers are reminded of what Nineveh had done to the Northern Kingdom, attacking and obliterating the people of the North, and also threatening the South with its capital, Jerusalem, besieged. God’s display of power in nature thus is connected to the portrayal of the vengeance of God, whose fierce anger is unleashed on those who have purported violence against the Northern Kingdom and the rest of Judah’s neighbors. In conversation with the classic self-expression of God in Exod 34:6-7, which is reused elsewhere (e.g., John 4:2; Ps 103:8; Ps 145:8; Neh 9:17), one finds in Nah 1:3 no reference to God relenting from punishment; rather we encounter a vengeful, angry God that unleashes fury on nature. And on Nineveh.

How are we to understand the divine violence in this passage?

As part of a meaning-making feature of prophetic discourse that emerged out of the context of imperial power, the overarching theme of this text is that God is all-powerful—God’s power, revealed in nature, matches and overtakes the powerful storm gods of the time. But the pericope also ends with a reference to God’s goodness (Nah 1:7); it therefore captures the hopes of those who have suffered as they yearn for a Divine Warrior to act on their behalf.

Contemporary readers rightly have been troubled by this violent portrayal of God. One way of understanding this imagery is to think of this text as a type of revenge fantasy in which those traumatized by a shocking display of imperial violence, hope and pray that the violent regime of the Assyrians, or perhaps, depending on when one dates Nahum, the Babylonian or Persian Empires, may come to an end.

Contributors

  • Claassens-Juliana

    Professor in Old Testament, Stellenbosch University

    Juliana Claassens is Professor in Old Testament with a focus on human dignity at the Faculty of Theology, Stellenbosch University. Her most recent book Claiming Her Dignity: Female Resistance in the Old Testament has recently been published with Liturgical Press (2016). She is also the author of  Mourner, Mother, Midwife: Reimagining God’s Liberating Presence (Westminster John Knox, 2012) and The God who Provides: Biblical Images of Divine Nourishment (Abingdon, 2004). She serves as the Head of the Gender Unit at the Faculty of Theology, Stellenbosch University.