The Book of Nahum presents both a God of love and a God of vengeance. In this guest post, Professor Dr Klaas Spronk of the Protestant Theological University in Amsterdam raises the question “Can the message of God as an avenger comfort us ?” At the end of the post there is a link to an article by Professor Spronk on “The Avenging God of Nahum as Comforter of the Traumatized”, which explores the question in more detail.
When I was asked long time ago to write a commentary on the book of Nahum, I realized too late that I should have taken a look at the whole book first before I agreed to do it. Like many people I was familiar with only one verse of the book. It is quoted many times and pictured on many postcards: ‘The LORD is good, A stronghold in the day of trouble; And He knows those who trust in Him’ (NKJ). It is the seventh verse of the first chapter. When you start reading – as of course you should – from the beginning, you get a very different picture of this good God: ‘God is jealous, and the LORD avenges; The LORD avenges and is furious. The LORD will take vengeance on His adversaries, and He reserves wrath for His enemies’ (Nah. 1:2, NKJ). It is a message of a prophet, whose name can be translated as ‘comforter’: he wants to comfort his people by describing in cruel details how God will take vengeance on Nineveh. As the capital of Assyrian empire Nineveh symbolizes the power of the Assyrians and the wealth based on the suppression of peoples like the Israelites.
We like the message of God being good, but we may have problems with the threefold ‘the Lord is avenger’. How can we relate these two qualifications? Can we simply separate one from the other?
In English we can distinguish between ‘to avenge’ and ‘to take revenge’. The first can be defined as to punish a wrong with the idea of seeing justice done, whereas revenge is usually seen as harsher and less concerned with justice. In general, people have little difficulty with the idea of vengeance, as long as it is part of a framework in which there is a clear division between good and bad. This is even more so when this vengeance is not to be seen as an act of revenge, that is, seeking retribution for oneself. The ideal is that of a powerful avenger bringing justice on behalf of somebody else, preferably someone who lacks the power to defend oneself against a mighty evil opponent. This is well illustrated by the popular genre of avenging movies and taken to the extreme in the comic The Avengers, which is also turned into a series of movies.
Should we compare God then to these Avengers? Should we accept the brutal violence, sometimes even presented in the book of Nahum as sexual harassment, in the same way as we accept the killing of the bad guys in the movies? Things become complicated when it is difficult to separate the good from the bad. In the Hebrew Bible this is illustrated by the story of the prophet Jonah. He had to accept that God did not share his ideas about who deserved to be punished and who should be saved. It is probably no coincidence that this also concerned the inhabitants of the city of Nineveh. It teaches us as readers of the Bible not to stop reading too soon and not to decide too quick about who is good and who is bad.
We should also take into account that the prophetic books can be read as a commentary on the Torah. This means that we should also keep in mind what was said about vengeance in Deuteronomy 32:35: ‘Vengeance is mine, and recompense’ (NKJ). Paul reminds us of this verse when he writes: ‘Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord’ (Rom. 12:19, NKJ).
In my opinion the most positive aspect of the message of God as an avenger is found in the verse following it: ‘ The LORD is slow to anger and great in power, and will not at all acquit the wicked (Nah. 1:3, NKJ). It is an answer to the vexing question that haunts people who experienced evil that seems to go unpunished. How often do you see bad things happening and bad people get away with injustice. Powerful people can create their own reality, distorting the truth and violating justice. In the spirit of Nahum I am confident that there is a power – with Israel we may call Him our Lord, who is good – who will stop them. This is of great importance to keep going on the path of righteousness and never abandon hope that justice will prevail.
I finished my commentary long time ago (it was published in 1997 in the series Historical Commentary on the Old Testament). Recently, I published an article in which I relate my views described above to trauma therapy: ‘The avenging God of Nahum as comforter of the traumatized’ (Acta Theologica 2018 Suppl 26:237-250).
Dr Klaas Spronk is professor of Old Testament at the Protestant Theological University, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Guest blogs are invited to stimulate discussion and comment and should not be assumed to represent the views of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence.