Nahum, Jonah, and Exodus

Connections between Nahum and Jonah are unavoidable. The first question the reader of Jonah asks is, “Why is God concerned with Nineveh? What have they done to merit his wrath?” Nahum provides an explanation the author of Jonah chose to leave out:

Woe to the bloody city, all full of lies and plunder– no end to the prey! The crack of the whip, and rumble of the wheel, galloping horse and bounding chariot! Horsemen charging, flashing sword and glittering spear, hosts of slain, heaps of corpses, dead bodies without end– they stumble over the bodies! And all for the countless whorings of the prostitute, graceful and of deadly charms, who betrays nations with her whorings, and peoples with her charms (Nahum 3:1-4; ESV)

Nahum’s depiction of Nineveh’s sin fills out the two words used in Jonah to describe her sin: Nineveh is evil (1:2) and violent (3:8).

A more subtle connection that readers make between the two books is their use of Exodus 34:6-7. In this passage, God reveals himself as merciful, compassionate, loving, willing to forgive, but will also punish the guilty.

I have been aware of this connection for some time now. Yet, my good friend Nathaniel Cooley pointed out the unique way each author makes use of this creedal text. It wasn’t until I started preparing for my Sunday School class on Nahum, however, that I understood what he was getting at.

Jonah’s quotation of Exodus stops in a peculiar place. He only mentions the compassionate part of God’s statement: “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Why stop here? God goes on to say that he will not overlook the sins of the guilty. He will punish sinners according to their deeds. If Jonah was going to complain, wouldn’t it have been more logical to say, “Why spare Nineveh? What about your covenant? Are you blind to their sin?” The fact that he does not reveals that he knows his God better than we might give him credit for. Then again, his orthodoxy is never in question.

Nahum, like Jonah, is tasked with proclaiming an oracle against Nineveh. He too makes use of Exodus 34:6-7. Yet, he seems unaware of the first part of God’s statement. He writes, “The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty” (Nahum 1:3).

So you can see the relationship between these texts, below is a citation of Exodus 34:6-7. Red signifies the part of the quotation that appears only in Nahum. Blue signifies the part of the quotation that only appears in Jonah. Bold signifies that it occurs in both authors’ citations.

6 The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,  7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.

Jonah emphasizes the grace of God and his love even for Nineveh. Nahum brings the justice of God to the fore. Nineveh must pay for her sins.

Both texts make use of the phrase “slow to anger” in a unique way. For Jonah, this fact provides a justification for Nineveh’s reprieve. Nahum uses the phrase to highlight the fact that Nineveh has sinned long enough. God has suffered long. He has grown impatient, and his wrath burns. He will not “clear the guilty.” Nineveh will be destroyed.

What does this mean for our interpretation of Jonah and Nahum? Are they to be interpreted as separate entities? Are they to be interpreted together? Is Jonah primarily about grace and Nahum primarily about judgment? Are these quotations additions by a later editor? I don’t have answers to these questions yet, but it does make me wonder if I need to expand my focus to an inter-textual reading of Jonah.

On a more pastoral level, however, it is clear that both Jonah and Nahum teach us about different facets of God’s character. He is gracious; he will not clear the guilty. This doesn’t make him capricious or contradictory. To make a jump into the New Testament, Jesus provides clemency to all who are found in him. God’s wrath has been poured out onto him. Believers experience the free gift of his grace. Those who spurn this free gift will themselves experience God’s wrath poured out upon them. Their iniquities will not be cleansed.

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8 Responses to Nahum, Jonah, and Exodus

  1. witchylisa says:

    If you want to go into intertextuality, have you ever thought about reading O’Brian’s take on the Minor Prophets? I used it for my own research once (English major with a senior study on Nahum).

    • jacobcerone says:

      I have not. Up until now I have intentionally limited my study of Jonah to the book itself. I know that the discussions around intertextuality in and composition of the Twelve are vast. The amount of scholarly literature being produced around this topic is impossible to keep up with considering my current focus. I may have to dabble, though. What is the full title of O’Brian’s work?

      • witchylisa says:

        O’Brien, Julia M. (2007): Nahum–Habakkuk–Zephaniah: Reading the ”Former Prophets” in the Persian Period. Interpretation (2007),61(2), pp. 168-183.
        She doesn’t mention Jonah in this piece but she does offer a viable intertextual meaning that can encompass the 12 Books as a whole. You can check out her bibliography because she does focus on the Minor Prophets
        I know that intertextuality between the Minor Prohpets is a hotty and speculative-driver issue, so good luck with that 😛
        For my research I focused on looking at the language choices and ideological manipulations in Nahum to come up with some stylistic evidence for some of the arguments on the chronology on the different chapters of Nahum.
        I didn’t look much into Jonah except for this article: Picturing the prophet: Focalization in the book of Jonah by Benjamin Lyle Berger. If you haven’t read it yet then you probably should because it argues that the structure of Jonah itself purposefully leads to ambiguous interpretations because of the narration style.

      • jacobcerone says:

        I have Berger in one of my 5 notebooks of 150+ articles on Jonah. I can’t recall if I’ve read it yet, but it is certainly on the agenda. Thanks for the reference to O’Brien!

  2. witchylisa says:

    her bibliography on her site*
    speculation-driven*

  3. jpnich says:

    Good thoughts, Jacob. I was wondering if you might have some insight into the endings of Jonah and Nahum. In the KJV, they both end with a question. Does the Hebrew in both end with a question and, if so, is there any exegetical significance? Just pondering.

    • jacobcerone says:

      Both do indeed end with a question in Hebrew. Both happen to be rhetorical questions as well. In Jonah, the obvious answer is, “Yes,” God does have the right to show compassion to the Ninevites. The answer to the rhetorical question at the in over Nahum is, “No.” There is no one that has not experienced the ruthlessness of the Assyrians.

      The question at the end of Jonah has unrelenting significance for the narrative. The question is posed to Jonah who has persisted in his rebellion. God has made his counter-point. The author does not permit us to hear Jonah’s response. The narrative just ends. While the reader knows the answer to the question, and Jonah knows the intellectual answer to the question, we do not know if his disposition towards God ever changes. The question, as I have mentioned before, is then trust on the reader. Jonah’s rebellion becomes our rebellion. Will we persist in rebellion against God, or will we allow our will to be bent to his.

      While the question at the end of Nahum has exegetical significance, I think it is not as potent. Though God has passed judgment on Assyria/Nineveh because she has demonstrated unrelenting violence, destruction, and evil to all the surrounding nations, the end of the oracle allows the reader to pass that same judgment. It is as if God is saying, if you think my judgment is harsh, name one nation that has not suffered at your hand? My retribution is just. Nahum is not, though, my area of expertise. I have only done enough research to teach a Sunday School lesson on the whole book in a 1-hour lesson. So . . . take what I say here with a grain of salt.

      • jpnich says:

        Thanks so much for your insights here; they are most helpful. I do agree with you that the significance of the ending of Jonah puts our own submission/rebellion to God’s will in perspective, and that is a powerful way to end the book. God bless you for your time and in your continued studies!

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