Julia Myers O’Brien, Nahum.
(Readings: A New Biblical Commentary; Sheffield: Academic Press, 2002), 162 pp. Paperback. ISBN 1-84127-300-7. $24.95
Reviewed by John L. McLaughlin
University of St. Michael’s College

In keeping with this series, O’Brien proposes a “literary reading” of the book of Nahum in its final form. After a brief review of traditional “historicist” approaches to the book and their inadequacies (problems of dating, determining redactional layers, identifying the historical context, etc.), she maps out her approach, which comprises concern for (1) Rhetorical Dimensions (the roles of the book and herself in creating meaning), (2) Ideological Dimensions (power dynamics of race, class and gender) and (3) Other Literary Methods (the book’s literary craft, intertextuality and deconstruction).

O’Brien begins by identifying the interpretational expectations arising from the superscription (Nah 1:1). Since many prophetic books contain superscriptions, one expects comparable content, namely divinely inspired/authoritative words of salvation and/or judgment addressed by a real person to concrete historical situations but with a future orientation as well. O’Brien also links the superscription with the Deuteronomistic History, wherein prophets correctly predict the future, indicate Yahweh’s ongoing care for Israel/Judah, support Torah and oppose idolatry. Finally, O’Brien considers details from the superscription: it is the written record (sepher) of a vision concerning Nineveh received by an individual whose name means “comfort.” Moreover, the book is categorized as a massa’, and comparison with that term’s use in Habakkuk, Zechariah, Malachi and Isaiah prepares the reader for a dichotomy between “us” and “them.”

O’Brien then divides Nahum into four sections: 1:2–10; 1:11–14; 2:1–13 and 3:1–19. For each she first reads the section by itself and then in relationship to the preceding sections. In doing so, however, O’Brien’s fails to follow her stated methodology of treating the book as a literary whole, which ultimately makes her reading questionable. For instance, she finds ambiguity in 1:2–10 concerning who is Yahweh’s enemy and friend, in 1:11–14 as to the object of Yahweh’s actions, in Chapter 2 concerning the woman’s identity and that of the “he” mentioned in Nah 1:13 and 2:12 (here identified as a lion). The woman is eventually identified in 2:9 and the male (lion) as the King of Assyria in 3:18, but for O’Brien the pronouns in 1:2–10 and 11–14 create uncertainty that is only resolved by the superscription. Curiously, though, even after appealing to the superscription she insists that the uncertainty remains.

This major aspect of O’Brien’s reading is unconvincing because it is inconsistent. Ambiguity is present only if one ignores the superscription that O’Brien took such pains to elucidate (16 pages vs. 7, 4, 8 and 9 for each of the successive sections). She does return to the opening verse after discussing each section, by why only appeal to it afterwards? It stands at the beginning of the book, and as O’Brien so extensively demonstrates, it sets up the expectation that what follows is an oracle of judgment against Nineveh, which entails salvation for Judah. As a result, this reader immediately identified Assyria as Yahweh’s enemy and Judah as his friend in 1:2–10, Nineveh as the object of divine wrath in 1:11–14 and the woman of Chapter 2, etc. Further, even though the precise identify of the male mentioned in 1:13 and 2:1 is not resolved until 3:18, in the light of the superscription and his negative actions I assumed some connection to Assyria. Nah 3:18 confirmed and specified this connection, but it did not come as a surprise. In short, O’Brien’s “ambiguous” reading results from treating individual sections in isolation from one another rather than as part of a larger literary whole. But that is precisely the traditional historical-critical approach that she rejects.

The second half of this book contains three chapters dealing with “Nahum and (Wo)men,” “Nahum and Atrocity” and “Nahum and the Nations.” I found these efforts to deal with the excessive violence of the biblical book more helpful. In each case, rather than explain away the problem or simply reject it, O’Brien uses the text itself to “undercut” its assertions. For instance, the call to empathize with Thebes (Nah 2:8–10) breaks down the distinction between good and bad women and therefore between Thebes, Nineveh and Jerusalem, while Assyria’s earlier defeat of Judah has destroyed Yahweh’s male honour. Further, the book’s presumption of essential gender roles of male dominance and female subservience is broken down through the figure of a harlot, a woman beyond male control. Thus, O’Brien does not deny or reject the book’s underlying patriarchy, she negates its power. Similarly, the book’s fascination with, and joy in, violence is blunted by reflecting on “the Other as self,” giving faces to the Other (e.g., Nineveh personified as a woman or reflections upon modern war photography) and noting how the text’s literary artistry draws the reader’s attention away from its violence. Finally, she reads Nahum in dialogue with other Oracles Against the Nations and the book of Lamentations, which shows that Nahum is more explicit than Jeremiah, while Lamentations exhibits sympathy for the fallen woman/city of Jerusalem. Such intertexts show that the lack of compassion found in the book of Nahum is not the only option.

The book includes a chart comparing prophetic superscriptions (pp. 44–45), 12 plates illustrating Assyrian and modern violence and Indexes of References and Authors.