The prophet Nahum offers a doorway into a powerful morality tale.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard a preacher give a sermon on the prophet Nahum, one of the 12 minor prophets in the Old Testament. There’s a good reason why. Nahum is grim reading.
He celebrates–in fact, gleefully rejoices–in the downfall of Nineveh, the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. That great metropolis fell to a besieging army of Babylonians, Medes, and Scythians in 612 B.C. They sacked it and left it in ruins.
For the prophet, this sack represents divine judgment on what he calls “the bloody city.” Woe to the bloody city, the prophet sings, all full of lies and booty–no end to the plunder (Nahum 3:1).
He goes on to say that nobody will grieve its demise:
…all who look on you will shrink back and say,
Wasted is Nineveh; who will bemoan her?
Whence shall I seek comforters for her? (Nahum 3:7)
The answer to his question is no one.
The steam-rolling force of Assyrian imperialism
Nahum speaks on behalf of the many victims of Assyrian imperialism. They included thousands upon thousands throughout the ancient Near East. Among them was the northern kingdom of Israel and its capital of Samaria. The Assyrians captured this city in 722 B.C. and wiped the kingdom of Israel off the political map of the ancient Near East. A large proportion of its population was deported (the origin of the legend of the ten lost tribes of Israel).
Assyrians acquired and maintained their empire by their highly effective military machine. Assyrian armies were renowned for their ruthlessness. When they conquered hostile cities, they subjected the population to mass executions, beheadings, crucifixions, and impaling. Those who were fortunate to survive faced mass deportation out of their homeland.
Knowing this, I realize why Nahum delights in Nineveh’s downfall. Still I cringe when I read his words.
Assyrian history as a morality tale
To my surprise, however, I found my thoughts retuning to Nahum and the downfall of the Assyrian Empire as I read the news accounts of the recent Brexit election in Great Britain. Nahum, despite all his grimness, bears witness to a fact of history that it is confirmed over and over again.
That fact is that states, empires, and civilizations all rise and fall, inevitably. Like individual lives, no human social organization is immortal. Sometimes death for a state or empire comes rapidly and without much advance warning, like a heart attack. That was the case with the Assyrian Empire.
The Assyrian people had a long history in the ancient Near East. Their heartland was what today we call northern Iraq. Their kingdom rose and ebbed several times through the centuries.
Nothing in its previous history matched, however, the spectacular success of Assyrian expansion in the 9th, 8th, and 7th centuries B.C. When the powerful king Ashurbanipal died in 627 B.C., that expansion stretched from the Nile River in Egypt to the highlands of Persia, from the sands of Arabia to the mountains of the Caucasus. It was the greatest empire the ancient Near East had seen up to that time.
Yet 20 years later that mighty empire had vanished from the political scene, never to rise again. The Assyrians were exhausted from constant war. It depleted their manpower and their economic resources. That gave its enemies an opportunity. The Babylonians, Medes, and Scythians became allies in opposition to Assyria. The Medes captured the city of Nippur in 614 and the three allies the city of Nineveh in 612.
The remnants of the Assyrian government under King Asshur-uballit II retreated west to Harran. There nearby the joint Assyrian-Egyptian armies met in battle with the Babylonians under the new potentate Nabopolassar. The Assyrians and Egyptians suffered a crushing defeat in 609 B.C.
After the battle Asshur-uballit and his army vanished into the mists of history. Neither was heard of again. Thus the mighty Assyrian Empire died.
This story is a striking morality tale. Powerful empires can fall quite suddenly and unexpectedly. The British Empire was the greatest power on earth in the 19th century. As a result of the recent Brexit vote, if Scotland and Northern Ireland do choose to break away from the United Kingdom, the once great British Empire could itself be reduced to the rump state of England alone.
If this happens, the British Empire will join the list of all those other powerful empires that have fizzled out in history before. They include Achaemenid Persia, Rome, the Abbasid Caliphate, the Mongols, the Ottomans, the Hapsburgs, and the USSR. And we can be sure the churn of history will not stop. That is worth considering as Americans face their own choices in the coming election.