Old Testament Survey - Lesson 32

Nahum and Joel

The lesson begins by examining Nahum's prophecy, situating it within historical contexts to understand the significance of his message. Nahum, comforted by Yahweh, pronounces judgment on Nineveh, employing vivid imagery to depict the city's downfall due to its wickedness. Despite modern interpretations critiquing the portrayal of Yahweh's violence, the lesson argues for a nuanced understanding, emphasizing Nahum's rhetorical strategy and the context of Nineveh's atrocities. Moving to Joel, the lesson discusses the prophet's enigmatic dating and focuses on the day of the Lord as a central theme. Joel presents this day as both a day of judgment, symbolized by a locust invasion, and a day of salvation, marked by the pouring out of Yahweh's spirit. The lesson draws parallels between Joel's prophecy and the early Christian community, highlighting the expansion of the covenant community beyond ethnic boundaries.

Daniel Block
Old Testament Survey
Lesson 32
Watching Now
Nahum and Joel

I. Nahum

A. Context of Nahum's Ministry

1. Dating Nahum's ministry

2. Background of Nahum's prophetic pronouncements

B. Profile of Nahum

1. Meaning of Nahum's name

2. Nahum's origin and ministry

C. Analysis of Nahum's Message

1. Divine judgment on Nineveh

2. Nahum's rhetorical approach

D. Evaluation of Nahum's Prophecy

1. Modern interpretations and criticisms

2. Responses to modern criticisms

II. Joel

A. Context of Joel's Ministry

1. Challenges in dating Joel's ministry

2. Characteristics of Joel's prophecy

B. Profile of Joel

1. Limited information about Joel

2. Joel's role as a conduit of divine revelation

C. Analysis of Joel's Message

1. Theme of the day of the Lord

2. Dual nature of the day of the Lord in Joel

D. Interpretation of Joel's Prophecy

1. Imagery of judgment and restoration

2. Fulfillment of Joel's prophecy in Acts

  • Learning about the First Testament's language, geographical, and cultural contexts, and how these factors contribute to its frequent misinterpretation and underappreciation in modern times.
  • Gain insights into the literary and cosmic foundations of grace and glory in the Torah, understanding its role as more than law.
  • Learn that to be made in God's image entails embodying divine qualities and functioning as His representative on Earth, which extends a universal dignity upon all humans and shapes a theological ethic that influences how you treat others.
  • Genesis 1-3 frames human response to divine creation, emphasizing human dignity, work's moral role, free will's consequences, and the persistent grace amid sin.
  • This lesson reviews the Israelite covenant, understanding its stages, implications, and its role in God's redemptive plan.
  • Gain insights into Abraham's covenant with God, exploring his faith and God's promises.
  • Learn how the Exodus from Egypt marked Israel's transformation from a family to a nation under Yahweh.
  • Understand how the covenant at Sinai transforms Israel from slaves into a treasured nation destined for a divine mission, fulfilling God's ancient promises.
  • This lesson covers the covenantal expectations at Sinai. The covenantal agreement provided a constitutional and ethical framework for societal living, focusing on community rights and responsibilities.
  • In this lesson, you gain insight into how the tabernacle was both a physical manifestation of God's presence and a profound symbol of His grace, emphasizing the holiness and detailed guidance He provided to the Israelites for worship and daily life.
  • Gain insights into Deuteronomy, recognizing its focus on teaching rather than legislation, and understanding Moses' role as an instructor of Yahweh's will.
  • In this lesson, you explore how to interpret the First Testament's historiographic writings, emphasizing the divine inspiration and literary artistry that guide the selective storytelling and theological themes.
  • Learn how the books of Joshua and Judges illustrate the fulfillment and failure of Israel's covenant with Yahweh, highlighting divine promise, cultural assimilation, and the cyclical nature of faith and apostasy.
  • The Book of Ruth, highlights divine providence, social justice, and personal righteousness while exploring the role of Boaz as a pivotal figure in maintaining the lineage of King David.
  • Samuel had a significant yet complex role in Israel's history; judge, priest, prophet, and crucial figure in establishing monarchy.
  • Learn of David's central role in the Bible, understanding his unique portrayal and the extensive attention he receives compared to other figures.
  • Learn about the Davidic covenant's role in shaping biblical history and theology, emphasizing its eternal impact on Israel and beyond.
  • The books of Kings and Chronicles use historical events to underline theological themes, highlighting the role of scribes in documenting Israel’s history.
  • In this lesson on 1 and 2 Kings, review the downfall of Israel through kings' forgetfulness of God's covenants.
  • Learn about Solomon's temple's historical and theological significance, its divine design and purpose, and its role in Israelite worship and communal life.
  • Gain insights into the transformation and resilience of the Judean people during their exile in Babylon from 586-539 BC, exploring their struggles and adaptations in a new socio-political and religious context.
  • Learn about Daniel's exemplary life in Babylon, his integrity, and his prophetic visions, which highlight divine sovereignty and the vindication of the faithful amidst calamities.
  • Review the Persian period's impact on the Jewish diaspora, analyze the Book of Esther's literary and theological significance, and reflect on divine providence and cultural identity.
  • Explore the crucial roles of Ezra and Nehemiah in reconstructing the Jewish community and faith post-exile, understanding their historical significance, source materials, and theological insights.
  • Gain insight into the roles and significance of prophets in ancient Israel, learning about their historical context, and their critical function in guiding and correcting the nation through direct communication from Yahweh.
  • Learn about the lives and ministries of prophets Amos and Hosea, their calls for justice and return to divine covenant amidst Israel's political and spiritual turmoil, through prophetic books that blend personal biography with national prophecy.
  • This lesson reviews Jonah's struggle with divine grace and Micah's advocacy for justice and the messianic hope.
  • In this lesson, you learn how Isaiah's vision portrays the Messiah as king, servant, and conqueror, emphasizing his divine roles and global mission.
  • Learn of the political and social contexts of Jeremiah and Ezekiel's exile, including Babylon's rise, Jerusalem's fall, and the crisis of faith portrayed in Lamentations, emphasizing hope amid despair through God's faithfulness.
  • Learn about Jeremiah's life and prophetic ministry, navigating challenges with kings, themes in the Book of Jeremiah, and profound passages on true religion and a future covenant, offering lessons on prophetic burdens, God's faithfulness, and spiritual transformation.
  • Explore Ezekiel's life as a priest in exile, his bizarre actions, and profound messages revealing Yahweh's passion and eternal promises of judgment and restoration.
  • Learn about Nahum and Joel's prophecies on judgment, hope, and Yahweh's character. Explore the day of the Lord and the expansion of the covenant community.
  • Explore Obadiah, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah's prophecies. Discover themes of judgment, faith, and restoration in God's plan.
  • Gain insight into Haggai's role in motivating temple rebuilding during the Persian rule. His brief yet impactful ministry fosters hope and action amid community disillusionment, recoginizing God's presence and reign.
  • Gain deep insight into Hebrew poetry: its forms, parallelism, acrostics, and emotional depth. Explore its celebration and lamentation of Yahweh's glory.
  • Gain insight into Psalms which reflect diverse emotions and experiences. Structured into five divisions, attributed to various authors, their interpretation involves understanding Torah context, literary devices, and applying timeless principles to life.
  • Explore biblical wisdom's depth: from practical skill to moral insight, rooted in the fear of Yahweh. It contrasts with secular knowledge, emphasizing God's order and universal application.
  • Engage with Proverbs to unravel its diverse wisdom, from aphorisms to discourses. Understand its practical guidance for righteous living and leadership.
  • Discover the Song of Songs, a rich exploration of love's nature. From its allegorical interpretations to its celebration of covenantal love, it examines human relationships with wisdom and depth.
  • The book of Job offers insights into faith and suffering, exploring theological themes and character dynamics. It emphasizes trust in God amid life's most difficult trials.
  • Uncover Ecclesiastes' profound journey from despair to hope. Koheleth's existential ponderings contrast with the narrator's faith, urging a shift from worldly pursuits to finding fulfillment in God's sovereignty.

This Old Testament Survey course offers a deep exploration of the Old Testament's literary structure, divine covenants, and historical context. Lessons cover the Pentateuch, emphasizing its narrative over legalistic interpretations, and extend through key biblical figures like Abraham and Moses. Topics such as the covenant at Sinai, the concept of imago Dei, and the tabernacle rituals highlight the continuity of God's grace and the ethical implications of divine laws. The course critically addresses common misconceptions, the role of the Torah as instruction, and the portrayal of God’s plan, underscoring the relevance and complexity of these ancient texts.

Dr. Daniel Block 
Old Testament Survey
Nahum and Joel
Lesson Transcript


Hearing the message of the Lord's grace and glory in two short prophetic tractates. These are two of five that we will consider. The next lesson will deal with the other three.

But for now, we're working with Nahum and Joel. Nahum, and when we hear that word, most people say, ho-hum, what's there here for me? Well, we have to begin again with the context of the prophet's ministry. Although the book offers no clear indication of what precipitated this heated series of prophetic pronouncements, it does provide a terminus a quo, earliest possible date, and a terminus ad quem for Nahum's ministry, latest possible date.

The reference to the fall of Thebes, no amon, the capital of Egypt in 3-8, requires a date after 663 BC, when Ashurbanipal, 668-627, captured the city. Since the fall of Nineveh is perceived as a future event, Nahum must have ministered in Judah prior to 612 BC, when the Assyrian capital fell to the allies of Babylon. But by 621 BC, the midpoint of Josiah's reign, 640-609, the Assyrians had obviously overextended themselves, and their threat to Judah had virtually disappeared.

So one should probably date this oracle near the end of Ashurbanipal's reign, when Ninevite power was at its height. What do we know about Nahum the prophet? The name means something like comforted. It looks like a passive participle, presumably comforted by Yahweh.

It's an appropriate name for one who offers the present hope for Judah, but it is ironic from Nineveh's point of view, which is the primary target here. We know nothing about Nahum except that he came from Elkosh, an unknown site, but presumably in Judah. The introduction of the book as the Lord, the burden of Nineveh, reflects the burden of this message on the prophet's shoulders.

Like Obadiah, this book announces the imminent judgment of a foreign nation. Although it begins with a third person of indirect address, in verse 9 the prophet reverts to the second person of direct address, you. This does not mean that Nahum actually preached in Nineveh, or that the Ninevites ever learned of the oracle.

This was a rhetorical device, the primary argument for Judah, even if apparently the rhetorical audience was Nineveh. The key verses of the book are 1 to 3a and 7, which together present the two sides of God. He is passionate and good, a source of security, and knows those who cast themselves on him.

And so, taking a leaf from Isaiah 40 verse 9, he has beautiful feet. He is one announcing peace to Judah. This is the evangel, the gospel of Nahum.

But on the other hand, God is vengeful and avenging toward the wicked. With unprecedented and unparalleled vividness, Nahum describes the chaotic fall of the city of Nineveh in 3, 2 to 23, and rhetorically barks out the commands for the defenders, 2, 1 and 3, 14. But modern sensitivities find the violent image of Yahweh difficult to accept, let alone justify.

Not only is his fury offensive, the portrait of Yahweh as a male lifting Nineveh's skirts over her face and making a spectacle of her is ill-becoming of any deity. In the words of Judith Sanderson in the Women's Bible Commentary, the image of Nahum used to vent that anger is dangerous to women's health, lives, and well-being, and must be recognized as such. In a society where violence against women is epidemic, it is extremely dangerous to image God as involved in it in any way.

The danger is of two kinds. What would it mean to worship a God who is portrayed as raping women when angry? And if humans see themselves in some way as the image of God, what would it mean to reflect that aspect of God's activity on the human level? To involve God in an image of sexual violence is, in a profound way, somehow to justify it and thereby to sanction it for human males who for any reason are angry with a woman. No wonder then that these biblical passages are seldom used for preaching and teaching.

It is dangerous enough that God is depicted as male while human beings are female. The danger is greatly compounded when God is depicted as a male who proves his manhood and superiority through violent and sexual retaliation against women. Well, that's how people today, some people today, interpret this.

But how do we respond to this evaluation? What we have to say here is also valid for how we respond to what people do with, for example, Ezekiel 16, which has some of the same images. First, this evaluation exaggerates and twists the role of God in the prophecy. If he lifts her skirts, it is not to rape her but to expose her shamefully to those to whom she has bared herself voluntarily.

This is not only a case of punishment suiting the crime. The sentence is filled with irony. If she is so intent on bearing herself to all passers-by, Yahweh offers his assistance, let me grease this slide, though now it has a totally different meaning.

Second, this evaluation misconstrues Nineveh's sexual activity. She was not an innocent maiden whom Yahweh forcefully violated. She had already defiled herself with her prostitution, selling her services to clients, to other nations, and her allies and trading partners.

There is no hint here of Yahweh abusively usurping their role and imposing himself upon her as an innocent sex partner. Third, interpretations like this tend to find God to be the principal problem in many biblical texts. Preferring to focus on his masculinity and the city's violated femininity, the reasons for Yahweh's response are actually disregarded.

This is not simply the case of an oppressive and powerful male taking advantage of a weak and vulnerable female. This and many other biblical texts charge Nineveh with unspeakable crimes expressed in a host of wicked actions and atrocities. This evaluation is amply confirmed by many, many references in the Assyrians' own annals to their glorification of violence.

See, for instance, the boasting of Shalmaneser III, the emperor probably most responsible for the annihilation of the northern kingdom of Israel. See this in ancient Near Eastern texts relating to the Old Testament, page 277. Obviously, the warning announced by Jonah half a century earlier, or by Nahum's time a century earlier, had been long forgotten.

A fourth consideration, these interpretations tend to tell us more about the interpreters and their times than about the message the prophet was trying to communicate. Even though Nahum nowhere emphasizes Yahweh's masculinity, with their radical anti-patriarchal lens, Nineveh is instinctively perceived as a weak female victimized by an abusive and overpowering male. It's difficult to imagine Nahum or any other prophet imagining Yahweh in these terms.

Five, the genre of prophetic preaching is determined by rhetorical considerations. Ideas are cast in graphic images for effect. Prophets often resorted to hyperbole and vivid imagery to make a point, sometimes deliberately to shock their audiences.

See Ezekiel, for example. He often does this. But this effect is dependent precisely upon the dissonance between the image and the reality.

If Yahweh's supposed abusive behavior reflects and therefore reinforces prevailing conduct of men, a problem probably more serious in our culture than it was then. But if it reinforces those prevailing dispositions, its rhetorical value is diminished. Six, the reader's agenda tends, in interpretations like this, the reader's agenda tends to overwhelm, if not totally smother, the central message of the for the primary audience, which was Judah.

The essence of Nahum's theology is expressed in in chapter one, verses three and seven, as we already mentioned. Yahweh is merciful, gracious, kind to all who cast themselves upon him, as a previous generation of Ninevites had experienced. But his impassioned personality also has another side.

Those who violate the rights of other humans and those who rise in opposition to him will experience his passion in another form. The apparent bloodthirstiness of this prophecy, chapter three, Woe to the Bloody City, it contains the most vivid war song in the Bible. But this apparent bloodthirstiness must be seen as a response to Nineveh's own insatiable appetite for blood.

Some of their kings boasted of making the mountains run with the blood of their victims. But love has a sterner side, and none can presume upon the long-suffering of God. Well, let's look at the book a little bit more closely in outline form.

It opens with a superscription identifying the prophet, and then you have the announcement of the arrival of the divine Lord in 1, 2 to 8. Cast in the form of an acrostic poem involving the first half of the alphabet, Yahweh's appearance and character are described in gloriously theophanic terms. Now, this may be the first half of an originally 22-verse hymn extolling the God of Israel as the universal sovereign. This hymn sets the theological stage for the book.

This is followed by the announcement of judgment upon Nineveh 1, 9 to 2, 13. First, in verses 9 to 14, Yahweh's designs for Nineveh. In 15 to 2, 2, the significance of his actions for Judah, the primary audience.

3, in chapter 2, verses 3 to 12, the description of Nineveh's fate, and then 2, 13, Yahweh's disposition toward Nineveh. In chapter 3, we have the pronouncement of woe upon Nineveh. This pronouncement involves three parts.

One, the announcement itself, 1 to 7. Two, an analogy, 8 to 15. And three, an ironic funeral dirge in 3, 16 to 19. In the announcement, the first seven verses, we have the reason for judgment, the nature of the judgment, the divine disposition for the judgment, verses 5 to 6, and then the effect of the judgment.

In the analogy, he gives us the picture of Thebes' fall in Egypt, verses 8 to 10, and then a picture of the corresponding fall of Nineveh, verses 11 to 15. This is the message of Nahum. We turn now to the prophecy of Joel, beginning with a consideration of the context of his ministry.

Joel has traditionally been dated in the 8th century, that is the 700s, probably because in our canon, it occurs between Hosea and Amos, which are from that time. But few scholars do so today. But at the other extreme are those who date the prophecies as late as the 3rd or 4th century, which would make this probably the youngest of the books of the First Testament.

The problem of dating Joel's ministry is created by the complete absence of any historical data in the superscription and the general nature of the prophecy. The Judean flavor of the prophecy is clear, but this doesn't solve the dating issue. While inconclusive, several features point to an early post-exilic date somewhere between 515 to 500 BC, which would have made him a contemporary of Haggai and Zechariah.

What are these considerations? First, chapter 3, verses 2 to 3 seem to presuppose the fall of Jerusalem, so it's already happened. Second, 1-2 to 2-17 seem to presuppose the existence of a temple with priests functioning normally. Well, that means we must have rebuilt something here.

Three, expressions like Judah and Jerusalem, sons of Zion, these appear to be post-Jeremiahic expressions, and they fit in an early post-exilic situation. Fourth, the addressees seem to represent a small community centered in Jerusalem, which would certainly fit that time. And fifth, the prophecy borrows liberally from other prophets, including Amos, Isaiah, Micah, Zephaniah, Nahum, and Ezekiel, though it could be argued that the borrowing is actually in the reverse direction, but to me it seems that Joel is the one who is borrowing.

While pinpointing the context in which these oracles were delivered could shed light on some of the details of the message, fortunately the general meaning of the prophecies is not in doubt. What can we say about the prophet? The name Joel, which means Yahweh is God, Yoel, was born by at least 14 individuals in the first testament. All we can say about the prophet is that he was the son of an otherwise unknown Pethuel.

Beyond this, he was obviously a vehicle of divine revelation for his people. That's all we can say. But what can we say about the message of the book? Most of the prophets' preserved oracles are taken up with a theme of the day of the Lord, the day of Yahweh.

In general, the day of Yahweh speaks of the event or context in which Yahweh intervenes directly and decisively in human affairs. Although the origin of the notion remains unknown, the earliest recorded occurrence of the expression we found in Amos 5, 18 to 20, where it denotes the day of divine judgment upon Israel. Other prophets will make ample use of this phrase as well.

We find it in Zephaniah, in Ezekiel 7, and Ezekiel 13, in Zechariah 14, in Obadiah, and in Isaiah 63. But Joel offers the most balanced picture of that day. Contrary to the expectations of Amos' audience, the day of Yahweh could take on two different characteristics.

The structure of this book reflects those features. First, following the lead of Amos, in the first half of the book, 1, 2 to 2, 17, Joel presents the day of Yahweh as a day of horrific and devastating judgment. He presents the agents of judgment as a swarm of locusts that move in from the desert and devour everything in sight, illustrating the way invading armies simply devastate the land.

The intensity of the peril is highlighted by the use of four different terms for locusts in 1 verse 4, gazim, arbeh, yelek, and chassil. These expressions have been interpreted as four different species of locusts, or four stages in a locust's life, or most likely four designations for one and the same species. The reference is undoubtedly to the species of desert locust, Schistocereca gregaria, which is normally a solitary insect, but in certain conditions, such as overcrowding, undergoes morphological and behavioral changes, resulting in migratory swarms capable of devastating regions on an international scale.

Ted Hebert, in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, reports a locust invasion of Somaliland in 1957, estimated at 1.6 times 10 to the 10th power in number, whose weight totaled 50,000 tons. Since each insect eats its own weight in green food every day, the devastation a swarm of locusts can cause is almost unimaginable, but such are the effects of the day of Yahweh that Joel envisions. But the second half of the book perceives the day of Yahweh in a completely different form.

In 2.18 to 3.21, and here the Hebrew verse numbers are slightly different. It's still 3.1 to 4.2. This is Joel's little apocalypse. The prophet envisions a day of salvation for God's people.

The nations that have destroyed the land will be judged, and Judah's political and economic fortunes restored. While the bulk of this material is taken up with a divine warrior hymn, 3.1 to 21, the smaller first section is of special interest to Christians. Here Joel envisages the pouring out of Yahweh's spirit on all flesh.

In this context, that means all Israel, not all humankind, so that the spiritual boundaries of the nation will be coterminous with the ethnic borders. In his Pentecost sermon, Acts chapter 2, Peter interprets the manifestations witnessed in Jerusalem at Pentecost as the fulfillment of this prophecy. We may make two additional comments on Joel's prophecy of the outpouring of the divine spirit.

First, we need to distinguish the fluid figure of speech, a liquid metaphor. We need to distinguish this figure of speech from putting Yahweh's spirit within someone, or the spirit coming upon someone. In the first testament, the spirit of God does many, many different things, but it's interesting that variations of Joel's form of this liquid metaphor to pour out the spirit occur elsewhere in only three comparable texts, Isaiah 32, 15 to 20, Isaiah 44, 1 to 4, and Ezekiel 39, 29.

There is another related reference in Zechariah 12, but the context calls for a slightly different interpretation. But together with Joel, these four references all occur within a salvation oracle, in a covenantal context, envisioning the restoration of Israel nationally and spiritually. The pouring out of the divine spirit upon his people serves as the definitive act whereby Yahweh claims and seals the restored nation as his own.

Second, the four occurrences of the idiom in the first testament are matched by four reports of Pentecostal phenomena in the book of Acts, which offer a grid within which Luke evaluates the Christian mission and may even serve as an outline for that book. In these texts, one witnesses a deliberate plan of expanding the borders of the covenant community of faith in Christ in concentric orbits of inclusion. Of course, it begins in Acts 2, where those who participate in this first Pentecost are all Jews who believe in Jesus.

They come from all over the world, but they are all Jews in Jerusalem. They are believers in Jesus. What happens in this moment is by the pouring of the spirit upon this gathering, the Lord God confirms this to be the new covenant community.

But this happens several additional times. You don't always have explicit reference to pouring of the spirit, but in chapter 8, the Samaritans become believers, and when the disciples go up there to check on what's happening, the similar phenomena occur. And then we need to ask, who are Samaritans? Well, Samaritans are, in a sense, we could say half-Jewish.

They have the Torah of Moses as their scriptures, and these represent the remnant of the population of those who survived the Assyrian devastation of the northern kingdom, and the foreigners that they brought in. So they are a mixed people. They are not pure Israelite blood, but they worship the one God.

They are monotheists. They worship the God of Moses, but they have only Moses. They don't have the rest of the Bible.

They are monotheists. So what happens in this case is God affirms that Samaritans who believe in Jesus are part of the covenant community. Then we have a third moment in Acts chapter 10, Cornelius, a God-fearer, which means he's had vital contact with Judaism, and he's probably a monotheist.

But when Cornelius goes to his house, the whole household is converted, and what happens? Another similar experience, but you can see again the expansion of the boundaries. Now we're talking about a Roman centurion, a Gentile, who believes in Jesus, who is a full member of the community. The other thing to note, though, he is still in the promised land, so we haven't yet completely universalized it.

Well, this sets the stage then for the fourth moment in Acts chapter 19 at Ephesus. This is the world way out there. These people have no contact with—many of these people have no contact with the promised land, the land of Israel.

But when the Ephesian believers come to faith, they too experience this. This is dramatic and climactic. These are the four successive stages in the growth of the perception and proclamation of the nature of the covenant community.

It begins with Jews who believe in Jesus, and then it lands up being anywhere, anywhere, anybody, anywhere in the world who believes in Jesus. This is what it means to be the covenant community of God.