[Just as a point of administrivia: When you see a comment in the e-mail, "See Source X," that is referring to a source which we will go into in the actual class at Shul, but which I am not putting into the e-mail digest simply because of the time that would require.]
Nachum was a prophet at the time of King Menasheh. This places him approximately 100 years before the destruction of the first Beis haMikdash, at a pivotal time for the Jewish people:
King Chizkiyah preceded Menasheh, and he was one of the greatest Jewish kings. We are told that Chizkiyah's generation was one of the greatest of all time, both in awe of HaShem (Sanhedrin 20a) and in knowledge of Torah (Sanhedrin 4b). Chizkiyah was informed that he would have a child who would be evil, and so he refrained from having children. Yeshayah [Isaiah] told him that this would result in his early death, as a punishment for mixing in Gd's affairs. Chizkiyah married Yeshayah's daughter, and their son was Menasheh.
Menasheh reigned for 55 years, the first 22 of which were a time of tremendous evil. Menasheh repented and tried to correct the results of his actions, but he was unable to do so. His reign started the ball rolling, in terms of the destruction of the Beis haMikdash. (There were wicked kings before Menasheh, but his period seems to have been the real catalyst for the destruction.)
There were three central Jewish prophets in the time of Menasheh: Chavakuk, Yoel and Nachum (Seder Olam). Ordinarily, contemporary kings were mentioned in the books of the prophets, but Menasheh was not mentioned in their books. This is attributed to his evil nature; he was not worthy of mentioning.
Nachum, like Chavakuk and Yoel, had his prophecy recorded in the book of 12 prophets, "Trei Asar." The Anshei Kenesses haGedolah, "Men of the Great Assembly," recorded it (Bava Basra 15a). The book is short, consisting of three chapters, and it is remarkable in several ways.
It would be a good idea to read through some of Nachum at this point in the email; in the class at Shul we quickly went through the first two of the three chapters.
Nachum and Nineveh
The most obvious unique point is that Nachum's recorded prophecy does not truly deal with the Jewish people; he warns of the destruction of Nineveh. This prophecy takes place after the story of Yonah; the people of Nineveh repented in the time of Yonah, but then they returned to their old ways.
The coming punishment of Nineveh is not only related to their own sinful actions; the commentators indicate that the destruction of Nineveh was a punishment for Assyrian crimes against the Jewish people. Nineveh was a major Assyrian city, and its demise would be payment for the acts of Sancherev, an earlier Assyrian king, against the Jewish people (Rashi Nachum 1:2. For a similar note, see Tosafot Sanhedrin 65a "Hoil"). As the Radak (Nachum 1) points out, this prophecy came true when Nevuchadnezzar invaded and conquered Assyria, in the first year of his reign.
Nachum's words emerge primarily in a tone of harsh rebuke. Rashi (Koheles 7:27) comments that HaShem spoke to Nachum in a masculine tone [Kol Mevaser - Nachum 2:1], as opposed to the feminine tone He used with Yeshayah [Mevaseres - Yeshayah 40]. This may be taken as a reference to a certain harshness in Nachum's prophecy.
Certainly, Nachum's message is a threatening one. Nachum 1:3 (as read by Shemos Rabbah 8:1) depicts Gd riding on horses named Sufah and Se'arah, which are terms for stormy, dangerous winds.
Nachum's harshness was not reserved for Nineveh, alone. In Melachim II 21:10, anonymous prophets warn that Gd will destroy Yerushalayim for Menasheh's deeds. Rashi and others comment that Nachum was among these prophets.
Is Gd a Harsh Gd?
Our Sages were bothered by the contrast between Nachum's portrait of a harsh Gd, and our classic understanding that Gd is merciful (See, for example, Tosefta Sotah 9:2 for an eloquent statement of this problem). They dealt with this problem in four main ways:
1. Distinguish between the way Gd deals with Jews and the way Gd deals with the rest of the world.
The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 4a) deals with Nachum's label of Gd as a "Baal Cheimah [Being of Rage]" vs. Yeshayah's citation of Gd "Cheimah Ein Li," "I do not experience rage" (Yeshayah 27).
The Gemara concludes that Yeshayah is referring to an oath Gd swore, that He would not be enraged by the Jews' acts, no matter what they did.
(For similar statements, see Bereishis Rabbah 55:3, Shemos Rabbah 30:1)
2. Distinguish between the way Gd deals with Communities and the way Gd deals with individuals.
The Gemara cited above also discusses Nachum's "Lifnei Zaamo Mi Yaamod," "Who can stand before His rage," vs. Tehillim 7's "Kel Zoem BeChol Yom," "Gd is enraged daily." The Gemara resolves this by suggesting that Nachum was referring to Gd's rage at individuals; Gd suppresses rage at entire communities.
3. There are many facets to the unified way Gd deals with the universe.
The Midrash (Midrash Tannaim Devarim 13:5) resolves the problem by citing Tehillim 25, "All of Gd's ways are generosity and truth."
4. Gd feels the rage, but conquers it.
This is suggested by a Midrash, Bereishis Rabbah 49:8.
Nachum and Us
We are taught that the Jews have had thousands of prophets; only those whose message meant something for all generations had their prophecies recorded in Tanach. What, then, is Nachum's message for us?
It is possible to suggest that Nachum's prophecy, foretelling destruction of Nineveh and redemption for those Nineveh had wronged, also is meant to foretell general reward and punishment in the future. This may be seen in Avos deR' Nasan 43, which understands Nachum 2:5 to refer to a gift of lightning quickness which Gd will give to the righteous in Messianic times.
Gd-willing, next week we will learn about the woman known in Tanach as "The Wife of Manoach," and the mother of Samson.