Rorate Caeli

Saints of the Old Testament: St. Naum

The Fall of Nineveh, John Martin, 1828

With the Advent Season under way, in which we prepare for the coming of the Lord, we today recall another Old Testament saint, the holy prophet Naum, whose book is enrolled in the biblical canon as one of the 12 Minor Prophets.  St. Naum, whom God sent as a messenger of divine judgment against the cruel Assyrian Empire, heads the honorable roll of saints in the traditional Roman Martyrology on this day:

This Day, the First Day of December

The prophet Nahum, who was buried in Begabar

Of St. Naum himself very little is known. His name, Nachum, which means "comfort" or "consolation" in Hebrew, was a somewhat common one among the ancient Israelites. In his book, Naum identifies himself as "the Elcesite," which indicates that his place of birth or residence was a village named Elkosh. A tradition among the Assyrian Christians holds that St. Naum's tomb is located at 'Alqush, 27 miles north of Ninive (Mosul), the ancient capital of the Assyrian Empire. This would suggest that Naum was one of the exiled Israelites of the Northern Kingdom which was destroyed in 722/1 B.C. by Assyria. However, as the old Catholic Encyclopedia explains, the 'Alqush tradition is not attested until the 1500s. The earliest attested tradition about Naum's places of birth, death, and burial is that found in The Lives of the Prophets, a first century A.D. Jewish writing formerly attributed to St. Epiphanius. Of the prophet Naum, this writing says:

He was of Elkosh, on the other side of the mountains toward Beth-gabrin, of the tribe of Simeon. This prophet after the time of Jonah gave a sign to Nineveh, that it would be destroyed by fresh waters and by underground fire; and indeed this came to pass. For the lake which surrounded the city overwhelmed it in an earthquake, and fire coming from the desert burned its upper portion. He died in peace, and was buried in his land. 

St. Jerome says "Elkozeh" (Elkosh) was in northern Galilee, apparently identifying Elkosh as the town of Capernaum (Kaphar-Nachum), whom some have thought was named for the prophet. However, the earliest tradition, which places Elkosh near Beth-Geber -- that is, Eleutheropolis, which was a town on the tribal boundary of Judah and Simeon -- is most likely to be correct. The Roman Martyrology accepts this tradition ("Begabar" is a form of "Beth-Geber").

Although we cannot tell when St. Naum was born, Naum 3:8-10 speaks of Assyria's sack of Thebes, capital of Upper Egypt, which was achieved in 663 B.C. by Ashshur-banipal ("Sardanapalus," mentioned in I Esdras 4:10 as "the great and glorious Asenaphar"). This means Naum wrote his book of prophecy after 663 B.C., but prior to 612 B.C., when the allied forces of Cyaxares, King of Media, Nabopolassar, King of Babylon, and the kings of the Scythians (Ashkenaz) and Cimmerians (Gomer) laid siege to Ninive and finally destroyed it. In certain texts of the Greek Septuagint, the concluding chapter of the Book of Tobias refers to the fall of Ninive and specifically notes that it was in fulfillment of everything that St. Naum had prophesied. Naum likely would have exercised his prophetic ministry around the time of the reign of the wicked King Manasses of Judah, who was punished for his abominations by being held a prisoner in Babylon by Ashshur-banipal for several years -- a forewarning to the Jews of what was to happen to the whole nation unless they did penance. Naum's life also may have overlapped with the reign of the saintly and zealous King Josias, grandson of Manasses who strove to make reparations to the Lord for his grandfather's terrible sins.

Naum's book, in which is announced God's decree that Ninive would be destroyed for its sins, has but three chapters. The proper title of Naum's book is "The burden of Ninive. The book of the vision of Naum the Elcesite" (ch. 1:1). In his vision, Naum sees the appalling wickedness, cruelty, avarice, and witchcraft of the Assyrians of his day, and foresees the city of Ninive's downfall and ruin. About a century before, St. Jonas was sent to Ninive with a similar message of divine wrath, but Ninive averted destruction at that time through sincere penance. Their repentance was ephemeral, however, and the Assyrians sank deeper and deeper into sin and atrocity until at last the prophecy of Naum was fulfilled, the cup of God's judgment being drained to the dregs by an obstinately sinful people. In the day of Assyria's downfall, no "comforter" could be found (cf. the meaning of Naum's name). Naum's message was such as to disturb rather than to comfort the Assyrians -- but it brought comfort to Israel, which had suffered greatly under Assyrian oppression.

Seen in the light of Christ's revelation, St. Naum's prophecy is not a mere footnote in ancient history, but in a spiritual and allegorical sense speaks of God's future judgment upon the enemies of God's elect at the Second Advent. Significantly, certain prophetic imagery and language used by St. Naum in reference to Ninive (cf. Naum 3:1-7) and Assyria's army (cf. Naum 3:17) is also found in the Apocalypse of St. John (cf. Apoc. chapters 9, 17-18) in reference to events which the Apostle foresaw are to take place at the end of the world. Thus, Naum's vision of Ninive's wickedness and downfall are like John's vision of "Babylon" and her downfall -- the cruel, bloodthirsty, avaricious, and idolatrous City of Man, destined for total destruction when Jesus intervenes at the end of time to rescue His Church, the City of God. A message of consolation and hope for the Israel of God indeed!

All ye holy patriarchs and prophets,

Pray for us!