Saturday, February 9, 2013

Thoughts on Nahum

"Lamas clapping hands mudra to dispel inner and outer darkness and negativity,
 Sakya Lamdre, Tharlam Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism, Boudha,
 Kathmandu, Nepal" (1997) by Wonderlane (Flickr)
Apparently, in Tibet, it’s impolite to clap at people. Tibetan Buddhist monks clap in demand for an answer from their debate opponents, and all Tibetans do it to drive away evil forces or spirits. There are accounts of travelers like British Army officer Sir Francis Younghusband (1863-1942) and Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer (1912-2006), author of Seven Years in Tibet, mistaking for applause what more appropriately should’ve been taken as insult.

Certainly, understanding foreign cultures can be headache inducing, and ancient ones full out migraines. The problems stem not merely from ethnocentricisim, but plain old unfamiliarity with the ways other people groups think and act. This carries over to religious studies and theology. Christians are repeatedly warned against forcing modern, Greek, or “westernized” interpretations on biblical texts that should be read from an ancient, Jewish, or “oriental” perspective. Those who are unaware of their cultural bias can end up misinterpreting the Bible, perhaps even with damaging consequences. So we’re careful now. No one wants to be branded as a modern-day Herodotus.

What’s rather ironic about this is that we are also susceptible to making more mistakes by forcing a modern Jewish interpretation on texts that arguably need to be looked at from some other ancient cultural perspective. Yes, the Bible is by and large a “Jewish book” talking about Jewish people, places, things, and ideas. But we need to keep in mind that the Jews (or Judeans) were a later remnant of an older Israelite culture that had been influenced by time, different experiences, and different neighbors. It’s also easy to forget that the Bible talks about non-Jewish people, places, things, and ideas: Akkadians, Hittites, Egyptians, Philistines, Chaldeans, Persians, just to name a few. How much is lost or unwittingly added to the text when we don’t even consider the non-Jewish perspective?

A few months ago, I watched Jean-Jacques Annaud’s film version of Seven Years in Tibet (1997), starring Brad Pitt as Heinrich Harrer, with the previously mentioned clapping scene. It was pure coincidence that I happened to be rereading the Book of Nahum shortly after, and saw the following passage in new light (Nahum 3:19, ESV):

There is no easing your hurt; your wound is grievous. All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you. For upon whom has not come your unceasing evil?

Previously, I had a positive reading of this applause: surrounding nations clapping and cheering at Nineveh’s demise. Some translations even build this assumption into the text. The Complete Jewish Bible (CJB) reads:

Your wound cannot be healed. Your injury is fatal. Everyone hearing the news about you claps his hands in joy over you. For who has not been overwhelmed by your relentless cruelty?

We generally associate clapping with music, dance, and praise. The Bible contains a number of well-known passages, suggesting that that’s how the ancient Israelites interpreted the action of putting one’s hands together (2 Kings 11:12, Psalm 47:1, Psalm 98:8, Isaiah 55:12). However, a number that had slipped under my radar, so to speak, strongly suggest a negative interpretation such as mockery, insult, or a sign of distress (Job 27:23, Job 34:37, Lamentations 2:15, Ezekiel 6:11, Ezekiel 21:14, Ezekiel 21:17), and at least one, like Nahum 3:19, that’s a bit vague (Ezekiel 25:6).

Looking at these passages, there’s clearly room for multiple interpretations of clapping mentioned in the Bible. I began to search for evidence of what the Assyrians, the targets of God’s fury, would’ve thought of the prophet Nahum’s words. I found “Clapping Hands as a Gesture of Anguish and Anger in Mesopotamia and in Israel” from the Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society (JANES), Vol. 23 (1995), pp. 49-60. In the article, Nili S. Fox, Professor of Bible at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, discusses the different modes and possible interpretations of clapping in ancient Sumerian, Akkadian, and Neo-Assyrian artifacts and texts. She points out how negative meanings are often necessary to make sense of some Bible verses, including Nahum 3:19.

Of course, while there’s some indication that clapping isn’t always complementary, that doesn’t necessarily mean the Assyrian perspective is synonymous with the Tibetan one. Until conclusive evidence is available (and perhaps even after), I suspect that many Christians will continue to favor a positive interpretation of all clapping because it appeals to our neo-Greco, Jewish-ish, American understanding of the Bible. I do hope, however, that many will begin to take Assyrian and other non-Jewish perspectives into careful consideration in the future. I think it would greatly improve our understanding of the Bible.