Nahum 3:10 includes a graphic description of warfare atrocities: “She was taken captive and went into exile. Her infants were dashed to pieces at the head of every street.” It’s a horrible scene of carnage.
The immediate context speaks of the defeat of the Egyptian city of Thebes by Assyria, of which Nineveh was the capital. When Thebes was defeated by Assyria in 663 B.C., the detestable acts of Nahum 3:10 took place. The Assyrians sold people into captivity and killed infants (cf. Hosea 13:16). The infants were likely killed by the Assyrians as a gratuitous act of cruelty and because the infants could not be easily exiled.
It’s important to note that God did not condone this horrific action. In fact, Nahum mentions this account as justification for God’s condemnation of Assyria. God expresses His intent to soon judge Assyria by predicting the violent destruction of the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. Verses 8-13 are a warning to the Ninevites that any sense of security they felt was false; Thebes was a strong city, yet they were overthrown. Those who would hear of Nineveh’s destruction would view it as good news: “Everyone who hears the news about you claps his hands at your fall” (Nahum 3:19).
Assyria had a reputation as being fierce, violent warriors. Nineveh was a city of violence (“the bloody city” in Nahum 3:1), known for its brutality toward enemies. Nahum speaks of the Assyrians’ “endless cruelty” (verse 19). One commentator observes, “The Assyrians were notorious for their cruelty that included cutting off hands, feet, ears, noses, gouging out eyes, lopping off heads, impaling bodies, and peeling the skin off living victims” (see Walter A. Maier, The Book of Nahum: A Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1980, p. 292).
Other places in the Old Testament also speak of the grisly deaths of infants, and each case involves a war. While such actions are unfathomable to us, the complete annihilation of all children during war was not uncommon in the ancient world. Parallels have been noted in more modern times, such as the Nazi executions of Jewish children and the genocides in Rwanda and the Sudan.
Another incident of this type took place during Jesus’ early life. In Matthew 2:16, Herod sought to destroy the young Jesus, and we read, “When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under.”
The infants in Thebes were dashed to pieces by the armies of Assyria, yet God brought justice to those responsible. The tables were turned, and Nineveh was the recipient of similar atrocities. As God promised, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay. In due time their foot will slip; their day of disaster is near and their doom rushes upon them” (Deuteronomy 32:35).