The capital of ancient Assyria, Nineveh, is the setting for one of our most beloved Bible stories. Children in Sunday School giggle as they watch Jonah get projectile vomited from the mouth of the big fish on the flannel-graph (do teachers still use those?). The lesson ends with Jonah’s sermon and the Ninevites singing “I Saw the Light.”
There is, however, more to the story.
For nearly 300 years the Assyrian Empire ravaged the eastern Mediterranean seaboard, including the land of Israel.
We will not find this sinister narrative on any Sunday School flannel-graph or animated in a Veggietales movie. Instead, we find it carved into the monuments of the Assyrian Empire. While we sugarcoat our Bible stories, so as not to damage the minds of our little ones, the children of Israel saw the gory images of their ancestors being tortured.
Assyrian tyrant kings went to great lengths to ensure their legacy lived on. Inscriptions and reliefs (pictures carved into stone) from the period recreate the gruesome scenes in which Assyrian soldiers strapped their victims to the ground and skinned them alive, ripped out their tongues, or beheaded them. They cut off the arms and legs of others, leaving the right hand in order to shake it before the victim died—literally “adding insult to injury.” The image below shows Assyrian soldiers impaling Israelite captives. In one of the most horrifying accounts, a king brags about burning little boys and girls alive.
The ruthlessness of ISIS cannot compare to the atrocities of Assyria, the terrorizers of God’s chosen people.
It is in this setting that God called Jonah to preach repentance in Assyria’s capital, Nineveh.
Tantamount to asking a Jew in the 1940s to walk into Berlin and invite Hitler to a Seder, God tells Jonah to waltz into the heart of evil itself and proclaim the message of God’s mercy. Jonah had no misconceptions about God’s willingness to forgive the Assyrians. In the mind of the reluctant prophet, however, these terrorists were not human. They deserved no mercy. They deserved to be destroyed for Israel’s safety.
So, Jonah ran from God.
We know the rest: the storm, the fish, and the sermon.
Much to Jonah’s displeasure, the terrorists of Nineveh responded with repentance to the message of God’s mercy. As they sat, repenting in sackcloth and ash, Jonah sat under the shade of a plant, asking God to kill him because he could not live with the thought that those who massacred his ancestors—who decimated God’s blessed nation—would receive God’s blessing. These aren’t the complaints of a whiny narcissist. These are the cries of a broken man, weary from living in fear, wrestling with the God who would shower loving kindness on the architects of evil. What kind of “righteous” and “just” God would bless terrorists and take away the shelter of his own prophet?
When the burning sun scorched his shade-plant, Jonah cried out to God, “It is better for me to die than to live!” The book closes with God’s reply:
“You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
The single greatest threat to the salvation of the nations was Jonah’s love for his country. His desire to protect it from enemies. His attitude that those terrorists had no “rights.” His belief that only Israel deserved God’s blessing.
Surely, the book’s message of God’s love for Israel’s terrorists and its indictment of Israelite nationalism would have caused quite the stir—especially since the book of Jonah was probably finished during Israel’s exile in Babylon, yet another terrorist Empire.
It forces us to ask the question: How do we respond to the revelation that our enemies are more receptive to God’s love than us?
How do we treat our enemies when God asks, “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh…The Soviet Union…Hitler’s Germany…North Korea…al-Qaeda…ISIS…?”
What a peculiar God. Stranger still that God became a man, told us to love our enemies, and forgave the terrorists who tortured him to death. Then, that same God transformed a man from persecutor to apostle of the Church. Saul the Terrorist became Paul the Evangelist, and the writer of Scripture.
The irony of it all is that many American Christians make threats against America’s enemies, using the name of the God who would rather die for enemies than kill them. To compound the irony we, like the Assyrians and Babylonians who praised their warrior gods, give credit to our patron deity for enabling us to exploit the oppressed, to conquer the weak, to torture and kill our enemies.
It makes me wonder if God ever spoke to a Native American and told him, “Go, preach my love for the colonists who dispossessed you, stole your land, and massacred your tribe.”
Did any African American freedom fighters have the urge to run from America so that God could bring judgment on those who tore their families apart, forced them to work the fields, and used their wives to “breed” slaves?
Maybe a big fish carried a Japanese prophet and vomited her onto American soil so that she could preach love to the ones who murdered 129,000 of her people with nuclear bombs.
Perhaps even now God is whispering into the ear of some reluctant Pakistani prophet whose babies were killed by an American drone strike, saying, “Should I not be concerned for America, where there are 316 million people who do not know their right hand from their left?”
It makes me thankful that God is, as Jonah begrudgingly admitted, “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
Lord, have mercy.