Can you believe how they turned?

Jonah and Nahum are neighbors in the Bible, they live on the same block, as it were, but they can be hard to find. Each book is only a few pages long, and flipping through the prophets you can easily fly from Obadiah to Habakkuk as though they weren’t there. The two share not only a scriptural neighborhood, they also each have an intense relationship with a city, Nineveh.

Nineveh was the capital of the Assyria, a middle eastern power before the rise of the great empires of Babylonia and Persia. Geographically it was about where Mosul is today, in northern Iraq. For Israel, Nineveh was not just the name of a city; it had become a symbol of violence and oppression. Nahum’s entire proclamation is infused with pain and rage against Nineveh, the whore:

Doom, city of bloodshed—all deceit,
full of plunder: prey cannot get away.
Cracking whip and rumbling wheel,
galloping horse and careening chariot!
Charging cavalry, flashing sword, and glittering spear;
countless slain, masses of corpses,
endless dead bodies—they stumble over their dead bodies!
Because of the many whorings of the whore,
the lovely graces of the mistress of sorceries,
the one who sells nations by means of her whorings
and peoples by means of her sorceries:
Look! I am against you, proclaims the Lord of heavenly forces.
I will lift your skirts over your face;
I will show nations your nakedness and kingdoms your dishonor.
I will throw filth at you;
I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle.

Only violence and public shaming for the city of murder and treachery, according to Nahum. The book ends without even a hint of pity,

There is no remedy for your injury; your wound is fatal. All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you. For who has not suffered from your continual cruelty?[1]

Nineveh was completely destroyed in 612 BCE and never rebuilt. In the imagination of many it remained as a symbol of brutal oppression until other cities of wickedness took its place like Babylon and Rome, all of them serving as examples of the fall of the mighty who refuse the demands of justice.

I suspect we wouldn’t be talking much about Nineveh anymore if the curious and delightful book of Jonah hadn’t given the city a very different treatment. Most of us know the story, not in great detail, but we’re familiar with the plot, especially since the children’s choir only a few months ago performed the musical version. The Lord told Jonah, “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.” And Jonah, instead of taking the road North, went West as far as his feet would take him, until he stood on the beach, with his toes touching the waves of the Mediterranean Sea; and that wasn’t far enough. He found himself a ship going to Tarshish, a port far beyond the horizon, at the end of the world, as far away as he could from the presence of the Lord. Jonah ran away to go where God was not, only to find out that there was no such place. Then of course there was the mighty storm and the waves threatening to break the ship in pieces, and Jonah telling the sailors, “It’s all because of me. The Lord wants me. Throw me overboard.” At first they wouldn’t, but then they did – and the sea ceased its raging. And then, well, everybody knows about the whale and how Jonah got swallowed up; and three days later the big fish spewed Jonah out upon the dry land – the very beach where his adventure at sea had begun. There he sat, whale slobber all over him, when the word of the Lord came to him a second time.

“Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

And this time, Jonah went as he was told. Not a word in the story about how he felt or what was going through his mind. But you can’t help but notice that running from the Lord’s presence and call is not just really, really hard. It’s pointless; Jonah tried it. So he went to Nineveh and started proclaiming, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” That’s just eight words in English, five in Hebrew. Without a question the shortest prophetic utterance in all of scripture. Jonah didn’t scold or accuse his audience nor did he give any reasons for his announcement, he just made it. And not a word about how this was a campaign that took years given the size of the city and the evil ways of its population. No, Jonah made his announcement and the people heard it as a call to repentance and repent they did like nobody’s ever seen, a whole city – it was a prophet’s happiest dream come true. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, put on sackcloth and sat in ashes with his people. Now who’s ever heard anything like that? Then came the royal decree proclaiming a fast in the city, no food or water, only prayers and repentance; even cattle and goats covered with sackcloth, and you may think that’s a little over the top, and it probably was, but all in the city turned from their evil ways and from the violence on their hands.

“Who knows?” the king wondered. “God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Jonah didn’t like it; he was angry. Perhaps he wanted to see the city of bloodshed publicly shamed and humiliated, perhaps he wanted it destroyed.

Violence is a terrible temptation. For as long as human beings have lived in cities or been part of city economies, the city has been a symbol of prosperity and of systemic poverty, of freedom and of oppression, of community and of fragmentation. Nineveh, in the imagination of Jonah’s people, had become the epitome of an evil system: godless, unjust, violent, oppressive, and invasive.  

I’ll be traveling to Montgomery and Selma in a couple of weeks, and on to Jackson, Mississippi and Little Rock and Memphis, and in preparation for the trip I have read too much and not nearly enough about the struggle for civil rights and human dignity these city names represent. I have been particularly interested in how Christian faith shaped attitudes and actions or was shaped by them. It is hard to read the words of prophets fifty and sixty years later, knowing how few, how very few people in positions of privilege were willing or able to hear them. It is hard and it is humbling, because I ask myself, “Who are the prophets and which are the voices that I am ignoring or dismissing?”

Martin Luther King said to the brave ones who fought segregation with nonviolent means and organized for stronger communities,

Remember “that the attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who are caught in those forces. It is evil we are seeking to defeat, not the persons victimized by evil. Those of us who struggle against racial injustice must come to see that the basic tension is not between races. (…) The tension is at bottom between justice and injustice.”[2]

It is so easy to confuse the unjust system with the people caught in it and to forget that when godless, unjust, violent, oppressive, and invasive systems fall, and fall they must, the people caught in them are men and women made in the image of God who desire to live and flourish.

At the end of Jonah’s very curious story, God has the final word, and God asks a question,

“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 (…)?”[3]

The book of Jonah keeps the door open for a different path than the inescapability of divine punishment for the worst of human injustice. Nineveh is more than a symbol, it is a city inhabited by human beings, and human beings, as much as we have been shaped and bent by unjust, evil  structures, human beings can change. Nineveh, the city of bloodshed that was destroyed never to be rebuilt, must not remain a paradigm for how the God of justice deals with human injustice. In the very curious book of Jonah, Nineveh thrived and flourished, because acts of repentance on earth were met by mercy from heaven. Nineveh, the city of “can-you-believe-how-they-turned?”

I mentioned that Jonah and Nahum are neighbors in the Bible, but not next-door neighbors; perhaps the wise ones who compiled the books thought Nahum’s vision of public shaming and destruction, and Jonah’s vision of repentance might clash, and so they inserted Micah between them. And Micah decries injustice and corruption in the cities with the passion of Nahum, but he also keeps the door open for hope, the small door through which the redeemer enters the city,

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?[4]

[1] Nahum 3: 1-6, 19 (CEB)

[2] From an article in the Christian Century, 1957; reprinted in A Testament of Hope, 8.

[3] Jonah 4:11

[4] Micah 6:8 (NRSV)