November 8, 2020
Sennacherib, probably the most famous (or infamous) king of Assyria, constructed a great palace in Nineveh. One of the decorations in the palace was a wall relief of the “Siege of Lachish” which depicts the Assyrian victory over the kingdom of Judah in 701 BC. This Assyrian defeat of Judah happened after the story of Jonah takes place, but most likely before the book of Jonah was written.
The relief in the Nineveh palace—and now at the British museum—shows:
- archers attacking,
- Assyrians carrying away booty,
- captured people being transported,
- prisoners being brought before King Sennacherib,
- even Judeans impaled on stakes,
- Assyrians preparing to behead their enemies,
- and soldiers carrying and stacking severed Judean heads. Historians speculate that Assyrian soldiers may have been paid for each head they produced.
So I imagine the first Israelites who heard Jonah’s story had quite a bit of sympathy for him. When God says: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me,” they know full well the extent of that wickedness. They understand why Jonah would, at first, run in the opposite direction.
When we hear the term “wickedness,” we might conjure up images like the one Joe showed us a few weeks ago with the people drinking and rubbing up against each other and worshiping the golden calf. But it would seem that Nineveh’s wickedness had more to do with how the nation of Assyria oppressed people and enacted violence.
It has been interesting for me to think about Nineveh in this week of voting and counting votes. If there were a wall relief in the White House—the US equivalent to Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh—what might it include? Forced marches of Native Americans; scenes of chattel slavery; a mushroom cloud from a nuclear bomb . . . or even just from the past four years: children in cages at the border, bulldozers leveling once-protected lands, white supremacist rallies . . .
It is frightening for me to think about an entire nation being held accountable for the actions of a few people in the country. While the Assyrian Empire was no doubt corrupt and violent, surely many, even most, of those 120,000 people in Nineveh were “good” people. They may not have even voted for Sennacherib. Sure, a few Assyrians were out building pyramids with people’s severed heads, but most of them were just trying to get by—tending their crops, making their food, raising their children.
In the story, God sees, loves, and has compassion for the Ninevites. God sends a prophet to them, they repent, and God decides not to destroy them after all. Jonah, of course, is upset by God’s compassion. He isn’t so concerned with the maybe 110,000 or so decent people in Nineveh; he knows that the Assyrian empire is a threat to his people. And those who first hear the story may be thinking that if God had just destroyed Nineveh back in Jonah’s time, it would have saved the Israelites a lot of grief and hardship.
As we have been using the Narrative Lectionary these past few weeks, traveling through the Hebrew scriptures, we’ve mostly been reading history. I mean, sure, we can speculate about how, exactly, the plagues went down or what parts of the David story may be a bit elaborate. But for the most part the stories we’ve heard about the patriarchs, matriarchs, judges, kings, and prophets are more-or-less historical.
I hope I don’t shock or upset you when I say that the story of Jonah is not historical; it is literary, it is theological . . . it contains a lot of truth, but it is not historical.
Despite the most valiant attempts by some people to explain how a grown man could, in fact, be swallowed by a fish and then safely vomited out, I doubt that this actually occurred. Maybe even more unlikely is what happens when the news of Jonah’s weak and half-hearted prophecy reaches the palace: “the king of Nineveh . . . rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.”
The king during the time Jonah’s story takes place was Shalmaneser III; he liked to go by the titles “King of all peoples,” “King of the four corners of the world,” and “Glorious king of the lands.” Leaders with these kinds of delusions of grandeur generally aren’t big on admitting any kind of weakness whatsoever, let alone repenting in sackcloth and ashes.
While the point of history is often to simply record events, the point of a good story is to make us think about the world in new ways. This ridiculous story of a man in a fish and a narcissist in sackcloth carries with it important questions about repentance: What does it take to spur true repentance? What does repentance actually look like? To what extent are we held guilty–and forgiven–as a nation rather than as individuals?
Western Christianity tends to focus a lot on individual sin, repentance, and forgiveness. The story of Jonah—and most of scripture, really—draws our attention to the communal aspects of sin, repentance, and forgiveness—which is a much more complicated, difficult discussion.
We’re dealing with some of these questions right now in Mennonite Church USA with two different resolutions in the works that would get rid of the membership guidelines (a document that restricts participation of LGBTQIA people in churches). The draft resolution coming from the MC USA Executive Board calls for us to “retire” the membership guidelines, primarily for structural, bureaucratic reasons. Here’s the only mention of LGBTQIA people:
“As a church, we hear and believe the voices of LGBTQ people that Section 3 of the Membership Guidelines [has] caused them harm. Therefore, we empower the Executive Board Staff of MC USA, engaging a broad coalition of leaders, to design and implement a process to tell the truth about the impact of the MG on LGBTQ persons and their families.”
I mean, it’s something. It’s better than nothing. Note, though, that the Membership Guidelines have caused harm—there’s no mention of the people responsible for creating and implementing those guidelines. The truth-telling called for here is a good start, but there is no mention of sin or repentance.
In fact, I’ve heard expressed that we should not blame anyone for these guidelines, that everyone was doing the best job they could and the church is just in a different place now.
We want to make a change in how we operate without also acknowledging that what we did in the past was wrong. This is a far cry from sackcloth and ashes.
Another resolution was submitted to MC USA this week. A resolution that our congregation—along with at least 22 other congregations and 424 individuals—has signed on to. This is A Resolution for Repentance and Transformation. This resolution confesses ways that we, as people in the church, have both harmed LGBTQIA people and have suffered as a church because of our exclusions. And it calls for MC USA to rescind—not retire–the Membership Guidelines.
On the surface, the two resolutions call for basically the same thing. As we consider the two options, we should think about what we want for our denomination: a helpful policy change or a Spirit-led transformation.
We don’t need the repentance—the metaphorical sackcloth and ashes—for a policy change. We do need it for transformation.
Of course, no resolution, however theologically sound and inspirationally written, can make people repent and transform. That’s part of what makes Jonah’s story unbelievable: all the people in a nation suddenly see the error of their ways and are sorry for their actions. As readers, we might not by it. But in the story, God sees that the Ninevites have turned from their evil ways and so changes the divine mind and does not send calamity on the city.
In the last chapter of Jonah (which I encourage you to read this week), Jonah proceeds to pitch a fit and whine about how gracious and merciful and loving God is.
There are theological truths from this story that we should hold onto—particularly as residents of a nation in desperate need of repentance:
–We need to listen to God’s prophets.
–We should acknowledge sin and repent.
–God is, indeed, gracious and merciful and loving—and that’s not a bad thing!
This story also highlights some historical, practical truths that are worth noting. The Israelites listening to the story know full well that those sackcloths and ashes—if they ever happened at all—were simply performative. Assyria did not truly repent, and it certainly didn’t transform; Assyrian leaders continued their violence and cruelty against other nations.
The Israelites listening to the story of Jonah also know that while God may have had mercy on the Ninevites, the Sythians, Cimmerians, Medes, Babylonians, and others the Assyrians brutalized had very little mercy or compassion when they besieged Nineveh in 612 BC.
No matter how loving and compassionate God is, our actions still have consequences—for ourselves and for others. Which is what makes it so very frustrating and frightening to live in a nation that persists in unjust and sinful attitudes and policies.
Some of the theological and historical truths of Jonah’s story feel like they’re hitting pretty close to home for me right now.
And I realize this is a lot of heavy stuff for an already-heavy week. So let me end by describing what I think is the most notable aspect of the story of Jonah: it is hilarious.
You have a “prophet” who, when given direct instructions from God, goes in the opposite direction of where God sends him; then there is, of course, the big fish that swallows Jonah and he just hangs out in the fish belly for three days—like God has given him a very extreme time out to think about what he’s done. Which works, because the next time God tells him to go to Nineveh Jonah’s like, “Umm, yeah. Doing that RIGHT NOW.” Then my personal favorite part: cows fasting in sackcloth and ashes. Just picture it for a minute. And the worm eating the bush and Jonah just whining and whining and whining . . .
I imagine the book of Jonah made it into the Bible not for its deep theological content, but because it was a crowd favorite—the story everyone always wanted to hear around the fire.
Friends, politics matter. The politics of our nation and our denomination have real-world effects on people’s lives that we should pay attention to.
How we understand God matters—people who believe in a loving and merciful God live differently—and often vote differently—than people who believe in a judgmental and vengeful God.
And also, our laughter matters—our ability to hold lightly, to acknowledge the ridiculous, to find joy.
We do, as a nation, as a church, need prophets and people to listen to them. We need to acknowledge our sins and seek repentance and transformation. We do.
And, for this week, I think we need mostly the grace, the mercy and the love. We need the humor, the lightness, and the joy. And God, indeed, offers all that we need.