The Lectionary This Week (Part 2): Judging Nineveh

Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

Epiphany 3, 25 January 2014 (Year B)

  • Jonah 3:1-5, 10
  • Psalm 62:5-12
  • 1 Corinthians 7:29-31
  • Mark 1:14-20

I didn’t plan to do a second lectionary blog this week. But a conversation on the ELCA pastor blog alerted me to something in the Jonah text I hadn’t paid close attention to.

Mostly, when I see passages like the Sunday Jonah text, where some part has been left out, I pay special attention to what has been left out. Too often, the revised common lectionary leaves out passages liberal Christians might find too awkward or difficult to deal with. And I glossed over what was left out as I focused on the Gospel this week.

Besides, Jonah. I’ve spent a lot of time with Jonah, and so I thought: what more was there to deal with?

But let’s spend some time with Jonah. The whole passage:

1 Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days ‘journey in breadth. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.

6 The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles:Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, 8 but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”

10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. (Jonah 3:1-10 ESV)

The focus of this tends to be on God and Jonah. After all, God told Jonah, “Go to Nineveh, tell them to repent!” And Jonah said, “I won’t! I won’t! I won’t go where I’m sent!” (That’s from a song I wrote…) Jonah refuses, because he’s afraid of God’s mercy, and that God’s mercy might extend even to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, the nation that conquered Israel and waged war against Judah.

It’s about mercy, we say. Because Jonah is. “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” God asks Jonah in the very last verse of the book? Reminding us that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is also the God of Heaven and Earth. The God of Israel is also Nineveh’s God, even if Nineveh doesn’t know it.

But mercy doesn’t come without judgment. And God has judged Nineveh. We’re not given a bill of particulars here — Nineveh’s sin is not laid out. Jonah preaches the shortest sermon ever: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (ע֚וֹד אַרְבָּעִ֣ים י֔וֹם וְנִֽינְוֵ֖ה נֶהְפָּֽכֶת) So, here’s this stranger, a foreigner, one of Assyria’s conquered peoples, delivering a message to the entire city. One that comes from nowhere (no deity is attached, it doesn’t say “says the Lord, the God of Israel!”) and no accusations are made. It’s a little like one of those strange things Dan Rather would occasionally say at the end of a newscast in the 1980s.

“Courage!”

What the people of Nineveh are to repent of is anyone’s guess. And yet, apparently they do. They believe this strange little message. They mourn and they fast.

But it’s in the bit left out of the lectionary reading where it gets interesting. As this popular wave of repentance overtakes the city — and how else can you describe it? — the king joins the throng. He issues a decree: mourning clothes for everyone, no eating for any living thing, and constant prayer to God (note: this is prayer to Elohim, אלהים, the word the King uses, the more generic name for God, and not to YHWH יהוה, the proper name of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the name used whenever God speaks to Jonah — the people of Nineveh are not on those kinds of terms with God). The king then also says:

8 Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.

Evil and violence. Jonah may not deliver the particulars, but the people of Nineveh know what they are guilty of. They know their sin.

And they repent.

The prophet Nahum delivers a much more detailed indictment of Assyria in his short (though much longer than Jonah’s) warning to Nineveh:

1 Woe to the bloody city,
all full of lies and plunder—
no end to the prey!
2 The crack of the whip, and rumble of the wheel,
galloping horse and bounding chariot!
3 Horsemen charging,
flashing sword and glittering spear,
hosts of slain,
heaps of corpses,
dead bodies without end—
they stumble over the bodies!
(Nahum 3:1-3 ESV)

There’s more, and the fate awaiting Nineveh is brutal (rape, murder, destruction) and cannot be avoided:

2 The Lord is a jealous and avenging God;
the Lord is avenging and wrathful;
the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries
and keeps wrath for his enemies.
3 The Lord is slow to anger and great in power,
and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty.
His way is in whirlwind and storm,
and the clouds are the dust of his feet.
4 He rebukes the sea and makes it dry;
he dries up all the rivers;
Bashan and Carmel wither;
the bloom of Lebanon withers.
5 The mountains quake before him;
the hills melt;
the earth heaves before him,
the world and all who dwell in it.
6 Who can stand before his indignation?
Who can endure the heat of his anger?
His wrath is poured out like fire,
and the rocks are broken into pieces by him.
(Nahum 1:2-6 ESV)

Nineveh’s sin is empire. It is the bloody city full of lies and plunder, built upon the crack of the whip and the strength of the horseman. (God has a special problem with cavalry, and holds standing armies, particularly cavalry armies, in contempt, as in the brief warning in Deuteronomy 17:16 and expanded upon in Isaiah 31.) And Nahum’s warning is a reminder from God that there have been other empires — Egypt in 3:8-10 — that have come and gone. Empires come and go (Daniel 11, for example), but the God who created heaven and earth, who called Abraham to wander, is forever.

To be an empire is to trust in wealth and power. It is plunder and conquest, to do violence not only to those you conquer, but to all who must bear the costs of the glory of empire. Yes, this is a condemnation of an empire which conquered Israel (Assyria is being judged, as Babylon will be judged), but it is also a veiled critique of Solomon’s state, which itself was, for the period of his kingship, an empire, reliant not upon God for protection, but Solomon’s huge (and costly) professional standing army (1 Kings 10:26-29).

Jonah also suggests that an empire can repent. At least for a time. That’s an unsettling thought for me, because I’d rather have my empires damned eternally and burnt down to the ground. But what does a repentant empire look like? How does an empire NOT rely on its wealth and power? Is that repentant empire Christendom? The baptism of the Roman Empire didn’t keep the empire from evil and violence, and did not keep human beings from trusting largely — or exclusively — their own wealth and power.

And the whole history of Israel itself suggests that even repentance on the part of Israel would only stave off, and not cancel, a coming judgment.

ADDITION: As I was driving around this afternoon, it occurred to me that something else was at work here. This message that Jonah preaches to Nineveh is not “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” This isn’t even “change your ways, for the end is nigh!” He simply tells Nineveh, “In forty days y’all are f**ked.” No possibility of repentance, no room for change, is presented in the message, which states simply that Nineveh is finished and its fate sealed.

But all of Nineveh takes a risk and presumes that with this message of impending doom the possibility of repentance exists. “Who knows?” the king asks as he orders all to fast and mourn and pray. “God may see our repentance and relent.” There is no promise here of mercy. Not even a suggestion of it. Yet Nineveh risks that possibility, and for no obvious reason (save maybe to piss Jonah off). Because there is an alternative, to say “we’re doomed, we might as well enjoy ourselves before the end comes.” To drown doubt in an orgy of violence and evil, to grasp all the sensual pleasure the Ninevites can grab before fire and brimstone rain down upon the city. But the people of Nineveh, moved by a message of doom, turn. They take the harder path. And God hears.

This is something to keep in mind when reading Nahum, with it’s fairly bleak and unrelenting judgment of Nineveh. And something to keep about about any pronouncement of judgment itself.

I’m not sure how I’d look at this Christologically. Or how I’d preach this. Perhaps it is enough to say here that God cares even about empire. Or else why judge it? Because without that judgment, no possibility of repentance, redemption, and reconciliation exist. (That itself is an important message the liberal church seems to have largely forgotten.) I don’t have any problem with that individually, but this suggests a collective aspect as well. And I am not sure what to do with that possibility right now. This shakes some fairly solid beliefs for me.

The author of Jonah puts it best: When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.