1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”
3 But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.
(Jonah 1:1-3 NIV)
As we begin the book of Jonah, we see the Lord speaking to Jonah, telling him to go preach against the capital of Assyria, the city of Nineveh.
As we noted in the introduction to this book, Nineveh was on the Tigris River in northern Iraq, directly across the river from the current city of Mosul.
As we also noted in the introduction, Nineveh was an extremely wicked city. The Assyrians were known for their brutality and their barbaric ways. They would often sneak up and surround a town like a swarm of locusts, then force family members to watch as they maimed some family members by cutting off hands or feet or gouged out eyes. They would force the men to watch as they raped the mothers and daughters, then forced the women and children to watch as they killed the men.
Jonah knew the brutality of the Assyrians; he also knew the kindness and love of God for all people. When God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah deliberately disobeyed God and went in exactly the opposite direction.
Per the map above, Nineveh was north and east of Jonah’s hometown of Gath Hepher, while Tarshish was pretty much due west. Nineveh was a two to three week journey on foot, while the trip to Tarshish via boat would likely take several months.
So what would trigger such a negative reaction in Jonah that he would willingly disobey the Lord? What would cause a man who lived his life on land to jump on a ship headed for the southern tip of Spain?
Obviously, there was some deep hatred toward the Assyrians. Jonah knew that the Lord would spare Nineveh if they repented. If Jonah didn’t go and preach against their evil, then God would destroy them much He did Sodom and Gomorrah. And that would be just fine with Jonah.
If we put on our informed imagination and stand beside Jonah for a moment, what would be our response to God’s call to us? Did we hear about losing extended family members to the Assyrian’s brutality? Or had we possibly been a first-person witness to the barbaric ways of the Assyrians, maybe as a young child, helplessly forced to watch indescribable acts against our immediate family members? Or would we, like Jonah, as a loyal and patriotic subject of our country, wrap our faith in God tightly around our national flag?
The text does not give us the reasons for Jonah’s mindset. Whatever the case for his hatred of the Assyrians, Jonah decided to take his chances and run away from God and let God judge the Assyrians rather than be a part of their redemption.
What is our attitude toward other people, cities, and nations? Do we believe that God wants to redeem all people to Himself? Are we willing to be a part of that redemption if God calls us to do so?
More to the point, are we willing to forgive people of other nationalities, cities, and nations if they have caused us or those close to us great harm or pain?
If God forgives us for all our sins, should we not also forgive others?
Lord, it’s easy to say these words, and so much harder to do. Overwhelm us with Your love and forgiveness – replace our hearts of stone with Your heart of caring and love so we can forgive ourselves and others as You have forgiven us.