Feeling for Nineveh
Jonah said, “That is why I fled. I knew that you are a merciful God, ready to relent from punishing.” Then God said, “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left?” – excerpts of Jonah 4:1-2 & 11 (NRSV)
God sends Jonah to preach “Repent or else!” to Nineveh, Israel’s mortal enemy. Jonah hates Nineveh with a purple passion, so he ducks the assignment and boards a ship to Far Away. When a storm comes up, the sailors, blaming Jonah’s disobedience, heave him over the side.
God sends a rescue fish to swallow him. Some rescue, Jonah thinks. Still, if God put him in, God can get him out. So he offers up a flowery, self-pitying prayer for deliverance in which he actually refers to himself as God’s “obedient servant,” a fish story if there ever was one.
The fish, nauseated by the prayer, vomits him on shore. God sends him to Nineveh again. This time, Jonah delivers the message. Nineveh immediately repents, God immediately relents, Jonah immediately goes ballistic with disappointment, and we learn the reason for his bile.
Turns out Jonah suspected from the start that God was never going to punish anybody: God feels for Nineveh. What self-respecting prophet could be happy serving a Deity who refuses to obliterate the enemy and won’t put his own people first?
God confirms his suspicion: “Look, Jonah, those pathetic shmucks can’t tell left from right. Why shouldn’t I feel for them? And tell me, why don’t you?”
Jonah doesn’t answer the question. It’s hung in the air ever since.
When will I stop hoping you’ll hate the people I hate? Will I ever feel for them the way you do?
Mary Luti is a long time seminary educator and pastor, author of Teresa of Avila’s Way and numerous articles, and founding member of The Daughters of Abraham, a national network of interfaith women’s book groups.