Baghdad Jonah and his comfortable oil well

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, January 29, 2003

Upstream from present-day Baghdad there once was a city whose rulers wrought terror across the Middle East – from Egypt, to Israel, to the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, to where those rivers empty into the Persian Gulf.

Twenty-eight hundred years ago, the policies and practices of Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire, posed a clear and present threat to peace throughout the region. Its "evil" inhabitants needed to be taught a lesson – but so did its "righteous" adversaries.

This past Sunday, ancient history and a modern world on the brink of war confronted each other on the pages of the Book of Jonah. Thanks to a common lectionary shared by many Christian traditions, the story of Nineveh and the reluctant Hebrew prophet was the Old Testament reading around the world in countless churches.

Interestingly, it's a story also read, in its entirety, by Jews on Yom Kippur, Judaism's holiest day, and celebrated in the Koran, Islam's holy book.

Now, for far too many people, Jonah is associated only with a whale. This is sad, for though I have the highest regard for whale-watchers everywhere, the point of the story is not whales, but people. The whole story goes something like this:

God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and warn them that either they clean up their act or they're toast. Jonah, finding the idea of his enemies being toast rather tasty and not wanting God's mercy to spoil the fun, runs the other way, booking passage on a ship heading to Spain. A storm comes up and the ship is about to sink. Jonah admits to the crew that his disobedience to God has caused the storm, and that their only hope is to throw him overboard, which reluctantly they do.

But God provides a "large fish" (not a whale) to swallow Jonah. While in its belly for three days and three nights, Jonah has time to reflect on the consequences of his actions and prays for help, promising this time to do what God commanded.

Back at last on the right road, Jonah arrives at the great city of Nineveh and proclaims: "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!"

Amazingly, everyone in Nineveh takes the warning dead seriously, from the least to the greatest. The king gives an order that all his subjects – even the animals – should fast, put on sackcloth to show their repentance, and cry out to God.

"All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands," the king says. "Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish."

Sure enough, just as Jonah feared all along, God honors the Ninevites' change of heart and backs off.

Well, Jonah has mixed emotions about all this. He's quite satisfied with the king's commitment to renounce future violence, but he's not at all happy that God isn't going to punish Nineveh for past violence.

Jonah leaves the city and positions himself nearby to watch, still hoping the Ninevites get what he thinks they deserve. It's hot, and God makes a bush rise up quickly to provide Jonah some cool shade while he waits for Nineveh to sizzle. But the next day God causes the bush to wither, leaving Jonah himself to sizzle under the hot sun. Jonah is so miserable he wishes he were dead.

Here finally we come to the real point of the story – a point as relevant today with our comfortable petroleum-based lifestyle that often seems more important than human lives, as it was for Jonah, his shady bush and his vindictive agenda. God says to His peevish prophet:

"You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And 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 the left, and also many animals?"

As an intriguing footnote to this story, God's final remarks may have a lot to do with getting the prophet to live up to his name. "Jonah" (ywnh in Hebrew) is the name of a bird – not a hawk, but a dove.

© 2003 Warren Harbeck

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