The Ninevites as the Model of Repentance

In today’s Old Testament reading from Jonah 3, we find the Ninevites as the model of repentance.  Check out the perfect pattern of repentance here:

When the news reached the king of Nineveh,
he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe,
covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes.
Then he had this proclaimed throughout Nineveh,
by decree of the king and his nobles:
“Neither man nor beast, neither cattle nor sheep,
shall taste anything;
they shall not eat, nor shall they drink water.
Man and beast shall be covered with sackcloth
and call loudly to God;
every man shall turn from his evil way
and from the violence he has in hand.
Who knows, God may relent and forgive,
and withhold his blazing wrath,
so that we shall not perish.” (NAB)

Clothes are stripped off, sackcloth is adorned, the king trades his customary throne for a throne of ash, and a total fast is put in place for man and beast.  But, the Ninevites are supposed to be evil pagans, namely the evil pagans that God used to punish the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722/21 when the Assyrians conquered it.

But, this is really the pattern in the Book of Jonah.  First, the pagan sailors in chapter one who are calling on their gods display exceptional qualities (i.e. they do everything they can to try to save Jonah) and experience conversion (i.e. they make vows and sacrifice to YHWH).  Then in chapter 3, we find this ideal repentance from the evil pagan Ninevites.  Yet the prophet Jonah is the antithesis; Jonah runs away from YHWH and protests against his mercy.

The story of Jonah as I said yesterday would have been pertinent for the people in exile.  In chapter 1, I noted the importance of the idea that YHWH can deal with Jonah on his way to Tarshish.  This means that YHWH is not confined to a particular space.  In addition, these positive portrayals of foreigners (and perhaps even the negative portrayal of the Israelite prophet) would have been important either for those in exile who were living among foreigners or for those after the exile who were living under foreign rule.  This is in direct contrast to the Book of Nahum, and in fact Jonah’s attitude very much resembles that of Nahum, where the downfall and destruction of the Assyrians is a cause for joy (e.g. in the NRSV, the section beginning in Nahum 1.12 is entitled “Good News for Judah”).

I dare not get to homiletical here, but the book still today makes us examine our attitudes about foreigners and those who are different from ourselves.  And considering the past encounters of Israel and Nineveh, the book today makes us examine our attitudes even toward those who have done us harm.