by Jim Britell

That Jonah was swallowed by a whale is well known; but less well known is how he ended up in there or what happened to him after he got out. Those parts of his story make Jonah the patron saint of grassroots activists.

Restoration of one of Ninevah's 15 gates in its 7 mile 100 ft. high wall the top of which was wide enough for four chariots to ride abreast.

In about 800BC the Assyrian people, who lived in Nineveh a "great and wicked" city in central Iraq near present day Mosul, were behaving so badly that God decided to send Jonah to straighten them out. He told Jonah to go to Nineveh and warn them that they would be entirely destroyed if they didn't repent their sinful ways. Back then, Nineveh was the capital of the Kingdom of Assyria that ruled that part of the world and Jonah was a minor Jewish prophet who lived near Jerusalem about 500 miles away.

Jonah did not want to take that long trip west across the desert as God wished because he hated the Assyrians who were Israel's traditional enemies and thus was very disinclined to play a role in restoring a very cruel* people to God's graces when, in Jonah's view, they ought to have been simply destroyed. So instead of heading west over the desert to Nineveh, he went to a nearby port and took a ship going in the opposite direction, east, to faraway Tarshish a colony many experts believe was a port is what is now Eastern Spain about two thousand miles away entirely across the Mediterranean sea and beyond. Three thousand years ago this was a six-month or more voyage to a place as far away from Nineveh as it was possible to go.

During the voyage as we all know, God sent a storm that threatened his ship, and the sailors onboard figured out that its cause was the fact that Jonah was in some kind of trouble with God and the only way to save themselves was to throw him overboard which they did whereupon the storm immediately subsided. While swimming in the ocean God sent a whale or large fish to swallow Jonah and this caused Jonah to rethink his position on going to Nineveh and Jonah realized he had probably been made an offer he couldn't refuse and changed his mind and decided to go to Nineveh after all. Then the Whale vomited him upon the shore and Jonah walked on to Nineveh and once there preached God's warning to repent as he was originally directed.

So the moral of the first part of this story for activists that it is not really possible to refuse a call from God without getting yourself in a lot of trouble. If called, we simply must go sooner or later and refusing just makes it hard on ourselves (you get swallowed by whales etc.) So new activists can learn from this first part of the story that when you have a calling, obey it.

But the second half of Jonah's story, his experiences in Nineveh, is relevant to successful activists after they win campaigns. To resume our story.

On being vomited out upon dry land, Jonah went to Nineveh and preached repentance to the people. To his surprise, with the King in the lead, the whole town including the animals turned away from evil. And since they all had repented God withdrew his threat to destroy the Ninevites who were restored to God's favor.

But was Jonah happy at a job well done? Not at all, in fact quite the opposite. To Jonah's mind, since the Assyrians were extraordinarily warlike and cruelly evil, the proper treatment for them was their complete destruction, just as the Assyrians routinely did to their vanquished enemies, not repentance and salvation. So when Jonah saw his enemies embracing God (and vice versa) Jonah became depressed and suicidal, so much so, that he prayed that God would take his life. He could not and would not accept God's plan for the Assyrians, because it wasn't what Jonah thought was a just conclusion. So, even though Jonah was a Jewish activist, (a prophet) he would rather have had the Assyrians all killed for their sins than have them repent and come into God's grace.

Assyrians captives
Assyrians forced defeated captives to grind up the bones of their dead ancestors.

Later Jonah was suicidally depressed over God's failure to punish the Assyrians and he sat outside Nineveh in the hot sun. And God decided to teach him a lesson. To shield Jonah from the sun, God caused a shade plant to grow over him towards which Jonah grew quite fond. And after Jonah developed an affection for this plant, God caused a worm to kill it so its pleasant shade disappeared and this created a feeling of loss in Jonah arising from his attachment to the plant. God explained that if Jonah could feel affection for a mere plant that Jonah had neither created nor brought into existence, Jonah ought to be able to understand how fond God might be of the Assyrians who God had created and brought into existence. Since Jonah's story ends rather ambiguously right there, we are never told whether God's example persuaded Jonah or not.

With Jonah, like with some environmental activists, a successful conclusion to a campaign brought unhappiness rather than the feeling of a job well done because Jonah, like some activists, couldn't take yes for an answer.

Assyrians skin captives
Assyrians skinning their enemies and would cover the walls and roofs of defeated cities with their skins.

* Jonah probably hated the Assyrians because they were long time aggressive neighbors of Israel with a reputation for cruelty in war unmatched by any country in history. When they conquered a territory, people were either killed or transplanted wholesale to faraway places to break their identity and surround them with hostile strangers. Walls and roofs of captured towns were covered with the human skins of the defeated defenders and occasionally a nearby entire mountain dyed red with their blood. Bones of ancestors were pulverized; fruit trees were dug up including the roots and shipped back to Assyria for replanting. Captives in transit were chained through rings through their lips. Assyria ruled the area around Iraq for over a thousand years until Babylon defeated it around 600BC, when every above ground trace of its existence was destroyed, so much so that Assyria was thought to be a mythical country until the mid 1800's when the foundations of its cities were discovered along with its intact libraries. Since Assyria is now known as Iraq perhaps Saddam Hussein learned governance from his local museums; compared to his predecessors Saddam would have been relatively mild, beneficent and enlightened.

Assyrians blind captives
Assyrians would blind captives they didn't skin alive and moved them about with rings through their lip

©2009 Jim Britell
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