Editor’s Note: Stout, a Lutheran pastor, shares this anecdote about the origin of this piece: “For the first time in a decade I got into the pulpit this past Sunday, felt that my sermon stank, and made up a new one on the fly. What I can remember of it largely became Burning ISIS.“
I want to talk about the Assyrians.
The Bible is full of evil empires that run roughshod over God’s people one after the other. The Babylonians, the Persians, the Romans. It’s easy for them to run together. But the Assyrians were different. The Assyrian Empire was not united by language or ethnicity or legends of shared ancestry. No, the Assyrian Empire was based on religion.
Their chief god was Asshur, and all you had to do to be considered Assyrian was to bow down and worship the Assyrian god. If you refused, well—the emperor was well within his rights to persecute you not only as an enemy of the state but of the cosmic order itself. Remember, the Assyrians are the people who invented crucifixion. When the nation of Israel broke in two, and 10 out of the 12 tribes of God’s people were scattered to the winds, never to reform again, it was at the hand of the Assyrians. They were the religious fanatics of their era, the archenemies of Israel. And I should note that they lived in what we now call Iraq. Basically, the Assyrians were the ISIS of their day.
This brings us to the book of Jonah. It’s a short book, only four chapters, takes about 10 minutes to read. Chances are that the last time you read the story, if ever, was back in Sunday School. We tend to treat Jonah as a children’s story or a comedy, and there are certainly comedic elements in it. But it contains a major twist, a real hook at the end, that makes Jonah a very adult book indeed. It goes something like this.
Jonah is called by God to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, there to prophesy that unless they repent of their evil ways God will destroy them for all that they have done. Jonah immediately hops on a boat—and takes off in exactly the opposite direction. He sails to the farthest land he can think of. And on the way, a great and terrible storm comes up, threatening to sink the ship. The crew, all gentiles and pagans, realize that there is something unnatural about this storm, and each man begs forgiveness and mercy from his respective god, to no avail. Meanwhile, where’s Jonah? He’s hiding from the storm down in the ship’s hold.
Finally someone thinks, “Hey, what about that Hebrew guy? Maybe he knows something about all this.” So they bring up Jonah and he says, “Yeah, this is my fault. My God gave me a mission and I refused to do it. You’ll have to throw me overboard.” And the pagan crew, to their credit, replies, “No, we don’t want to do that. Just say you’re sorry!” But Jonah stubbornly insists, “No, I’d rather get thrown overboard.” So the crew calls out to God, “We really don’t want to do this, but here it goes!” and they heave Jonah overboard. Immediately the storm is calmed.
Now Jonah is sinking down, down into the depths of the sea. And at this point he thinks, “Okay, maybe I should say that I’m sorry and ask forgiveness.” And right then, he is swallowed by a whale! Often the whale is portrayed as the punishment of God, but it’s not. The whale is actually what saves Jonah from drowning. And where does this whale finally spit Jonah up? Why, on the shores of the Assyrian Empire, right where he was supposed to head in the first place.
Now, the Assyrians have a god named Dagon—Asshur is top dog, but he’s not the only one—and portrayals of Dagon always envision him as a man being vomited up out of a giant fish. So when Jonah gets horked up on shore by a whale, what must the people think? Why, here is a messenger from God! “Great,” mutters Jonah, “now I have an audience.” And he utters the shortest and most pathetic prophetic speech in the Bible, just one single line: “40 days and Nineveh shall be no more!” And then Jonah goes up on a hill to watch the Assyrians be destroyed.
But wouldn’t you know it? Against all odds, the people of Nineveh repent! They beg forgiveness for their sins and turn to God in sackcloth and ash. And God says to Jonah, “Because they have turned from their evil, I will not destroy their city.” And Jonah goes ballistic. He yells out to God, “I knew it! I knew this is exactly what would happen! This is why I ran away in the first place! I knew that You were loving and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love! I knew that if they turned towards You then You would forgive them—and I wanted to see them burn for what they’ve done!”
That’s the hook, right there. That’s what makes Jonah a very adult book indeed. Through the whole story we hear God pronouncing judgment and whipping up storms, and we think that God is the vengeful one. But He’s not. We are. We’re the ones who want to see evil punished, to see the bad guys get what they deserve. We’re the ones who want sinners to burn for everything that they’ve done. God doesn’t want blood. Man does.
It’s the same way when Jesus comes. He shows up and people flock to Him, throw palms before Him, try to make Him King. And they do so because they recognize Him as the Messiah and they expect Him to go to Jerusalem and kick out the bad guys. At that point there’s a new evil empire over Israel: the Empire of Rome. And everyone expects Jesus to draw the sword and raise an army and conquer Rome—and He does! But not with violence. Not with fire and blood and steel. Jesus conquers Rome through the Cross.
We want Jesus to call down fire from Heaven. That’s how James and John earned their nicknames, “Sons of Thunder,” by asking Jesus to make sinners burn. That’s probably even why Judas betrayed Jesus, to try and force His hand. But that’s not how God works. He doesn’t burn up the wicked, no matter how badly we think they deserve it. Instead, He prays for those who hate Him, loves those who persecute Him, forgives us even as we are murdering Him on a Cross.
This is the love that conquers sinners. Who would’ve thought that Rome, the evil empire, would become the beating heart of Christianity for a thousand years and more? Who would’ve imagined that Saul—a religious fanatic who, far from being an Apostle, hunted down and persecuted and even participated in the execution of innocent Christians—would be struck down, not with fire from Heaven, but with a vision from Heaven, transforming him from the Church’s avowed nemesis into her greatest advocate?
Perhaps the hardest aspect of Christianity is the call to love our enemies, even as they hate us, even as they persecute us. This doesn’t mean that we love the evil that they do. We live in a world where fanatics behead innocent people and put it on YouTube. My God! We see the cruelties of ISIS on the news and we just want to see them get what they deserve. We want God to call down fire from Heaven—or if He won’t, perhaps the U.S. Air Force will. But God doesn’t work that way. If He sent His angels to slay every sinner, which of us could stand? We were all enemies of God once.
Christians have a duty to resist evil. But in the process we cannot allow ourselves to dehumanize our fellow man. Clichéd though it may sound, we must love the sinner and hate the sin, for indeed we are sinners one and all. And we are forged in the Image of God, one and all. You never know what the Lord will work through the hearts of wicked men. You never know what act of love will turn a sworn foe into a true brother. Grace is always available for those who desire it. And Christ is always bringing sinners to new birth in impossible and mysterious ways.
There are still murdering fanatics in Iraq who will kill anyone who does not bow down to their god. And we are still called, as we have always been, to love those who hate us and pray for those who persecute us. It’s a 2,000-year-old story. And it’s still our story today.
RDG Stout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories.