Of Hellfire and Garden Parties

Part 4 of my 5 day devotional for Our Bible App.


Read Jonah 3.

The scene is grisly to say the least. To the right sit the king and queen: he reclining and drinking while she sits slightly below him with a cup, gazing in wonder at his majesty. Court musicians and and servants stand ready to hand as birds sing in the trees of the royal garden. The king’s recently discarded weapons lay on a table nearby.

Oh, did I say “grisly”? Right, I forgot to mention the severed hands and head hanging from the trees.

Depicting Ashurbanipal, last strong king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, this famous scene is known as the “Garden Party.” The king is enjoying the fruits of his victory over the Elamites and their king, Teumman, whose still-bloody head hangs upside down, observing the otherwise tranquil scene. Some even believe the woman sitting with him to be Teumman’s wife, forced to drink the health of the man who caused her husband’s death. There are many stories of the Assyrian bloodlust, from their treatment of slaves and captives, their calculated torture practices, and the butchery of their armies, yet perhaps none displays it quite as colorfully as this.

The capital and very beating heart of this slaughterhouse was Nineveh. The city from which armies bent on conquest – including the conquest of God’s People – would emerge. The city to which some of Israel’s deportees would find themselves enslaved. The home of the king’s stomach-churning dinner parties, and just the place God commanded Jonah to go.

The last we saw of him, he was praying for repentance within the belly of death. Lost under the waves and without hope, he was suddenly brought back to life and his calling renewed. And this time, he said yes. “At last,” the audience is tempted to say, “that’s more like it!”

Until it’s not.

Jonah does as he is commanded: he goes to Nineveh. But he left his heart in the fish. What seemed like a resurrection to new life proved nothing more than a jail cell conversion followed by grudging service. He follows the command, walking the length of that violent city, proclaiming its impending destruction – Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown! – but it’s all wrong. We’re used to prophets’ dramatic presentations and bombastic threats of hellfire and mayhem, but this prophet offers no theatrics. His “sermon” consisted of only five Hebrew words and left no room for repentance – only unavoidable, total destruction which he promises with nauseating excitement. What’s his endgame here? Was he trying to incite the Ninevites, thereby validating his views of their violence? Or did he simply believe they were beyond the loving mercy of God and so preached the only sermon they were fit to hear?

Jonah has repented, but cannot believe the opportunity could be extended. He has been resurrected, but is unable to see the seeds of life in others.

And yet God seems to be more than willing to avert the disaster, advocating for the enemies of Jonah’s people on multiple occasions, doing Jonah’s job for him. Don’t forget that prophets were not just preachers of destruction, but also advocates between the people and God (e.g. Exod. 32:32), who offered a way out from impending destruction (cf. Ex 32:12-14; Amos 7:1-6; Jer 18:8; 26:3, 13). But not Jonah – at least not for Nineveh. They were without an advocate or voice.

But where the messengers fail, the Divine community itself provides a way.

When comparing his own generation with the Ninevites in Jonah, Jesus commends the latter, saying they would “Rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah . . .” (Matt. 12:41). Which begs the ironic question: Can we be as holy as Nineveh?

But of course Jesus, the consummation of Jewish prophetic tradition, would commend the Ninevites. For he saw more deeply into these Others than Jonah ever could hope. He is The Christ, the Divine in human form, dwelling within this world of beauty and pain, of disobedience and repentance, death and rebirth. The physical representation of the Creator’s desire to “be all in all” (I Cor. 15:28), and to “bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Eph. 1:10 NIV); to fulfill the far-reaching plan of God in the Prophets and Apostles:

“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’

and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’”

“And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’

there they shall be called children of the living God” (Rom. 9:25-26 NRSV)

Can you be as holy as Nineveh? Can you be as blessed and loved by God as your enemies? There is indeed an advocate for the people of Nineveh and for all whom we would consider the Other – Jesus the Christ. And if Christ intercedes, who will dare condemn?

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