Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Going to Nineveh, Leaving Nineveh

In the early 1960s, the sermon I preached in homiletics class at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary was about Jonah. While there are a lot of sermons I preached in the 1960s that I would not, or could not conscientiously, preach now, I probably could preach that one again—if I could find it. (Somehow I can’t seem to locate it on my HD!)
Although it wasn’t particularly original, my main point was that the Old Testament book of Jonah was not primarily the story of a man being swallowed by a “great fish” and then miraculously regurgitated alive three days later.
No, I said, the book of Jonah is a missionary story. It is about a reluctant missionary, Jonah, epitomizing God’s “chosen people.”
God told Jonah, “Get up and go to Nineveh” (1:2, CEB). And Jonah got up all right, but he “went down to Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish” (1:3)—a distant place on the Mediterranean Sea far from Nineveh.
It was only after his “down in the mouth” experience that Jonah finally went to Nineveh, which according to the biblical text was “an enormous city, a three days’ walk across” (3:3).
Jonah proclaimed God’s message in Nineveh—and here is the real miracle: “the people of Nineveh believed God” (3:5). So God spared them, rather than destroying them as Jonah had warned them about.
But Jonah wasn’t happy with God sparing Nineveh rather than destroying that great city. He complained about God being “a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy” (4:2).
What a strange complaint!
In the seventh century B.C., Nineveh was the largest city in the world—until it was replaced by Babylon (details here). But where is Nineveh?

Ruins of the old city of Nineveh are just across the Tigris River from the modern city of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq with a population of around 1,800,000—when everybody’s home. But that’s the problem: this month hordes of Mosul’s citizens have left their homes.
On June 10, Mosul was taken over by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants linked to Al Qaeda. It has been widely reported that as many as 500,000 people have fled the city.
Many of those who left their home in Mosul are Christians. Mosul, the capital of Nineveh Governorate (so called since 1976), is the region in Iraq with the most Christians. They are mostly Assyrians, descendants from the old Assyrian Empire that ended in 612 B.C.
(Information about Assyrian Christians can be found at I found it quite interesting that this website is run by Ken Joseph, Jr., who was born in Tokyo and is a Christian pastor in Tokyo now. I met his father, a Christian missionary who was an ethnic Assyrian, several times during my years in Japan.)
Certainly the Christians in Iraq have suffered greatly ever since 2003. In an article that seems to have been written in 2007, Joseph writes, “An estimated 1 million Christians lived in Iraq before the 2003 U.S. invasion. Less than half of that number still remain.”
Of course, there are far fewer now.
But it is not just Christians who have left Nineveh, fleeing for their lives. The main targets of the Sunni Muslims of ISIS are Shiite Muslims.
Unlike Jonah, though, we who believe in God rejoice that God is “a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy.” Shouldn’t those words be descriptive of believers in God also?


  1. Yes, they should. A fascinating and informative story today, Leroy. Thanks

  2. Most Americans have no clue of the Christians of the middle east, whose Christianity was not brought by missionaries from the west, but by the Apostles and other early disciples. St. Peter was the first bishop of Antioch (Syria), which turned into a key missional church to the world. Apparently both he, St. Matthew, St. Thomas, and St. Mark all helped in the founding of the Church in what is now Iraq. The western Church needs to once again take seriously Christ's command to "Love one another" (fellow believers), especially the least of our brothers in Christ who are in trouble because of their faith.

  3. Interesting comments from local Thinking Friend Steve Hemphill:

    "Thanks for your comments about Nineveh. As you know, I served with the State Department in Iraq in 2004-2005. Due to the difficult security situation, I was only able to Mosul one time. I was thrilled to drive by a very ancient pyramid in the city center which is the Jonah memorial...built thousands of years ago!"

    "I got a Facebook report yesterday from a couple of friends of mine (one American, one British) still serving in Iraq. 'Last Sunday was the first time in 1600 years that no Mass was held in Mosul.'

    "Amazingly sad."

  4. More interesting comments, this time from Dr. Kelly Malone, a Thinking Friend who is a former (younger) missionary colleague in Japan (and certainly not the colleague I recently quoted anonymously) and is currently a professor at Southwest Baptist University:

    "Interesting post Leroy. Probably few people consider the Christian element of the population in Iraq which has been decreasing numerically since the U.S. forced Saddam Hussein from power.

    "Of course, the problem now is that Iraq seems to be on the verge of civil war. I regret the loss of life that is going on now in that area of the world.

    "If you have ever met Kenny Joseph, he is a very interesting person. He talks openly about his Assyrian heritage, which is fascinating."

    1. A while later Kelly wrote in another email,

      "One other comment: in my Old Testament course this morning we were talking about both Jonah and Nahum, two minor prophets that deal with the 'fate of Nineveh.'

      "I told the students that neither prophet tells us the 'end of the story.' Rather, the story of the Assyrians in Nineveh continues to unfold in our own day, and related to them some of what you had written in your blog.

      "Very interesting to look at the big picture in biblical context."

    2. Kelly, thanks for writing. It was good to hear from you. And thanks for mentioning my blog in your class this morning.

      I can't remember having met Kenny Joseph, Jr., but his father was certainly a very interesting person.

  5. Esteemed Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson writes,

    "An interesting thought, Leroy. I shudder at what is happening in Iraq. With John Kerry I'm praying that the Shiites will find a way to bring Sunnis into the government.

    "Our invasion destabilized the country."

  6. Local Thinking Friend Joe Barbour sends these pertinent comments:

    "Thanks for the blog today. It is good one and gives the true picture of what the book of Jonah is all about.

    "I remember being in R. A’s as a child and our leader made a very strong effort teach us that it is a missionary book. Of course when in seminary that was the strong emphasis the missions professor made as we looked at it. He used to say quite often that if we were not involved in missions we were not the church, but something less than what God intended. Of course he was a great fan of W.O Carver.

    "But your emphasis is well stated and much needed today. When we keep our emphasis on being a missionary people, we cannot ignore what is happening in our world today. And it seems to me that many of the groups in Christianity have lost that focus. This loss of Christians in Nineveh, probably points out the loss of that emphasis by too many."