by Father Mike Stubbs
Some rivalries last for generations. The rivalry between Kansas University and the University of Missouri dates back to the years following the Civil War, which marked considerable antagonism between the two states. With the University of Missouri leaving the Big 12 conference, that may change. But old rivalries die hard.
In ancient Israel, the city of Nineveh represented a major rivalry. The center of the Assyrian empire, it was located near the modern city of Mosul, in present-day Iraq.
This hostility between Nineveh and Israel establishes the context for the story in Sunday’s first reading — Jon 3:1-5, 10. God sends the prophet Jonah to Nineveh to warn the people there of impending punishment for their sins: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed.”
Jonah had barely begun to spread this message when the people of Nineveh took it to heart: “The people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.”
This dramatic conversion on the part of the inhabitants of its hated rival provides the people of Israel with an example to imitate. It also issues a strong challenge: If the Ninevites can repent, surely the Israelites can as well.
Just as important is the other point that the story makes. Even though the Ninevites are sworn enemies of Israel, God is still willing to forgive them: “When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out.”
But this reprieve does not last forever. In 612 B.C., the city of Nineveh was completely destroyed by the Babylonians and never rebuilt. The prophet Nahum views Nineveh’s destruction as a judgment upon its wickedness: “A jealous and avenging God is the Lord, an avenger is the Lord and angry; the Lord brings vengeance on his adversaries, and lays up wrath for his enemies.” Nahum’s entire book focuses upon God’s punishment of Nineveh.
Most likely, the city of Nineveh had already been destroyed when the Book of Jonah was written, probably some time after the exile in Babylonia. The Book of Jonah then is looking back to earlier times, to an earlier rivalry that would no longer threaten Israel, to an example of God’s mercy which, being somewhat removed in time, could be viewed with a more objective eye.
In this way, the story of Jonah and the Ninevites becomes a call to conversion for the people of Israel, and a reminder of God’s mercy toward all people.