And each side sees the other as the Ultimate Personification of Evil.
They’re bad people, you see. They want to destroy us and all that we hold dear.
No tactic is out of bounds in our desire to destroy them.
There were situations like this in biblical times: existential crises, where God’s people, and all they held dear—or should have held dear—was under assault by those who hated what they stood for, because they hated the God who had chosen them for himself.
The prophets called down God’s judgment on the nation’s enemies, and they didn’t mince words. The list of targets is long. It begins with Israel’s neighbors: Moab (Is 15-16; Jer 48); Edom (Jer 49.7ff; Ezk 25.12-14); Ammon (Jer 49.1-6; Ezk 25); Damascus / Syria (Is 17.1-3; Jer 49.23-27; Amos 1.3-5); Tyre (Is 23). And then it extends to more distant kingdoms that are even more of a threat because of their hegemonous power and reach: Egypt (Is 19; Ezk 29-30); Babylon (Is 13-14, 46; Jer 50-51); and Nineveh / Assyria (Nahum).
Especially Assyria. They’re the worst.
No one in the ancient world, or perhaps since, has exceeded the Assyrians in their gleeful cruelty to their defeated enemies. In Iraq today is the site of Calah, the capital city chosen by the Assyrian ruler Ashernasirpal II, who reigned in the early 9th century BC. There in the Temple of Ninurta is inscribed Ashernasirpal’s own official account of his victories:
I stormed the mountain peaks and took them. In the midst of the mighty mountain I slaughtered them; with their blood I dyed the mountain red like wool. … The heads of their warriors I cut off, and I formed them into a pillar over against their city; their young men and their maidens I burned in the fire.
I built a pillar over against the city gate and I flayed all the chiefs who had revolted and I covered the pillar with their skins. Some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes and others I bound to stakes round the pillar. I cut the limbs off the officers who had rebelled. Many captives I burned with fire and many I took as living captives. From some I cut off their noses, their ears, and their fingers, of many I put out their eyes. I made one pillar of the living and another of heads and I bound their heads to tree trunks round about the city. Their young men and maidens I consumed with fire. The rest of their warriors I consumed with thirst in the desert of the Euphrates.
Hulai, their governor, I flayed, and his skin I spread upon the wall of the city.
Now those are some seriously evil people. Existentially so.
Why am I telling you all this? What’s the point?
It’s this. It was to this people, this nation, that God sent a prophet to declare judgment.
Well, that makes sense, doesn’t it?
You know the story well. The prophet’s name is Jonah, and after considerable initial reluctance, Jonah finally arrives at Nineveh, the current capital city, and gleefully preaches the announcement of oncoming doom.
And then, in his view, everything goes seriously awry.
Nineveh repents (Jon 3.5). From the king on down (Jon 3.6-8).
Well, this wasn’t the plan. Not in Jonah’s mind, anyway. There’s nothing in Jonah’s message (Jon 3.4), or in God’s instructions to him (Jon 1.1-2; 3.1-2), that offered any hope of repentance. Jonah could easily have argued that repentance was impossible and in any event would not have been accepted.
But the Assyrian king hoped for better things. “Perhaps,” he said, “God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish” (Jon 3.9).
And you know what?
Jonah knew that too. “I knew,” he said to God, in frustration and anger, “that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity” (Jon 4.2).
And Jonah was not one bit happy. He hated these people. And he had perfectly good reasons to.
Where did Jonah get the idea that God was gracious and compassionate, even to hated people?
God had told his people that. Repeatedly.
Next time we’ll look at what he had told them, and under what circumstances. And then we’ll spend a few posts learning what it all means, for us, and for all those people we hate.