|Coptic Icon of Jonah|
The story of Jonah presents a quandary. The history of Nineveh and the Assyrians is well known and documented. The Assyrians left their own records and the nations around them had much to say of them. They were hated by all and proud of it.
Nineveh, however, never accepted the God of Israel and certainly never repented "in sackcloth and ashes." So what is the story of Jonah about?
This story unfolds at a time when Judah and Israel had become particularist. They were turned in on themselves and not even attempting to engage other nations with the worship of the true and living God. Indeed, the population of the two kingdoms had not been fully converted and they were much in need of repentance.
As the story opens, God has commanded Jonah the son of Amittai to go up to the great city of Nineveh and preach repentance to them. Remember that Nineveh was the capital of the savage and brutal Assyrian kingdom. Jonah does not want to go. Instead, he boards a ship sailing to Tarshish (Spain). In the ancient world, Tarshish, at the far end of the Mediterranean Sea, was at "the other end of the earth." Was Jonah afraid, or just filled with hatred of the Assyrians? Perhaps both.
We all know the story. Jonah is cast overboard and swallowed by a "great fish." He is carried back to Palestine and regurgitated by the fish on the third day. Thereupon, he yields and goes up to Nineveh. He suffers several things largely because of his attitude. It appears to us that Jonah did not want Nineveh to repent, but rather wanted them to be punished for their beastly brutality. Nevertheless, the city does repent.
We said before, we know that the Assyrians never accepted the God of Israel, and never showed any signs of repentance. So what was the story about? Just this: God commanded Jonah to go to the most hated people on the face of the earth and tell them that God loves them, and will receive them with an open heart if they will but turn to Him.
Is this not a prophecy about the Christ, the Messiah? Is this not also a "sign of the prophet Jonah," along with his third day "resurrection" from the great fish? Does not Christ send his disciples to the ends of the earth to preach the Gospel, baptising them in the name of the Godhead?
What about us? What does this story have to say to each of us? Simply this: we are prone to want to see our enemies suffer and be punished. God, on the other hand, "desires not the death of sinners, but that they should turn from their sins and live." Ultimately, the teaching is simple. The person that we hate is someone that our Master loves and shed His blood for.
Whoever has ears, let him hear.