by Bob Lupton
Mosul is being destroyed block by block. Heavily armed ISIS fighters are in bitter, bloody, hand to hand combat with Iraqi militia. Airstrikes rain down tons of heavy explosives that obliterate entire blocks of commercial and residential buildings. Artillery and mortar fire pound with precision every suspected enemy stronghold. Land mines and car bombs make streets virtually impassable. This once thriving Iraqi city is being systematically reduced to a pile of rubble.
Mosul was originally known as Nineveh – one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was one of the oldest, largest, and most splendid cities of antiquity. Protected by massive, impenetrable walls and fifteen spectacular gates, it was an engineering marvel. A network of canals and aqueducts supplied its residents with abundant drinking water, as well as irrigation for public parks and fountains. With its ornate temples, splendid palaces, and world renowned hanging gardens, it was widely considered the most beautiful city in the Near East.
For thousands of years, kings have battled for dominion of this city. Though some conquerors destroyed its walls and sacked its treasures as the spoils of war, others occupied it as a visible trophy of their conquest. It was during the great Assyrian dynasty that Nineveh reached the pinnacle of its grandeur and power. It was chosen to be the empire’s capital and the most holy site for their war-sex-power goddess Ishtar. At the height of Nineveh’s glory, Yahweh, God of the subjugated Hebrews, decided to disrupt this arrogant, licentious city by sending to them a prophet – and a warning. The messenger’s name was Jonah. Here is his story:
Imagine receiving a crystal clear call from God to carry a message to the capital city of your nation’s bitter arch-enemy, informing them they were about to be overthrown. Prophets have been killed for much less. But it would be worth the risk. To see these immoral, pagan Assyrians who have invaded and pillaged our land, raped our women, desecrated our holy places, enslaved our people, threatened our very existence – to see their proud capital city reduced to rubble would be a glorious, spectacular sight.
This actually did happen to me. I received such a call. And I would gladly have taken the risk of delivering the message of destruction. Except, I know Yahweh. I have seen Him change His mind. I have seen Him extend mercy and forgiveness to my people after He had pronounced sure judgement on us. What if He did this for the Ninevites? What if He decided to go soft on them after He vowed to utterly destroy them? It would make me look like a fool – like a false prophet! Even worse, it would make Yahweh appear to be allied with the damnable Assyrians.
I could not do it. I could not. I would sooner die than to see the Assyrians garner Yahweh’s favor. So I bought a ticket on a ship that would carry me away from God’s presence, away from the call that was tearing my soul apart. As soon as we set sail, I went below deck, climbed into a hammock, and fell into a deep, fitful sleep.
I was still sound asleep when ominous dark clouds blew in and hurricane strength winds began whipping up giant waves that crashed over the deck. The situation above had become desperate. The crew had already thrown much of the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship’s load, but now they feared the craft might break apart. Passengers and crew were terrified. Everyone was crying out to their gods, pleading fervently for deliverance.
Everyone but me. I was in no condition to pray. God and I were not on speaking terms. Sleep helped me escape. Imagine the reaction of the panic-stricken sea-captain finding a passenger swinging peacefully in a hammock when his ship was about to go down! He instantly suspected this passenger must have done something terrible to offend the gods, something that was bringing divine wrath upon his ship. He had found the culprit. And I knew he was right. In my spirit, I knew this deadly storm was God’s judgement upon me. The only deliverance, the captain determined, was to throw me overboard to assuage the god’s anger. I did not protest. I would rather have died at sea than return to land – and Nineveh. And die I would. I did not resist when the deckhands escorted me to the railing and heaved me overboard. Death would be a bitter relief.
Cold waves engulfed my body. Instinctively, I held my breath as I sank into the briny depths, clinging to life until that final, terrifying moment when water rushed into my lungs and suffocated me into unconsciousness. It would all be over soon.
But suddenly, I felt my body being sucked into a slimy tunnel, a constricting encasement of total blackness. My lungs were about to burst. Astonishingly, my first desperate gasp drew in air, not sea water. Rancid, frothy air. But air nonetheless. Something, someone, had saved me from the sea. For the moment, at least. It took several terrifying minutes to grasp my bizarre surroundings. I finally figured out I was in the digestive tract of an enormous fish!
My terror slowly subsided. My breathing eventually resumed a rhythmic pace. This foul, black cavity might well have been my tomb, but for the moment, I was alive and conscious. And for the first time in months, I prayed. This how I remember it:
“In my distress I called to the Lord,
and he answered me.
From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help,
and you listened to my cry.
You hurled me into the depths,
into the very heart of the seas,
and the currents swirled about me;
all your waves and breakers
swept over me.
I said, ‘I have been banished
from your sight;
The engulfing waters threatened me,
the deep surrounded me;
seaweed was wrapped around my head.
To the roots of the mountains I sank down;
the earth beneath barred me in forever.
But you, Lord my God,
brought my life up from the pit.
“When my life was ebbing away,
I remembered you, Lord,
and my prayer rose to you…” (Jonah chapter 2)
After three horrific days of utter darkness in this roiling, putrid prison, a blinding light suddenly broke in upon me. And then a terrible wrenching hurled my body out of the encasement. The next instant, I was clawing my way up onto a deserted beach, bruised and covered with sand and seaweed, but still alive. God had heard my prayer. I had been saved!
Never again would I run from God. I would follow His instructions. I would speak His words. Even if His words gave fair warning of judgement to the wicked and perverted enemy of Israel. I may swallow hard, but I would do it. I would walk across that vast, depraved metropolis of Nineveh, shouting out God’s sentence of impending destruction, knowing (fearing) that God might well change His mind and extend mercy. My hate for these godless Ninevites would not keep me from doing what God had instructed me to do. Not this time. I had learned my lesson.
And when I had completed my assignment, when I had roared out God’s judgement along every Nineveh thoroughfare until my voice was hoarse – “40 days until Nineveh is overthrown,” I could then withdraw from the city and wait patiently, expectantly, for the great and terrible judgement day of the Lord. I had done my part. It was God’s turn.
But when 40 days passed…then 43…then 45, and still no destruction, it became embarrassingly apparent that my prophecy might not come true. It was humiliating enough to march through the streets, shouting at the top of my lungs, but then to have my warnings proved false – this was utter mortification. I would just as soon have died!
I wanted nothing more to do with this despicable city. No matter that God, for some inexplicable reason, had reversed His decision, or at least delayed it. These were godless, immoral pagans. They deserved to be annihilated. Like Sodom and Gomorrah. But there was nothing more I could do. It was up to God now. My only hope was His judgement would come, and come soon. I headed for the hills, made a lean-to shelter for myself, and waited it out to see when (or if) God would eventually honor His word. I was exhausted. The shade felt good. I drifted off into the first good sleep I’d had since I first decided to run from God.
How long I slept I didn’t know. But when I woke up, I was drenched in sweat. A scorching, mid-eastern sun was shining directly into my eyes through the sticks of the shelter. The leaves of green foliage that had offered cool shade the day before were withered and dead. The temperature must’ve been 100 miserable degrees! And from this smothering hillside vantage point, I could see Nineveh, still standing, untouched.
I wanted to die.
This is my story. God never did destroy that city. Not in my lifetime, anyway. Can you see why I was furious? Can you see why I wanted to die? I told God that. I’ll never understand why He showed mercy to those despicable people. Even if they did repent. They were still our enemies. Admittedly, He has been merciful (repeatedly) to Israel in spite of some pretty blatant disobedience (actually including mine, come to think of it!). But then we are, after all, His chosen people. But mercy on those contemptible Ninevites? I’ll never understand it.
For reasons unclear to Jonah (and perhaps to us as well), God had pity on this beautiful city and spared it from destruction – at least for a season. Dynasties rise and fall and with them, their cities and palaces. But unlike most cities of antiquity, 6,000 years of embattled history has not erased Nineveh from the map. It continues to be a strategic prize to this day. Though most of its once proud walls are entombed beneath the desert sand, its presence lives on. Mosul, built on Nineveh’s foundations, continues to be a tactical stronghold for warring factions. Will Nineveh-Mosul survive today’s destructive conflict? Will Yahweh once again show mercy on the Ninevites?