The Ninevites are remarkable in the Bible for having responded so fully to the prophecy of Jonah, which told them their cruelty and sinfulness was about to be punished by God.
This prophecy terrified them and they repented as an entire community – from the King in his palace to the cattle in the fields.
However, today I was reading a text from 1,600 years ago and I came across another terror that fell on the Ninevites, that I find quite disturbing.
The text was written by Ephrem the Syrian (born 306 A.D.) who was a brilliant theologian. We know from St Jerome (died 420 A.D.) that Ephrem was renowned as a scholar that his writings were widely used in churches.
One of his most famous writings is ‘The Repentance of Nineveh’ where he writes a theological poem on the response of the Ninevites to Jonah’s preaching.
Interestingly, Ephrem continues on after the book of Jonah ends and has Jonah, laden down with gifts and with an appreciative accompanying crowd of Ninevites returning to the land of Israel. These new converts are desperate to see what a godly society looks like.
However, as they approach, Jonah is full of foreboding. He knows that the land of Israel is full of idolatry, unfaithfulness and sin. He is fearful about what that view of the supposed ‘people of God’ will do the Ninevites, in their new-found faith.
He makes an excuse about why the Ninevites cannot enter the Promised Land and he leaves them. But, so they might at least look over the land, the Ninevites climb a hill. As they look down the Ninevites see Israel filled with sin in the Promised Land. Before them appears a horrific scene. Instead of harmony and devotion, they saw:
For there were altars upon the hills,
And images upon the high places.
Among the groves there was idolatry,
Among the oaks there was uncleanness.
Carved images were near their doors,
And as they entered they worshipped them.
Their idols’ were without number,
And their vices could not be reckoned.
By their fountains there were purifications,
And washings by their streams
Upon the housetops there were their statues
And their whoredoms in the gardens;
Soothsayers walked the streets,
And enchanters filled the ways.English translation: H. Burgess, The Repentance of Nineveh, a metrical homily on the mission of Jonah, by Ephraem Syrus, London 1853; 10, 8-21.)
In this part of the text, Ephrem lists almost all of the Old Testament reports that talk about the sin of Israel. The country is filled with all sorts of sin, similar to ones described by the prophets. There, among other things, one can see how knowledgeable of the Scripture Ephrem was. The Ninevites, shocked and filled with terror by the sight, ask each other:
Is this the land of promise,
Or are we contemplating Sodom?
Is this the race of Abraham,
Or are we looking upon devils?
Are these we see men,
Or unsubstantial shadows.
The altars which we pulled down
Have obtained wings and fled hither!(ibid. 10, 80-85.90-91)
The terrified Ninevites return to their country.
I wonder what new converts think as they look at the church that I am a part of?
Do they see real holiness of life; the spiritual disciplines being widely practised with great seriousness?
Do they see a community that really exemplifies God’s desire for his people and for his world?
Or does what they see terrify them?
(Adapted from RODOLJUB KUBAT, ‘Memra of Ephrem the Syrian of Jonah and the Repentance of the Ninevites’, pp193-210, 2015)