The gospel from today’s readings has always been interesting to me: “While still more people gathered in the crowd, Jesus said to them, ‘This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah. Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. At the judgment the queen of the south will rise with the men of this generation and she will condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and there is something greater than Solomon here. At the judgment the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because at the preaching of Jonah they repented, and there is something greater than Jonah here.’” (Luke 11:29-32)
Most people hold that the “sign of Jonah” is the Resurrection of Jesus that will be the sign for the generation of Jesus’ day. There is a certain supporting logic. A man appears after three days in the belly of the whale. But such an understanding, while easily made, I would suggest has some underlying flaws. One has to assume that the Ninevites knew Jonah had been in the belly of the whale.
In the Book of Jonah, chapter 1, Jonah leaves the Israelite port of Joppa (modern Jaffa) heading west to Tarshish in the south of Spain. Nineveh was 600 miles east of Joppa. While at sea, Jonah is thrown overboard during a storm as an appeasement – and the seas immediately calmed – then Jonah was swallowed by the whale (technically a “large fish”, but whale will do…). In other words, the last people to see Jonah were heading west. All in all, it is hard to imagine that the citizens of Nineveh would have known about the account – or even cared.
The historical Nineveh was the capital of the neo-Assyrian empire in the late seventh century B.C.E., located on the outskirts of modern-day Mosul in northern Iraq. There was no love lost between the ancient Israelites and Nineveh. The city’s king, Sennacherib, laid siege to Jerusalem in 701 B.C.E. (2Kgs 18:13-19:37, Isa 36-37). The prophetic book of Nahum is an Israelite taunt-song over Nineveh’s destruction by the Babylonians in 612 B.C.E. For Nahum, Nineveh is a “city of bloodshed” (Nah 3:1). The Assyrians’ ruthless military tactics are also pictured in reliefs from the king’s palace in Nineveh, now in the British Museum. Outside of the Bible, Nineveh was known for having been a great, lawless, and wicked city. Greek literary giants like Herodotus and Aristotle catalog its sinfulness. In the Book of Jonah, Nineveh is described as huge—taking three days to walk across—and thoroughly evil. But Jonah gives no specifics about the city’s evil beyond the king’s command that citizens turn away “from the violence that is in their hands” (Jonah 3:8).
My point is that given geography, distance, enemy status and more, it is hard to imagine there was a lot of chatter among the two nations or its citizens. I would suggest that it is doubtful that when Jonah appeared, he was known as the guy risen after three days in the belly of the whale. And even if Jonah proclaimed it, who would believe or who would care. I suspect in a city of sin and wickedness there were other things to occupy the interest of the citizenry.
Setting aside for a moment the idea that the “sign of Jonah” might be the Resurrection, what might it be?
“The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ So, Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD.” (Jonah 3:1-3) And Jonah preached the word of repentance; the word for the “sin city” of Nineveh to change its way.
On one level, the text seems to spell it out rather clearly. Jonah had gone to the Ninevites with this message: Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed (Jonah 3:3). In response, the Ninevites (led by their King) repented, fasted, and prayed. Seeing their actions, God relented and did not destroy them. So, on one level the sign of Jonah is the message “Repent or die.” Just as the Ninevites heard Jonah’s warning, put faith in it, and were spared, so the people of Jesus’ time should put faith in His warning to repent and believe the Good News. If they do not, they will meet with great disaster.
When Jonah made his announcement of imminent destruction, Assyria did repent, and in their strength, they would become a rod in God’s hand to punish Israel. Isaiah the Prophet had well described Israel’s crimes and said that punishment would surely come upon her from Assyria. God would use Assyria to humble and punish His people, Israel. “Assyria, the rod of my wrath, the staff I wield in anger. Against an impious nation I send him, and against a people under my wrath I order him to seize plunder, carry off loot, and to trample them like the mud of the street.” (Isaiah 10:5-6).
Remembering that Jonah was considered a prophetic book in the Hebrew Scriptures it served two purposes. The message was, “why is it that a pagan country would repent while God’s own people will not?” The warning to Israel was essentially, “repent or die.” Israel did not repent and the destruction by Assyria was a devastating blow to the Northern Kingdom of Israel resulting in the loss of the ten tribes living there. Only Judah, Benjamin and the Levites were left in the South as a remnant.
The prophet Jonah showed up in the lives of the Ninevites, preaching a word of repentance, giving them a choice of “repent or die.” The Ninevites chose well. When the prophets showed up in the life of Israel, it did not go so well. Assyria destroying the Northern Kingdom of Israel and some 200 years later, Babylon destroying the Southern Kingdom of Judah.
Prophets do not show up because things are going well. Prophets show up to call a covenant people back to covenant. Prophets, each in their own way, proclaim “repent or die.” The sign for every evil generation is when the prophet shows up.
In Jesus’ day, he was the sign, the one sign, the sign of Jonah appearing to an evil generation.
In our day, Jesus is the enduring sign, the prophet ever calling us to repentance. For our generation, we are blessed by the Word and the knowledge of the Resurrection – both coming from the one sign given.