October 20, 2015
God Wants His Glory Back in the Middle East, Part I
Post by Brittany Tedesco
The Tigris River
If you're like me, when you think "Middle East," you think "Muslim."
I was editing some literature for a visiting ministry leader from the Middle East, when I noticed the slogan he uses for his outreach: "Bringing the gospel back to the Arab world."
Back to the Arab world?
A few days later, a ministry leader from northern Iraq, who's worked in that country since before the refugee crisis, drew my attention to the rich biblical history of Iraq.
In fact, Iraq is second only to Israel in the amount of history and prophecy associated with it in the Bible.
The Tower of Babel by Peiter Bruegel the Elder
God chose that region to demonstrate His glory in a number of amazing ways—way before Islam took over the area.
What we know as Iraq today was actually ancient Mesopotamia, which means "between the two rivers." If you've ever heard of the terms "fertile crescent" or "cradle of civilization," you know which two rivers the name refers to: the Tigris and Euphrates. Some people speculate it's where the Garden of Eden was located. Though we can't know that for sure, we've traced the earliest (post-flood) writings, literature, medicine, commerce, and science to that region.
The name "Iraq" was given to the region in 1921 after the British captured it from the Ottoman Turks. But before the modern name, it was called Assyria, Shinar, Chaldea, and Babylon in the Bible.
Abraham was from the city of Ur in Iraq. Isaac's bride, Rebecca, was from Iraq. Jacob spent 20 years in Iraq. It's where Daniel was thrown into the lion's den and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown into the fiery furnace. It's where the Israelites languished for many years as captives of their enemies.
A guy named Nimrod organized a little building project called the Tower of Babel in Iraq. He also founded two cities that would turn into huge empires: Babylon and Nineveh.
Assyrian architecture in Iraq
In fact, Babylon would turn into the first world empire (from 612 to 539 B.C.). God gave Belshazzar a heads up that the empire would be destroyed through a mysterious hand that wrote the grim prophecy on the wall of the palace where he was feasting.
The ruins of Babylon are located about 25 miles south of Baghdad.
Across the Tigris River from the city of Mosul, captured by ISIS in 2014, one can see the hills that cover the ancient city of Nineveh.
Nineveh was one of the greatest cities of the ancient world. Covering around 1,700 acres, the city was enclosed by a huge wall with 15 gates, flanked by stone statues of bulls with human heads. Jonah spent three days traversing the city to bring God's message of repentance to a ruthless, brutal people.
The Assyrians were notorious for their brutality, unparalleled in the kinds of cruel punishments they inflicted upon those whom they conquered. And they conquered quite a lot of people. When Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, the empire stretched from Egypt to southeastern Turkey to Iran, and included what is now Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon from the ninth to the seventh centuries B.C.
It's approximated that Jonah showed up with his message from God around the eight century. We know Jonah as an unwilling prophet, but certainly we can sympathize with his reluctance to extend grace to a people who had grown rich on the suffering of others.
I know I have trouble praying for ISIS. I pray for the Middle Eastern Christians and the many Muslims who've been driven from their homelands. . . but ISIS? That's tough.
A stone relief of King Ashurbanipal found in Nineveh
The Assyrians didn't just capture people, they butchered them. They beheaded people and stacked their heads in the shape of pyramids, they skinned people alive and draped their skin over pillars and walls as a warning to others. They crucified their victims, they tore out tongues and put out eyes, they impaled them on stakes, they burned them alive, they cut off noses, hands, and feet.
The book of Nahum confirms their brutality: "Woe to the bloody city, completely full of lies and pillage; her prey never departs. The noise of the whip, the noise of the rattling of the wheel, galloping horses and bounding chariots! Horsemen charging, swords flashing, spears gleaming, many slain, a mass of corpses, and countless dead bodies—they stumble over the dead bodies!" (3:1-3)
King Ashurnasirpal II boasted about enclosing people alive in walls, stacking bricks around them. All of this is recorded in meticulous detail in the artwork on the palace walls. We see depictions of barefoot captives, leaving their cities behind—most likely being marched toward Nineveh to face some unthinkable fate or to be drafted into the Assyrian army, forced to become ruthless killers.
Does any of this sound familiar?
We're seeing this kind of extreme brutality today in the form of ISIS, and I'll admit, it's difficult for me to see them as anything more than monsters.
But if the way God viewed the Assyrians is any indication of the way He might view ISIS, we can be assured His compassion has no limits.
After Jonah spent three days inside of a giant fish, he decided to obey God's command and tell the Assyrians—the very same people who posed a huge threat to his people, the Israelites—that Nineveh would be destroyed in 40 days.
Much to Jonah's chagrin, the Assyrians repented in one of the biggest revivals of all time. The king put on sackcloth and sat in ashes. He decreed a kingdom-wide fast, he proclaimed that people should pray and repent. The entire city humbled itself before God.
The prophet Jonah
Meanwhile, Jonah watches from afar to see if God will indeed destroy the city. He throws a tantrum after a worm eats the plant that God caused to grow over him to provide him with shade as he waited and watched.
"Then God said to Jonah, 'Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?' And he said, 'I have good reason to be angry, even to death.' Then the Lord said, 'You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?'" (Jonah 4:9-11)
What did God mean by people "who do not know the difference between their right and left hand"? According to a footnote in my Bible, this expression signifies "the very young children who had not reached the age of accountability, of making moral decisions. This verse. . . shows so clearly that the Lord is God of all the nations, not just Israel, and that He is concerned with the welfare of all mankind."
God had compassion on really brutal people, seeing them as young children! He didn't view them as monsters, but as beings He created. He desired their repentance and restoration.
An ISIS fighter from Syria, who'd known only Islamic hate and violence, tried to infiltrate a refugee camp in Jordan with the intention of killing Christians. A Christian Aid Mission-assisted ministry leader told us how he abandoned his plans after he unwittingly came face to face with the love of Christ. He witnessed the care and compassion of native Christians, and realized how brainwashed he'd been by the Muslim religion.
Like the Assyrians, he was a ruthless killer. But perhaps, like the Assyrians, God saw him as a "young child"—someone to be pitied and restored.
Be sure to read Part II next week to continue tracing the history of the Assyrian people to present day, and learn how God is restoring them to Himself.