He sees me, but with eyes unbrotherly
And blind. I want to reach beyond the wall—
Now shrouded with corroded, twisted vines—
And show him we are one. Will God not call
Another reluctant prophet to go
Beyond the city walls and through the streets,
Preaching repentance (like Jonah of old),
Teaching them our hearts like theirs also beats?
Me perhaps? Why? For the hated object
To teach love and equality seems strange,
So for the shores of Tarshish travel I …
Nineveh must teach Nineveh to change.
Nineveh was an Assyrian city that thrived in ancient Mesopotamia’s northern region, near modern-day Mosul, Iraq. At one point it was the largest city of the ancient world—until it violently fell in 612.
This city was held in deep antipathy by Israel as a result of the perpetual and bitter conflict they had with the Assyrian empire, as can be seen by Jonah’s (almost comedic) response to the Lord’s call:
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. ~ Jonah 1:1,2
Jonah, as the story continues, boarded a ship at the port of Joppa and was off for Tarshish. His plans, however, were thwarted when the Lord intercepted the ship with a violent tempest. It was revealed to the crew that the cause of the storm was Jonah, and Jonah was eventually thrown overboard.
As many know, Jonah was then swallowed by a great fish, and while in the belly of that fish gave a prayer of repentance and the Lord heard him. The fish vomited Jonah out on dry land and Jonah proceeded to Nineveh where he would deliver God’s message and ultimately His salvation to that city.
It is clear from the story that Jonah resented the fact that God wanted to bring salvation to a city of people who Jonah (and Israel) considered an enemy nation. This is also clearly a story about prejudice and the need for repentance. Nineveh hated Israel, and Israel along with Jonah hated Nineveh. God, however, loved them both, and wanted nothing more than to bring salvation to them and any of His other children abroad.
In the above poem, Nineveh is symbolic for the antagonist who has a deep hatred for the narrator. For whatever reason it is—homophobia, racism, xenophobia, whatever—the antagonist is blinded by the hatred that governs his disposition and perspective.
Unlike Jonah, the narrator (uncalled by God) desires to reach past this barrier of hatred with the hope of showing the antagonist that there is more that unites them than divides them, to show him how alike they are and that they are even deemed kindred and one in the eyes of God. The narrator, unlike his self-made foe, is looking through brotherly eyes.
But hatred is sometimes too much of a barrier, and in this poem it is a wall that has been there a long time: choked and covered with dying vines. The image of a walled city comes to mind, and the narrator wonders if God will call someone, a prophet perhaps, to go beyond these walls and to encourage, indeed, to warn its inhabitants to repent and change their ways for fear that they die in that state of hatred. If only they could see that the lives of those they hated mattered, or that their hearts like theirs also beats, perhaps this would facilitate for them a desire or motive to see things differently, and to change.
As if being asked, the narrator declines being such a messenger, believing it to be strange that the responsibility of teaching love and equality should lie on the shoulders of those being held in antipathy. If anyone ought to coax the inhabitants of that city to change their ways, it ought to be the people living within it. Any change that is not from within will be a show of pretense and therefore meaningless. Ultimately, it is Nineveh that must change Nineveh.
And so, like Jonah, the narrator’s attention is fixed not on Nineveh, but on Tarshish.