Welcome to Bible Fiber where we are encountering the textures and shades of the prophetic tapestry in a year-long study of the twelve minor prophets, one prophet each month. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.
This week we are studying the third chapter of Jonah. Chapter 2 ended abruptly with the whale vomiting Jonah onto dryland. Chapter 3 opens with the word of the Lord coming to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”
Jonah is written stylistically. With the four episodes in the book, chapter 1 parallels chapter 3 and chapter 2 parallels chapter 4. The anonymous narrator of Jonah signals this symmetry by using the exact same wording for God’s commission of Jonah in 1:1 and 3:1. The words “Up! Go to the great city of Nineveh” initiate the first and third episodes. After a storm and fish swallowing, Jonah, this time, does not flee from God’s presence but instead “obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh.” He followed through on the same commission he had previously turned down. Indeed, our God is the author of second chances, although not guaranteed.
The anonymous author describes Nineveh hyperbolically as “an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across” (3:3). Jonah’s Nineveh was an important city in the Assyrian empire and a religious center with many temples dedicated to the various Assyrian gods, but it had not yet reached its highpoint. Nineveh would become the crown jewel of the Assyrian empire during the reign of Sennacherib (705-681 BCE), fifty or so years later. Sennacherib doubled the size of the city. His massive building projects put Nineveh on the map, earning her a reputation of greatness. If the story of Jonah was chronicled many years later, it may be the new and improved version of Nineveh that the narrator was describing. Or by the time the story of Jonah was widely shared, Sennacherib’s Nineveh might have already been destroyed. The verb tense comes across like Nineveh’s greatness is already in the past. The narrator says, “Nineveh was an exceedingly great city.”
Jonah’s oracle was five words: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” That is the only prophetic utterance in the whole book. In his warning of impending doom, Jonah played the same role as the angel of the Lord who warned Lot’s family of the coming sulfur and fire, but in Sodom’s case the grace period was a matter of hours rather than days (Gen. 19). Forty is the number often associated in the Bible with periods of testing. Israel had forty years in the desert to become a nation reliant on God. Jesus took forty days in the desert before launching his earthly ministry.
Jonah’s prophetic methods are not described. It did take him three days to reach every Ninevite neighborhood with his warning of doom. What we read from his five-word prophecy is that Jonah does not identify the source of his oracle as the one true Yahweh. He does not chronicle the list of the Ninevites offenses in the eyes of God. And yet, the scripture simply puts it, “the people of Nineveh believed God” (3:5). They never question the source behind the divine message. They give audience to Jonah, this stranger from a foreign tiny kingdom, and take his message serious. Prophets were not always heard and received in the ancient world. Recall that not even Jeremiah, a local man known as a prophet in Judah, was safe to declare his prophetic message. Jeremiah was thrown in jail. Jonah was a foreigner from a former vassal of Assyria, but the Ninevites believed he was speaking truth.
Even though Jonah did not call for repentance, the people of Nineveh intuit the needed response, and they waste no time in coming together as a community to atone for their sins. The king of Nineveh calls for ritual repentance from every man, woman, and child despite their age or social ranking. Animals are included among those called to fast and cover in sackcloth. The totality of the call for lament has a striking similarity to Joel 1. Joel 1:18 also describes the cattle and flocks as part of the communal ritual, picturing them crying out to God in prayer. Historians believe animal participation in national mourning ceremonies was a Persian custom, but it obviously had spillover effects into other Mesopotamian cultures.
The king does not issue a decree from his ivory tower but counts himself among those in need of forgiveness. He trades his robe for sackcloth and publicly humbles himself by descending from his throne and sitting in ashes (3:6). The king’s identification with the people shows the totality of this revival. Everyone is to mourn, fast, and dress in sackcloth. Sackcloth was part of the mourning rituals in the Bible among the Israelites as well (Joel 1:8; 2 Sam 3:31). Sackcloth is named three separate times in this chapter. There is an emphatic element to their recognition of God’s call that is strikingly commendable.
The king goes unnamed in Jonah, like the unnamed pharaohs of the exodus that have caused so much consternation among biblical chronologists. The problem is that the title “king of Nineveh” in the eighth century BCE is a bit anachronistic. The King of Assyria that ruled at the time of Jonah was King Assur-dan III (772–755 BCE). His capital was not in Nineveh. As a weak and distracted ruler, however, all his cities had powerful provincial governors. Jonah 3:7 reflects that dynamic when the king introduces his proclamation saying: “By the decree of the king and his nobles.”
The decree is not an empty ritual performance either. The king calls for a moral reckoning. All violence and immorality must stop. Just as Joel had called on the people of his day to “rend their hearts and not their garments,” the king of Nineveh demands the cessation of wickedness. His proclamation states, “all shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands” (3:8). The uniformity of the Ninevites compliance is described as a miracle, equal to the supernatural nature of the storm and fish swallowing.
Those who argue against the historicity of Jonah often point to the lack of evidence that Nineveh ever recognized the God of Israel or communally repented of their misdeeds. I said in my introductory podcast for Jonah that those who believe Jonah is more parable or allegory are not necessarily biblical minimalists. Strong Bible believers are also part of that camp. However, I do not see weight to this argument against a historical Jonah. I would not expect to find in Assyrian records documentation of a moment in time where Ninevites repented and avoided a disaster from a foreign god. Repentance and revival, by their nature, do not leave material records. We also know from the other prophets, like Nahum and Zephaniah, that Nineveh’s revival was short-lived. Searching for a generational moment of full repentance would be like searching for a needle in a haystack for archaeologists and epigraphers. If punishment were enacted, what we could have expected to see in the material record was Nineveh’s destruction. Non-events do not leave the same record as disasters. Also, given that this was a period of Assyrian decline, very little documentation from the reign of King Assur-dan III has survived.
The most striking aspect of chapter three is the immediacy in which the people and the king of Nineveh respond to God’s message. Biblical historians believe the Ninevites were primed for a divine warning based off a series of ominous events before Jonah’s arrival. We know from Assyrian records that around the time of Jonah, the Ninevites observed a total eclipse of the sun in 763 BCE. A superstitious people, the eclipse was a bad sign but it was followed by real threats: political conflict, civilian rebellion, and economic trouble. According to the Assyrian annals, the empire also experienced a severe famine around this time that lasted six years and caused major food shortages. When the prophet who survived a fish swallowing arrived in their city, they were listening.
Chapter 3 ends with God’s calling off Nineveh’s destruction: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it” (3:10). Had they just believed, or just repented, or just turned from their evil ways, God may not have been moved to pity. But their belief prompted both humility and action, showing an inward and outward renewal. This was the awakening pastors pray for in their congregations. Just as God had heard the cries of the Phoenician pagan sailors on the boat with Jonah and silenced the storm, he has now heard the cries of polytheistic Ninevites earnestly seeking to right their wrongs.
Jonah’s author has craftily and subtly put theological questions into the mind of his audience: What is the nature and purpose of God’s anger? What does it mean that God changed His mind? Isn’t the fulfillment of a prophet’s oracle the verification of his prophetic station? Is a prophet still a prophet if his oracle does not come true?
God answered this question about His divine will and workings in the world when he brought the prophet Jeremiah to a potter’s house. He explained to Jeremiah:
“If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.” (Jer. 18:7-10)
Our actions can cancel God’s judgement or initiate His blessing. It may be an uncomfortable thought that God’s plans are movable and that prophecies are not absolute. Nevertheless, we see examples of God’s reversal of intentions all throughout the Bible. The episode most cemented into the mind of an ancient Hebrew was the golden calf at the foot of Mount Sinai. God wanted to destroy the Hebrews but Moses intervened, begging God for His compassion to replace His wrath.
Jonah is a narrative that places two events under the microscope to exam the nature of God’s wrath and His compassion. In the first half of Jonah, God canceled his punishment of the prophet, saving him from death by drowning and the pagan sailors from shipwreck. In the second half of Jonah, God withdraws his judgement on Nineveh. In both cases, the reader feels God’s punishment on either Jonah or the Assyrians would be just. Jonah was the most disobedient prophet and Assyria was the most wicked of empires. It is not their punishment that surprises the audience, but their rescue.
I hope by now you have recognized that in the Minor Prophets, God’s proclamations of coming punishment are accompanied by equal calls for return. Malachi 3:7 whispers, “Return to me, and I will return to you.” Amos 5:4 sums up the prophets: “Seek me and live.” In Isaiah 54:7, God promises, “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back.” Do you see? It is God’s love, His mercy, and His compassion that will go on forever. The Psalmist assures, “For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime” (Ps. 30:5).
The late Rabbi Abraham Heschel in his book The Prophets, explained it this way: “There is no divine anger for anger’s sake. Its meaning is, as already said, instrumental: to bring about repentance; its purpose and consummation is its own disappearance.”
Join me next week as we study Jonah 4. With the salvation of Nineveh, the reluctant prophet grapples with the expansiveness of God.
Thank you for listening and please continue to participate in this Bible Reading Challenge. My only measure of success for Bible Fiber is if people, even a few, are reading parts of the Bible that they had previously neglected and seeing them with fresh eyes and hearing the scripture with new ears. Bible Fiber is available on YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts.