The book of Jonah is based on the life of a nationalistic prophet who lived during the days when Jeroboam II was the king of Israel (2 Kings 14:25).
Most people who read the book of Jonah emphasize the miracle of the great fish swallowing the prophet and miss completely what the book has to say about Jonah’s A TranslatGod. Readers of the book of Jonah are so fascinated by the events of chapter 2 that they never read chapter 4, where the truth about the nature of Jonah’s God is revealed.
The book was not written to emphasize what Jonah preached. In fact, the book has only one sermon and that sermon contains only five words in Hebrew. However, that sermon must be understood in the context of the political situation of the eighth century B.C., the time when Jonah lived.
The book tells about how God called Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire to preach a message that unless the people of Nineveh repented, judgment would come upon the city. Jonah rebelled against the divine call and instead of going to Nineveh, he boarded a ship going to Tarshish, a place located in the opposite direction from where the prophet was called to go.
To understand the stubbornness and rebellion of Jonah, it becomes important to understand the Assyrians and their policies toward other nations. When Tiglath-pileser III became king of Assyria in 745 B.C., his goal was to establish an empire that would go from the Persian Gulf to Egypt.
In order to achieve his goal, Tiglath-pileser implemented several programs to extend Assyrian supremacy over the Ancient Near East. First, Tiglath-pileser established a policy of permanent conquest. Each nation conquered by Assyria became a province of the empire. Each conquered nation had to pay an annual tribute to Assyria.
Second, an administrative system of regional governors was set up by Assyria to rule over the provinces. Each province had to provide for the needs of the Assyrian army in case of war. They were required to provide food, soldiers, and slaves. Each citizen of the provinces became an Assyrian citizen.
Third, Assyria enforced a policy of brutal reprisal in case of revolts. The Assyrians enforced this policy of terror by means of violence, pain, and suffering. In addition, a policy of mass deportation was reintroduced by Tiglath-pileser.
This policy of mass deportation meant that after conquering a nation, Tiglath-pileser took the survivors of the upper class along with professional and skilled people of that nation and relocated them to other parts of the empire. Then, he would bring war prisoners from other nations and settle them in the conquered nation.
The people of the Ancient Near East hated the Assyrians. They had inflicted so much pain and so much suffering that the prophet Nahum declared that the fall of Nineveh and the destruction of the Assyrian empire was “good news” (Nahum 1:15 ) to those who have been subjected to the Assyrian yoke.
God desired to give the Assyrians an opportunity to repent and be saved, but Jonah desired the destruction of the Assyrians because of the suffering and pain they had caused on so many people. Jonah saw it as his patriotic duty to do everything he could to help the destruction of Assyria, even shirking from his responsibility as a prophet of God.
Even though Jonah ran away from Yahweh, he eventually came to Nineveh where he had to preach a message of judgment: Another forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed (Jonah 3:4). The last word נהפכת is a Niphal participle. This may indicate that, in the mind of Jonah, Nineveh would not escape judgment. Nineveh was a city already destroyed.
In their book, A Translation Handbook on the Book of Jonah (Stuttgart: United Bible Societies, 1978), p. 55, Brynmor Price and Eugene Nida wrote about Jonah’s message:
No reason is given to the people for the threat of destruction and no alternative of repentance is offered. It is as though Jonah is only concerned to carry out his commission to the absolute minimum, and he seemingly has no concern for the well-being of those to whom he preached.
Jonah was not concerned for the situation of the people of Nineveh, but Jonah’s God was. When the people of Nineveh repented as a result of Jonah’s message, God forgave them:
God saw what they had done, that they had turned away from their evil lives. He did change his mind about them. What he said he would do to them he didn’t do (Jonah 3:10).
In reaction to God’s act of compassion, Jonah prayed:
Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, LORD? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you were a gracious and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. I knew how easily you could cancel your plans for destroying these people (Jonah 4:2).
This verse clearly describes the nature of the God of the Bible. A study of the attributes of God reveals how God deals with people, even people as evil as the Assyrians:
“Gracious God” means the God who inclines graciously to the humble and needy, and who exercises his supremacy on behalf the inferior. Thus, Jonah knew, that even to an evil people like the Assyrians, God was infinitely full of gracious love, even though they did not deserve it.
“Compassionate God” means the kindly and solicitous providence of the one who protects and sustains endangered life like a mother sustains her young.
“Slow to anger” means the patient deferment of the wrath that has been deserved, in which God does not destroy the guilty.
“Abundance of unfailing love” means that God’s dealing with people is based on his faithful and unfailing love. The divine kindness to the Assyrians is a visible demonstration of unmerited grace which culminates in the forgiveness of sins.
“Relents from evil” means that Yahweh reconsiders the intended punishment even when the acts committed deserve punishment.
Jonah knew that because of the gracious nature of God, God would change his mind concerning the evil that was about to be inflicted upon the Assyrians and would replace it with good the moment the wicked Ninevites repented.
In the end, the reader of Jonah can understand the prophet’s despair: God did not bring divine judgment upon the wicked Assyrians. On the contrary, because of his nature as a merciful and compassionate God, a God who is slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love, a God who easily cancels his plans for punishing evil people, God forgave Israel’s enemy and did not destroy them, even though they deserved to be punished for the evil and destruction they had caused.
What kind of God does not punish people who deserve to be punished? Only a God who is concerned for people, even when they are evil and wicked. Yahweh’s great love and compassion for people move him to withdraw divine judgment when people are willing to repent from their evil ways.
However, this is not the nature of God that is portrayed in the media and in the blogsphere. For instance, in Blogging the Bible, David Plotz, Deputy Editor of Slate.com Magazine, reading through the Bible, presumably for the first time, said that one of the disappointing things he discovered was the capriciousness of the God of the Bible. He said:
To read the Old Testament the way I’m reading it, you have to be disappointed sometimes in God’s behavior. God is very capricious, constantly describing himself as merciful and forgiving, but yet not merciful. God is constantly killing innocents and demanding the murder of innocents in a way that’s extremely troubling.
Plotz’s reading of the Bible is one-sided. He is only looking at what God does and not at what God does not do. He probably never looks at what people do and whether they deserve judgment when judgment is due upon them because of their evil deeds.
Even in our society people are judged when they break human laws. In many states, the punishment for premeditated murder is death. However, what happens when people violate divine laws? Those who believe that people and nations are not under divine laws do not accept divine sanctions when violations of these laws occur on a grand scale.
The people of Nineveh were not Israelites, but they were under the sovereignty of a God who is the God of all nations. Jonah changed his feelings from pleasure to anger because of a plant. The merciful God also changed his mind out of love and compassion for the people of Nineveh. He said to Jonah: So, why can’t I likewise change what I feel about Nineveh from anger to pleasure, this big city of more than a hundred and twenty thousand childlike people who don’t yet know right from wrong, to say nothing of all the innocent animals? (Jonah 4:11)
Now, this is the God of the Bible that people need to meet, the gracious and compassionate God, the God who is slow to get angry and who is filled with unfailing love, the God who changes his plans about punishing people when they repent from their evil ways.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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>Allow me first to write that I’m glad to read such comments in order to be able to correct many misconceptions and wrong judgements which are passed upon the ancient Assyrians.I should make it a point and case to put not a penny but a dollar aside for every time I see an article repeating that the ancient Assyrians were “ruthless” people but no one mentions the accomplishments and the civilization that the ancient Assyrians left for the world,in addition to being the first people to believe in the message of salvation and spreading it as far as India,Mongolia,Soumatra,Japan,China,Azerbaijan, and so on with their monuments being witnesses to that great effort long before Marco Polo or the Roman Catholic Church set foot in those remote lands, the missionaries of the Holy Church of The East a.k.a. The Holy Apostolic Assyrian Church of The East,held a Cross in one hand and the Bible in the other and went on foot to preach the Gospel with Christian brotherly love and not coercion.The ancient Assyrians used force just like did the Romans,Greeks or Egyptians,even the Jews did.Since their historical lands in what’s today known as Iraq amongst other parts of the Middle East were invaded by Persians,Arabs and Mongols the indigenous Assyrians have paid a hight price over the centuries just to preserve their identity,culture,language and history and they continue to suffer.A final point about Jonah who was supposed to be a believer yet he tried run away from God’s command in order not to go to Assyria but the Assyrians listened to his message,repented and later on became the first people to believe in the Messiah and Salvation.The Old Testament is full of different stories which are pro and against people but the most important of them all is this verse from the New Testament Luke 11:32The word which you used in the article as niphal is the Assyrian word napla from the verb napel meaning to fall.It’s a well known fact that the Hebrews spoke Assyrian which is referred erroneously to as Aramaic or Syriac and till today 6 of the Old Testament books are still read by the Jews in what is referred to erroneously as “Aramaic” and the alphabet which the Hebrews or Jews today use is called the Assyrian letters even though they write it differently.The Assyrians believed without seeing but those who had the light amongst them never saw it.Till today the Liturgical calendar of the Holy Apostolic Assyrian Church of The East still commemorates that event with a three day fast named the Rogation of the Ninevites and many traditions are attached to that fast.
>Dear Friend,Thank you for you for visiting my blog. I apologize for the delay in replying to your comment. In order to be fair to what you wrote, I am posting a reply on Assyria in the Bible. Please read my post to be published on December 13, 2006.Claude Mariottini
>Dear Dr. Mariottini,Thank you for the excellent article on Jonah. And emphasizing the point of the whole story in Chapter 4: God’s incredible mercy and grace towards all peoples. As I continue to read and study and know Christ, I regularly am humbled by the whole idea of God’s mercy and that I should have His same character: “Love mercy!” says Micah in 6:8. I think it is easy, for some reason, to also miss the whole message of Jesus in the NT by focusing on the miracles. But the real miracle is the daily interaction, compassion and love Jesus had to generally a bunch of rejects in that society–Zaccaeus (traitor), Matthew (tax collector), Mary (prostitute), the Roman Centuriun (oppressor), the Samaritan woman (outcast race), and many more. Wow, what mercy and grace he showed them! What an amazing God… who ‘lavishes grace’ on us. And whose requirement for us is to ‘be perfect–merciful, as our heavenly Father is perfect (merciful)’ I fall so short of this character, but desire to be like our Father. Thank you, thank you again for your article. I have some maybe technical questions: Is there archaelogic evidence today of Ninevah’s repentance under Tiglath-pileser III? (Or could it be buried under the muslim holy site called Jonah near modern day Ninevah?)Also, how many kings followed Tiglath-pileser until king Sannacherib? Thank you.
>Oh, my friend, you are so right. He is a compassionate King, and I was raised (Jewish) to believe that all of us are made in His image. He is slow to anger and certainly, certainly, certainly, knows when people do not know any better. For those of us who do, we believe, He judges us accordingly.Thanks for a great post, Linda Freedman
>Linda,Thank you for visiting my blog and thank you for your comment. The God of the Bible is an amazing God. Too bad that he is so misunderstood. If people who read the Bible would study the character of God, they would discover that the God of the Bible is indeed a compassionate God.Claude Mariottini
>Dear Mike,Thank you for visiting my blog and for your insightful comments. The mercy of God knows no bounds and those who experience God’s grace in Jesus Christ can easily understand why God deals with people the way he dealt with the Ninevites.Let me answer your two questions briefly:1. There is no archaeological evidence for Nineveh’s repentance. It would be hard to find archaeological evidence for something that would happen in the hearts of people.2. These are the kings from Tiglath-pileser III to Sennacherib:Tiglath-pileser III, 745-727Shalmaneser V, 726-722Sargon II, 721-705Sennacherib, 704-681I hope this information will be of help to you.Claude Mariottini
>Dear Dr. Mariottini,Thank you for your answer. It is interesting that from Ninevah’s repentance under Tiglath-pileser III until King Sennacherib’s reign there were merely 23 to 64 years. King Sennacharib apparently was very arrogant and the Ninevites were the ‘bad guys’ once again. I was curious how long it took for the Ninevites to go bad again. It is sobering to note that it is possibly less than 1 generation. Showing us the responsibility for each generation to keep a humble, repentant heart before Almighty God.