In his book Crucifixion of the Warrior God, Gregory Boyd seeks to deals with the many texts in the Old Testament that portray God as a violent deity. As the subtitle of his book declares, he is Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross. Boyd offers an extensive study of the many Old Testament texts where violence is present. He declares that only the self-sacrificing death of Christ on the cross can offer an explanation for the proper understanding of these “texts of terror.”
One of the many issues Boyd addresses in his book is the problem of genocide. In Chapter 19, titled “Defending Divine Genocide: The Inadequacy of Traditional Defenses of the Conquest Narrative,” Boyd deals with the concept of ḥērem, calling it “genocidal (2017: 920). According to Boyd, the command to destroy the Canaanites was the result of the fallen heart of Moses. Boyd wrote:
In this light, I contend that the macabre portraits of Yahweh uttering the ḥērem command to Moses and then helping his people carry it out, together with the many inconsistencies and other problematic aspects of the conquest narrative that were discussed in the previous chapter, indicate that the genocidal warfare recounted in this narrative was not, in fact, God’s plan. Viewed through the lens of the cross, these genocidal portraits of God rather reflect the fallen heart and mind of Moses and of God’s people as a whole at this point in history. At the same time, because Yahweh is a faithful God who bound himself in covenant with this fallen and untrustworthy group of people, he was willing to humble himself by stooping as far as was necessary to continue to remain in solidarity with his people (20017: 963).
Boyd said that it was a culturally conditioned people who believed God ordered the extermination of a people group. He wrote, “so long as we believe that God might actually be capable of commanding genocide, thereby indicating that we do not fully trust the revelation of God on the cross, we will not be able to see how the genocidal portrait of God bears witness to the cross” (2017: 921). Boyd wrote, “the genocidal portrait of God that is found throughout the conquest narrative reflects the way God’s fallen and culturally conditioned people imagined God and the way they believed Moses had heard from God. It does not reflect what God actually said or the way God actually is” (2017: 942).
It is unfortunate that in dealing with genocide in the conquest narratives, Boyd failed to deal with Yahweh’s genocidal intent to destroy Nineveh as narrated in the book of Jonah. In fact, only once Boyd mentions Jonah in his book, in a footnote on page 282 where he cites Jonah 4:2 in association with the reference to Exodus 34:6-7, a text in which Yahweh reveals himself to Moses as a compassionate and gracious God. In this note, Boyd omits the final sentence of Exodus 34:7, which says: “yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” In a future post, I will deal with this text and explain why Boyd’s conclusions about this statement about God are wrong.
Boyd expresses strong feelings about God’s command to Moses to conquer the people who lived in the land of Canaan (2017: 294). He is also unhappy with the command given by Yahweh to Joshua to conquer the city of Ai thereby killing men, women, and children (2017: 295). Boyd says: “Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of these accounts, at least when read in light of the teachings and example of Jesus, is that Yahweh is occasionally depicted as expressly forbidding his people to show any mercy or pity toward anyone, including the children they are to slaughter” (2017: 296).
In this post I want to address God’s intention to punish Nineveh and Jonah’s anger against God because of what God decided to do with Nineveh.
The Cruelty of Assyria
The Assyrians were known for their cruelty and for the brutal ways they treated their war prisoners. Assyrian monuments document the extent of their brutality and the cruel ways they treated conquered people. Prisoners of war were impaled, beheaded, dragged with fishhooks, blinded, tortured by being hung up by their hands or feet.
Pregnant women had their stomach opened and the fetus removed from their womb. When Hosea prophesied about the fall of the Northern Kingdom, he mentioned the brutality the Assyrians would bring to the people of Samaria. He said: “Samaria shall bear her guilt, because she has rebelled against her God; they shall fall by the sword, their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open” (Hosea 13:16).
During the days of the prophet Isaiah, God used the Assyrians as the rod of his anger to punish the people of Judah for their sins: “Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger — the club in their hands is my fury” (Isaiah 10:5). Tucker (1992: 713) wrote: “God’s purpose to punish Israel, carried out by Assyria, is just, but Assyria’s own purpose to plunder at will is lawless.”
Tiglath-pileser III bragged about the violence he inflicted upon the nations he conquered: “By my own powerful arm I have done this. With my own shrewd wisdom I planned it. I have broken down the defenses of nations and carried off their treasures. I have knocked down their kings like a bull” (Isaiah 10:13 NLT).
The Assyrians were well known for the practice of deporting conquered people to other parts of the Assyrian empire. When Sargon conquered Samaria in 722 BC, he deported 27,290 inhabitants of the Northern Kingdom and resettled them to other parts of the Assyrian empire (2 Kings 17:6). Samaria was incorporated into the Assyrian empire and became a province of Assyria.
The prophet Nahum proclaimed the punishment of Nineveh for their atrocities. In fact, the whole book is an oracle concerning Nineveh (Nahum 1:1). The prophet lamented the fate of the city: “What sorrow awaits Nineveh, the city of murder and lies! She is crammed with wealth and is never without victims” (Nahum 3:1 NLT).
If any city deserved punishment, that city was Nineveh. In light of Nineveh’s crime against humanity, who could bring the nation to justice? No other nation could serve as a tribunal of justice and vindicate the victims of Assyrian brutality. No human king could sit as a judge of the atrocities committed by the Assyrians. The Old Testament presents Yahweh as the Lord of the nations and as such, all nations, including Assyria, are held accountable to him. Because of their atrocities, Yahweh was about to bring a severe judgment upon Assyria. The Lord was about to judge the city for the ways the Assyrians dealt with people. Yahweh said: “‘I am your enemy!’ says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies. ‘Your chariots will soon go up in smoke. Your young men will be killed in battle. Never again will you plunder conquered nations. The voices of your proud messengers will be heard no more’” (Nahum 2:13 NLT). Nahum believed that the fall of Nineveh was good news: “Look, there on the mountains, the feet of one who brings good news, who proclaims peace! Celebrate your festivals, O Judah, and fulfill your vows. No more will the wicked invade you; they will be completely destroyed” (Nahum 1:15 NIV).
God’s Command to Jonah
In his discussion of genocide, Boyd wrote: “All of this suggests that when the narrative depicts Yahweh as commanding the merciless total destruction of a people-group, the narrative intends us to take this quite literally. If there is any hyperbolic element to this, it only concerns the number who were slaughtered, not the age or gender of people who were slaughtered” (2017: 948-49).
God’s command to Jonah was very specific: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me” (Jonah 1:2 TNK). God’s words about Nineveh are similar to his words against Sodom: “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin” (Genesis 18:20). In the case of Sodom, Yahweh sent two messengers to destroy the city because of its wickedness (Genesis 19:13). In the case of Nineveh, Yahweh sent his servant Jonah to announce the coming judgment. Many prophets proclaimed oracles against foreign nations, but Jonah was sent to a foreign nation to proclaim in person the message God had for them.
The judgment of Nineveh was also announced by the prophet Zephaniah. According to Zephaniah, Yahweh “will stretch out his hand against the north, and destroy Assyria; and he will make Nineveh a desolation, a dry waste like the desert” (Zephaniah 2:13).
So, at the command of Yahweh, Jonah reluctantly went to Nineveh, entered the city, and proclaimed to the people of Nineveh: “Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed” (Jonah 3:4 NLT). Another translation puts it more bluntly: “In 40 days Nineveh will be demolished” (Jonah 3:4 HCSB).
I believe these two translations, “will be destroyed” and “will be demolished” do not reflect the intensity of the Niphal participle which implies an act that is already accomplished, that is, the verb refers to a city being overthrown and destroyed: “in forty days Nineveh will be no more.”
Jonah proclaimed the total destruction of Nineveh. The destruction of the city would include the death of all its citizens, men, women, children, and even the animals in it. The Assyrian leaders were guilty of crimes against humanity, of injustice, of violence, of mistreatment of prisoners of war, and of untold atrocities. They were guilty and Yahweh “does not leave the guilty unpunished” (Exodus 34:7). In his commentary on Jonah, Nogalski (2011: 439) said: “The prophet offers no call to repentance, no message of hope, and no plea for change . . . Jonah clearly did not preach to get the people to change their ways. Jonah wanted God to destroy Nineveh. He delivered this message in hope that the people would do nothing and that God would make good on the threat to destroy the city.”
The People’s Response
When the king and his servants heard the message Jonah was proclaiming, he ordered a time of mourning and repentance:
And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish” (Jonah 3:5-9).
The speech of the king appeals to Yahweh’s gracious nature, expressing the hope that God will respond to Nineveh’s repentance. This action is a “hopeful expression that perhaps God will not bring about a threatened destruction” (Dozeman 1989: 209). When God saw that the people had repented and turned from their evil ways, God had mercy on the people of Nineveh, changed his mind, and spared the whole city: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the punishment He had planned to bring upon them, and did not carry it out” (Jonah 3:10). As Fretheim (1978: 231) wrote: “The repentance of the Ninevites provides the necessary occasion for God’s repentance.”
When Jonah saw that God had changed his mind about the punishment that he had said he would bring upon them, Jonah was enraged. The English translations do not present the full extent of Jonah’s anger against God. The NRSV says, “this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry” (Jonah 4:1). But Jonah was more than displeased with God. The Hebrew says: wayyēraʽ ʼel-yônāh rāʽāh gedôlāh wayyīḥar lô (Jonah 4:1). Literally, this expression could be translated as follows: “And unto Jonah it was evil, a great evil, and he was angry.”
Jonah was angry with God because God changed his mind and did not send his judgment on Nineveh. Jonah said to God: “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 are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people” (Jonah 4:2 NLT).
Jonah was very angry with God because he believed that the decision to spare the citizens of Nineveh was wrong and unfair. Jonah believed that what God had done, being merciful to the Assyrians and sparing them from the judgment he had proclaimed was a great evil. Jonah was angry with God because the merciful and compassionate God who had been merciful and compassionate to Israel over and over again in the past now shows himself to be merciful and compassionate to the most despicable people in the world, a people who should be completely destroyed.
In explaining Jonah’s anger, Fretheim wrote:
Jonah’s complaint concerns the leniency made available to the guilty. Nineveh had taken up the sword (more than any other known!) and should, if anyone should, perish by the sword. But now Nineveh, at whose very hand Jonah’s Israel had suffered so mercilessly, was to be offered the chance to escape the guillotine. Israel, God’s covenant people, had been destroyed, and now the destroyer was being offered life (1978: 227).
God’s Response to Jonah
The last verse of the book shows the reason God did not send the judgment that Jonah had announced would come upon Nineveh. God told Jonah: “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:11).
According to Jonah 4:11, the population of Nineveh was more than 120,000 people. This statement indicates that God has a deep concern for people, that he does not want anyone to perish but that all come to repentance. The sparing of the sinners who lived in Nineveh shows God’s compassion. Jonah had compassion for a simple plant, but God had greater compassion for the people and the animals living in Nineveh.
The date of the book of Jonah is a matter of debate among scholars. Conservative scholars identify the Jonah of the book with the prophet who prophesied in the days of Jeroboam II, who ruled in 786-746 BC (2 Kings 14:25). I agree with most scholars that the book is exilic or post-exilic. However, the date of composition does not change what the book says about the nature and character of God.
According to the book of Jonah, Yahweh truly intended to punish Nineveh and destroy the city. If he had destroyed Nineveh, then all the people living in the city, men, women, and children would have died. And if they had died, that would be considered genocide, but the book of Jonah emphasizes that God changed his mind about the judgment against Nineveh because the people repented of their evil ways: “When God saw what they had done and how they had put a stop to their evil ways, he changed his mind and did not carry out the destruction he had threatened” (Jonah 3:10 NLT).
Sinful people deserve to die, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), but God has “no pleasure in the death of anyone” (Ezekiel 18:32). Rather, the Lord wants people “to turn from their wicked ways and live” (Ezekiel 18:23).
The God of the Old Testament is a righteous God, a merciful and just God. The people of Nineveh should have received the punishment they deserved for their wickedness but because they repented and turned from their wicked ways, the grace of God prevailed over his wrath.
What Jonah in his anger failed to understand was that even in their wickedness, Assyria was special to God: “On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage’” (Isaiah 19:24-25).
Nineveh deserved the divine judgment because God “does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:7). However, when God saw the sincere repentance of the Ninevites, his mercy prevailed against his wrath: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7).
If only the Canaanites had repented!
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Studies on Gregory Boyd and the Character of God
NEXT: “Greg Boyd and the Character of God – Part 11 – Jeremiah’s Reinterpretation of the Intergenerational Punishment Statement.”
Other Posts on Gregory Boyd
Boyd, Gregory A. Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross. 2 Vols. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017.
Dozeman, Thomas B. “Inner-Biblical Interpretation of Yahweh’s Gracious and Compassionate Character.” Journal of Biblical Literature 108 (1989): 207-223.
Fretheim, Terence E. “Jonah and Theodicy.” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 90 (1978): 227-237.
Nogalski, James D. The Book of the Twelve: Hosea-Jonah. Macon, GA: Smith & Helwys, 2011.
Tucker, Gene M. “Isaiah.” The Oxford Study Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.