Saturday, December 05, 2020

Mining the Minors: Jonah (11)

Nineveh was the largest city in the world in its day, but it was also one of the most ancient. The Assyrians who lived there in the time of Jonah did not build it. When they conquered it and drove out the resident Amorites, Nineveh had already been around for more than a millennium, having been built, rebuilt, occupied and re-occupied under different names first by the Hatti, then the Akkadians and Amorites. This constant building and rebuilding was not just necessitated by the endless wars fought for the city over the centuries; the original city was also built on a fault line and was therefore subject to regular damage from earthquakes.

Other great walled cities of the Ancient East may have inspired a measure of overconfidence in their citizens. Nineveh probably did not. When Jonah announced Nineveh’s imminent doom to its people, it is very likely that his prophecy sounded all too plausible.

The reaction of the Ninevites may have been something like “Not again!”

Jonah 3:1-4 — The Second Word
“Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.’ So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ ”
Having been released from his underwater prison cell, Jonah received another word from the Lord very much like the first, if perhaps a little more specific. So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh.

Going to Nineveh

Getting there was a bit of a project. When Jonah had originally fled from the presence of the Lord, he had boarded a ship in the port city of Joppa and sailed off into the Mediterranean, presumably headed west. Then, after three days in the belly of the great fish, the fish deposited Jonah back on dry land at God’s command.

Unlike Joppa, Nineveh was not a port city. It was at least 350 miles inland as the crow flies. (The possibility that the fish transported Jonah up the Tigris to Nineveh in a mere three days’ time is a total non-starter; the fish would have had to teleport. In any case, since God’s command to Jonah was “Arise, go to Nineveh”, it is reasonable to infer that Jonah was not in that very moment standing outside one of Nineveh’s fifteen massive gates.) It also seems reasonable to assume that God made obedience as easy as possible for his servant under the circumstances, so it is probable Jonah began his journey from the Syrian coast roughly opposite the island of Cyprus.

Of course, it is highly unlikely Jonah was able to travel in a straight line from the coast to fulfill his mission. No matter where he started, it would have been necessary to cross the great Euphrates River, which would have meant finding another boat to hire. Moreover, the terrain may have forced the prophet miles out of his way on more than one occasion. Even walking 12 hours a day, Jonah was looking at at least a two week journey.

Thankfully, our narrator is no J.R.R. Tolkien; he spares us the details of the trip and takes us to Jonah’s destination in a single verse. But the point is that obeying God’s command required some serious sandal-leather, with many quiet hours on the road to contemplate a mission whose objective Jonah still didn’t share in the slightest.

The Sign of Jonah

God’s first command to Jonah with respect to the city of Nineveh had been “Call out against it.” The second is similar: “Call out against it the message that I tell you.” Very few words of that message are actually recorded for us; we simply read that Jonah cried out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” If Jonah said more than that, we do not know what it was, and since Nineveh’s people were engaged in so many forms of odious behavior that it had drawn God’s attention, from idol worship to violence, oppression and who-knows-what, it is likely that just as with John the Baptist’s general call to repentance, each person who heard Jonah’s warning had specific things of which he or she needed to repent that differed in type or magnitude from the sins of his neighbors and family members.

In Luke, the Lord Jesus says that Jonah “became a sign to the people of Nineveh”. It seems reasonable to ask in what sense this was the case. The word Luke uses is sÄ“meion, meaning a token, mark or evidence. Not all signs in the New Testament were of the miraculous sort. The Lord’s supernatural healings were signs, but so was a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. So a “sign” might also be a “wonder”, but then again it might be something perfectly ordinary.

It seems highly unlikely there was anything spectacular about Jonah’s appearance in Nineveh. I have read the occasional commentator who suggests Jonah had been disfigured by his ordeal, perhaps bleached or burned by the great fish’s digestive juices, but any suggestion of that amounts to pure conjecture. Nor does it appear that Jonah told the people of Nineveh his own story to impress them, and they certainly did not hear it from the mariners who threw Jonah overboard. Those men were hundreds of miles away.

Moreover, it is unnecessary to imagine that anything unusual attended Jonah’s appearance in Nineveh. When the Lord says of his generation in Israel, “No sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah”, he is ruling out doing a miracle on demand rather than offering one. So then, the “sign of Jonah” was in all probability something that would have appeared quite ordinary to those who observed it, probably nothing more than Jonah’s presence and testimony in the city: unremarkable in itself, but when combined with faith on the part of those who heard Jonah’s words, recognizable as a word from God all the same.

In both cases a genuine miracle had either taken place, or else shortly would. Jonah was three days and nights in the belly of a great fish. The Lord Jesus would be three days in the grave. God delivered Jonah, and God raised the Lord Jesus from the dead. But neither miracle was witnessed mid-process. In both cases it was not the miracles themselves that were the signs, it was the presence in their aftermath of the men who had experienced them.

Three Days’ Journey

When we read that Nineveh was “three days’ journey in breadth”, it is probably best to understand that as meaning that it would take three days to work your way through all Nineveh’s many neighborhoods than to take it to mean that it would have taken three full days for Jonah to walk from one end of Nineveh to the other. The expression is literally “three days’ walk”, and does not imply that the walk need be in a straight line. The former interpretation also has the advantage of corresponding to Nineveh’s documented historical size during the period of Jonah’s testimony to the Assyrian people.

It was also unnecessary (and probably impossible) for Jonah to address every Ninevite individually, or to have given some long, wordy sermon. In fact, the text appears to imply that he first walked deep into the city and then began calling out his brief and challenging message. What was important is that the message be heard by multitudes and passed on from those who heard personally to those who didn’t, which appears to have been the case. In this way, the entire population of the city received the message in short order: The God of Israel is displeased with this city. Prepare to be judged.


The expression “Nineveh will be overthrown” is interesting. The Hebrew word translated “overthrown” is haphak, meaning to tumble or turn over. Sort of like an earthquake ...

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