Our family is reading the book of Jonah, and we are considering God’s grace to the people of Nineveh, and today we read Jonah’s words after the people of Nineveh repented.
O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live. (Jonah 4:2-3, ESV)
Have you ever wondered why Jonah was so upset that God chose to hear the pleas of the people of Nineveh? He seems downright outraged that God was not going to destroy these people. Before we judge him, we should recognize that if we were in Jonah’s shoes, we probably would have felt the same way.
Jonah lived in a small Galilean town called Gath-hepher just a couple miles north of Galilee, sometime in the mid-8th century BCE (2 Kings 8:14). In his day, Galilee was a very unstable place. The Arameans and Assyrians encroached into the region quite often. The Israelite monarchs, safe in their mountaintop citadel of Samaria, did little to help their northern people so the people of Jonah’s homeland were often dealing with raiding parties or placating invading armies. Brigands and slavers were not uncommon.
The young men who could fled to the Phoenician port cities and became traders and sailors. Those who did not were pressed into Assyrian military service – at first by their Israelite kings and then directly by the Assyrians. The Assyrian kings Shalmaneser III and Sennacherib both boasted of large numbers of Israelite soldiers in their armies.
When not taking off the strongest and best sons of the Israelites, the Assyrians were raping and pillaging. They were considered a barbaric people by everyone, which is an impressive statement indeed when everyone included people who sacrificed their own infants to their gods.
God asked Jonah to go to the heart of the Assyrian empire, the capital city of Nineveh. The enormous walled city (7.5 mi around and 1,900 acres in area) was the central city of a larger urban area, contiguous with three others – Nimrud, Karamles and Khorsabad. These four cities dominated a triangle of fertile land between the Tigris and Zab Rivers, near the modern city of Mosul, Iraq.
Each of these cities were about half the size of Nineveh, and the entire capital region required three days to cross (Jonah 3:3). The population of the greater metropolis was probably 600,000-1 million people, spread out over an irregular area roughly forty miles north to south and running fifty miles along the two rivers.
The region itself would have been dominated by the military. The Persians would later divide the region around their capitals by the types of soldiers who trained there – horse lands (bet-sishi), chariot lands (bet-narkabti), and bow lands (bet-qashti). The Assyrians probably did much the same thing, since they were the first power to employ a professional army and their model became the template for the later rulers.
Nineveh was the epitome of the enemies of God. Not only was it the capital of the Assyrian Empire, but it was also the home of the people who were raiding and pillaging northern Israel. Nineveh was anti-Israel central.
It was clear, even in Jonah’s day, that the Assyrians had designs on the land and trade connections that Israel possessed. Internal struggles slowed the Assyrian expansion, but inevitably they would gain their strength and continue. This is exactly what they did in the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III (ruled 745-727 BCE) and his immediate successors Shalmaneser V and Sennacherib. Less than twenty years after Jonah’s journey to Nineveh, the resurgent Assyrians under Sennacherib would devastate Israel and lay siege to the Judean capital of Jerusalem.
So, it is easy to understand Jonah’s hesitance to comply with God’s orders. These people were not good people. They were terrifying, awful people.