Wandering the savage garden…

What did Jonah say to Nineveh?

On Monday nights, my church has a men’s core training class, where a set of men get together to study books of the Bible together. Last semester, we went through the book of James (which ended up with me starting this blog in an attempt to do more as part of a Christian life); this semester, we have the books of Jonah and Nahum as material.

I’ve been thinking about the book of Jonah, since it’s what we’re covering first. One thing jumps out at me: what did Jonah say to Nineveh?

Quick Summary of the Book of Jonah

Nineveh is the capital of the Assyrian Empire, which is a particularly bloody-minded nation. Assyria and Judah were allies (with Judah being an unconquered vassal state); Israel was ground under Assyria’s heel.

Jonah is called by God to “preach against” Nineveh, a city to the northeast of Judah. As an ardent nationalist, Jonah goes straight west across the Mediterranean Sea, to be redirected by God (in the belly of a big fish, as the story goes) back to Nineveh, where he preaches about the doom God will visit upon the city.

Nineveh repents, puts on sackcloth and ashes.

Jonah gets upset that God would have mercy on the Assyrians in any way, and sulks; God addresses him in the last chapter of the book, in a less-remembered but far more substantial statement about God’s character.

So… what did Jonah say?

I’m honestly a little confused. We have a few things to work with:

  • Jonah was called to “preach against” Nineveh, for its wickedness had “come up before” God (Jonah 1:1).
  • Jonah 3:2 says that God told Jonah to “go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Yet I haven’t seen what that message was, yet. Chapter 2 is a beautiful prayer to God – but it’s focused on God’s relationship to Jonah, not God’s rejection of Nineveh’s ways.
  • Jonah 3:4 actually gives a message: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” This is all very well and good, and has to be a short form; I can’t imagine that this is all of what God had Jonah say, unless Jonah’s face was shining like the sun to inspire people to listen to him. Even so, being told “this will happen” isn’t exactly corrective in nature…
  • Jonah 3:7-9 records a proclamation by the king:

    Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish. (NIV)

My feeling is that Jonah went with two core pieces of content: one is that Nineveh was going to be destroyed (Jonah 3:4) and the other is that the city was to call urgently on God, and give up their evil ways and their violence (Jonah 3:8).

But… this still seems lacking.

Jonah was a prophet of Judah. His God would be the God of the Hebrews; his ethics would be based on the laws of Moses. Judaism was for the Jews, not the Gentiles; proselytization was rare and generally discouraged.

Judaism does, however, have the concept of the Noachide laws, seven laws by which non-Jews can be considered righteous. They’re derived from the edicts God gave to “the children of Noach” (i.e., all of mankind) and prescribe a general moral ethic:

  • Prohibition of idolatry
  • Prohibition of murder
  • Prohibition of theft
  • Prohibition of sexual immorality
  • Prohibition of blasphemy
  • Prohibition of eating flesh taken from an animal while it is still alive
  • Establishment of courts of law

(The legalist in me wants to know the specific definitions of idolatry, immorality, blasphemy, et al – because I don’t know what is specifically considered immoral vs. moral behavior taken as specific characteristics, without an objective definition.)

Nineveh would have certainly violated many of these: theft, murder, idolatry, blasphemy, probably sexual immorality. I have no honest idea about the flesh from living animals in Assyria, and courts of law would have been established.

Maybe the flesh from living animals was another violation of the Noachide laws; after all, the city was told not to eat or drink. This seems like a bit of a stretch to me, but I don’t know.

So my feeling, after giving it some thought, is this:

Jonah told Nineveh that it would be destroyed, but that God might spare it if it repented of its sin according to the Noachide laws. (Remember: Hebrew laws of piety wouldn’t have applied.) Through God’s mercy and power, Nineveh listened and saw its doom on the horizon, and listened – for the short term.

(The book of Jonah ends well for Nineveh; however, it didn’t last. A few years later, Nineveh was scraped out like a gourd, as recorded by Nahum and others… to the point where archeologists are still hoping they’ve found Nineveh.)

Is this a “grand thought,” to figure out what Jonah spoke to Nineveh? Um…. not really. But one of the blessings of Christianity is that its message of salvation is for all the world, and not restricted to a nation chosen by God; the message is similar for everyone, such that it can be clearly and unambiguously proclaimed.


(Originally published January 12, 2012.)

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