Jonah: The setting.


Jonah opens with the Lord telling Jonah to “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before Me” (Jonah 1:2). What was so great about Nineveh and why was God interested in it in ~750 BCE?

Archaeologist Henry Layard’s image of Nineveh.

Nineveh was one of the most beautiful cities of the ancient world. Archaeologists believe that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were actually in Nineveh. King Sennacherib made Nineveh the capital of ancient Assyria, building roads and canals throughout the city so there was adequate water for both citizens and agriculture. Situated in Iraq near modern-day Mosul, its walls were covered in lime and the city was surrounded by a double moat. It would reflect the sun from both walls and water, so it would shine across the desert. At this time in history it was known for its warriors, education, and art. And its taxes. (Always taxes) Later it would add a massive library of 30,000 clay tablets, including tablets containing the Epic of Gilgamesh. The primary gods were Ashur and Ishtar. It was a prosperous city, its wealth coming from its place as a crossroads of east and west.

As I dug into the history of Nineveh, I began to think that the city represents all the major cities of history. It was absolutely a real place, and Jonah’s story is recognized by all three major religions in the region still. A version of the story is told in the Quran , interpreted as a call to patience in adversity. Jewish people tell the story on Yom Kippur, the solemn day of atonement. In Christianity, the Syriac Orthodox church holds a three day fast as they remember Jonah and seek reconciliation with God and with each other. Jonah’s burial site was in Nineveh until it was destroyed by ISIS in 2014. Archaeological digs continue there, in spite of almost total devastation.

The monument of Jonah’s tomb before it was destroyed

Nineveh was not a Jewish city, so sending a Jewish prophet there seems curious. Moreover, the inhabitants of Nineveh were hostile to the Jews, which explains why Jonah resisted God’s call to go. The kings (most famously Sennacherib) were cruel warriors who enslaved those whom they captured and those who did not bow down to them. They levied taxes on their own people, the people they conquered, and any merchant passing through the city or its strongholds. It represented plurality and secularism, two attributes common in the modern West.

I imagine Nineveh was like San Francisco or New York City. Government sponsored massive public works, focused on a humanistic center of progress, and promoted absolutely intolerant of anyone who might challenge their superiority. These cities are centers of tourism and wealth, beautiful on the surface, but just below the gleaming surface lurks the ugly reality of corruption, rot, and death. So, in a sense, Nineveh is a metaphor for any place, ancient or modern that turns priorities upside-down. Instead of seeking the welfare of the people, city leaders focus on adding to their power by shining the outside image so that no one notices the evil that happens in the darker corners.

With that in mind, I am beginning to understand why Nineveh. Knowing history, the city was one of the greatest in the Assyrian Empire, but is now little more than dust. It was headed toward destruction by the activities of its elite when God woke up Jonah and told him to preach to the people there.

There are plenty of places filled with people headed toward destruction in the glittering cities of the modern world. God still calls his people to go and preach repentance and make disciples. The question becomes, when is a city too far gone for God?

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