One of the world’s most influential men of the twentieth century, Dr. Billy Graham, was once challenged regarding his faith and literal belief in the story of Jonah and the whale. When asked, “Billy you cannot truly believe that God sent a whale to swallow Jonah can you?” Dr. Graham replied, “ I actually believe that if God wanted to…He could have made Jonah swallow the whale!”
Without studying biblical historical context (the bible’s setting in history), we often fail to see the significance of the people and places mentioned therein. Nineveh, the city the prophet Jonah was sent to, existed. The thriving metropolis of the Ancient Near East is not a mythical city like Atlantis. Ancient biblical scripture always takes place in historical setting. This differentiates the Judean-Christian faith from all others. The message is interwoven with actual history and archaeological evidence – not mythical fantasy.
Ellison (1985) states, “It is virtually certain that we should place the story of Jonah in the period of Assyrian weakness between the death of Adad-nirari III in 782 B.C. and the seizing of the Assyrian throne by Tiglath-pileser III in 745 B.C. During this time, Assyria was engaged in a life and death struggle with the mountain tribes of Urartu and its associates of Mannai and Madai in the north, who had been able to push their frontier to within less than a hundred miles of Nineveh. The consciousness of weakness and possible defeat would go far to explain the readiness of Nineveh to accept the prophet’s message.”
Discovering that the ‘great city’ existed (and now does not) provides the modern reader with a unique perspective–the privilege of learning in hindsight. Archaeologists date the oldest of the discovered remains of the city to about 4500 B.C. Though it was not always the capital city of Assyria, Nineveh was always one of its principal towns. In the light of Jonah 4:11, it might be better to translate “great city” as “big city”, for it is the number of its inhabitants that is being stressed (Ellison, 1985). The purpose of Jonah’s proclamation to Nineveh was to bring the “big city” to repentance. However, repentance from what?
It is proposed that the Assyrians primary sin was in their attitude to others. Amos 1:3-2:3 shows that, while there was no written code of international law at the time, there was a generally accepted code of conduct. The Assyrian assumed that in virtue of his conquests, he had been placed above lesser breeds and was entitled to ignore the dictates of conscience and compassion in his behavior to his neighbors.
God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Pride always comes before a fall. Caring for others is initiated when we repent from self edification: our achievements, our material possessions, or our self-perceived successes. The lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh and the pride of this life 1 John calls it. God wanted Nineveh to repent from its selfish pride and show compassion and love to others. Jonah was not sent to proclaim who the God of Israel was, rather to be used to render their hearts in a new direction else God was going to destroy them–all of them.
The message today remains unchanged. No matter what race, culture or religion. Faith without deeds is dead. With no love of neighbor or any outward showing of such love, how can you profess the love of God is in you? It is not. If it were, then you would be reaching out helping others with Christ, not watching from the sidelines. Repentance is often in turning away from self-centeredness and pride. God is compassionate and slow to anger. The history lesson teaches us, though, within one hundred years, Nineveh returned to their old ways. The prophet Nahum announces that this time, however, no last second reprieve existed.
Nahum 2:1 states, “I am against you,” declares the Lord. Nineveh fell at the hands of the Babylonians. All that remained of their mighty empire was dust and ashes. Often God’s call to repentance can be the most important message we will ever hear. Nineveh eventually discovered that ignoring such a message resulted in their downfall.