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Jonah 3:1-4 After his frightening underwater ordeal, Jonah decides he'd better obey the LORD and go to Nineveh, where he urges the ungodly people to repent of their evil and bloodthirsty ways. Otherwise, “After 40 days, Nineveh will be destroyed" (Jonah 3:4).
Nineveh was the capital of Assyria – Israel’s longstanding enemy in the 8th century BC. It was founded in c.1800BC on the eastern bank of the River Tigris (opposite modern-day Mosul) and was an early centre of worship of the goddess Ishtar; but it only really expanded from the 9th century BC when it became the capital of Assyria.
Assyria was at its peak during the time of Jonah, just before the fall of Israel. In 733 BC, Tiglath-Pilesar of Assyria invaded Israel and captured Galilee (see 2 Kings 15:29). Two years later, he captured Damascus and killed King Rezin of Syria. In 724BC, King Shalmaneser V of Assyria laid seige to Samaria and Israel fell to the Assyrians two years later in 722BC (see 2 Kings 17:5-6).
Judaite prisoners being brought before King Sennacherib of Assyria (British Museum)
King Sennacherib of Assyria laid out new streets and squares in Nineveh and built a magnificent “palace without a rival” in c.700BC. The principal doorways in the palace walls (which were 66 feet / 20 metres high) were flanked by collosal statues of lions and winged bulls with human heads (such as those on display at the British Museum in London). Stone carvings on the palace walls told of Sennacherib’s seige of Jerusalem in 702 BC when King Hezekiah of Judah was “shut up like a caged bird” (see 2 Kings 18:17-19:36).
Nineveh was one of the largest cities in the world at this time, with a population of over one hundred thousand – much larger than its rival, the city of Babylon. Nineveh’s greatness, as the prophet Nahum predicted, was, however, short-lived (see Nahum 1:14). Around 633BC, Nineveh was attacked by Medes and Babylonians. The city was ultimately captured and razed to the ground by the Babylonians in 612BC.
Modern-day visitors to the archaeological site of Nineveh - across the River Tigris from the city of Mosul in Iraq – can explore the reconstructed Adad, Nergal and Mashki gates and other remains of the 7.5 mile / 12 km long city walls. The site of Sennacherib’s palace was first excavated in 1849, and many of the cuneiform tablets, statues and bas-reliefs portraying Sennacherib and his royal guards are now on display at the British Museum in London.
An Assyrian winged human-headed lion from Nimrud NW Palace (British Museum)
Jonah 3:5-10 The people of Nineveh heed Jonah’s message and give up their wicked behaviour. They put on sackcloth and pray for forgiveness. So God changes his mind and does not punish them.
(In reality, the Assyrians remained a bloodthirsty and violent people. Shortly after the parable of Jonah was written, in 720BC, the Israelites were conquered and led into slavery in Assyria by the new king, Sargon II (see 2 Kings 17:6-23). They were taken to Halah, Gozan (on the River Habor) and to the towns of Media, between Susa and Ecbatana (see 4 on Map 59).)
Jonah 4:1-11 Jonah is annoyed that God has spared the people of Nineveh. God tells him that, just as he provided food and shelter for Jonah and saved his life, he would far rather save the inhabitants of Nineveh than destroy them.
The message of the parable in the Book of Jonah is clear: God will forgive even the most wicked people if they repent and give up their evil ways.
Jesus told a story with a similar ending in the New Testament. It's often referred to as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. At the end of the parable, the elder brother finds it difficult to understand how the father (God) can possibly forgive the wickedness of the younger brother. Jesus's listeners would probably have likened the response of the elder brother to the attitude of Jonah (see Luke 15:11-32 or The Parable of the Prodigal Son).
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