From:  Jonah As Genuine History                                      Return to Home          

By Roland H. Worth, Jr.                               © 2016








[Chapters In This Part:]

Chapter 4:  Challenges about Nineveh Itself

            *  The Choice of Nineveh as the Target City

            *  The Size of the City

                A.  Language Proverbial for Being a Large / Huge City?

               B.  Language Indicating the Duration Required to Preach At Length in Each

                    Section of the City or At Each Gate?

              C.  Language Used Not to Describe the Physical Size of the City but the

       Duration Required Due to Jonah’s Continued Aversion to Being There At


             D.  Language Explicitly covering Nineveh Itself and Implicitly the

                   Surrounding Dependent Areas?

             E.  Language Equivalent to the Administrative District that Was

                  Headquartered in Nineveh Itself?

            F.  Language Intended to Convey the Length of Time to Walk Around the

                 City’s Walls Rather tham Through the City Itself?




Chapter 5:  Why did Nineveh Repent?

            *  A Time of Heightened Religious Concern?

            *  A Time of Distress or Disaster?

            *  A Time of Self-Generated Religious Enthusiasm Due to Mass Psychology

    or Specific Events? 

*  Other Possible Precipitating Encouragements? 

            *  The Role of Jonah’s Own Experience?

            *  The Role of Jonah’s Message of Reform:  Did He Directly Preach It Or Was

                It Left Implicit?           

            *  Did the People Become (Temporary or Permanent) Monotheists Due to

                Divine Judgment coming upon the City?

   A.  The Case Against Them Doing So   

               B.  The Case in Favor of Them at Least Temporarily Embracing Monotheism

          *  Secondary Issues

               A.  What Language did the Prophet Preach In?

               B.  The Actions of the Animals in the City



[Chapters In Part 3:]

Chapter 6:  Internal Evidence that the Writer “Can’t” Have Been the Biblical Jonah or a Contemporary

            *  Linguistic Arguments

            *  The Use of Distancing Rhetoric:  The Use of “Was.”

            *  The Use of an “Unhistorical” Description of the Ruler

            *  The Use of Fasting in Connection with Repentance

            *  The Absence of Any Mention of the Journey in Kings



Chapter 7:  Understanding the Nature of the Book Itself

            *  Misunderstanding Its Purpose

                A.  Missionary Nation Interpretation

                B.  Recognition of God’s Love for the Gentiles

                C.  Condemnation of Jewish Parochialism as Exclusively God’s People

            *  Differences Between Jonah and Allegories

            *  Differences Between Jonah and Parbles



Chapter 8:  Assorted Other Matters

            *  Intentional Exaggeration Scenario to Explain the Book

            *  Too Many Miracles in the Book? 

            *  Was Jonah Dead While in the Whale? 

                A.  The Dead Scenario

                B.  Half Dead by Drowning When Swallowed by the Sea Beast?

               C.  Alive Throughout the Time Within the Monstrous Sea Creature?

            *  Jonah Outside the Book of Jonah (page 30)



[Chapters In Part 1:]

Chapter 1:  Jesus on Jonah:  Matthew 12:38-42 and Luke 11:29-32

            *  The Parable Hypothesis

*  Jesus Used It As Illustrative Truth Rather Than Historical Proof?

*  The Kenosis Doctrine

*  The Degree of Literalness One Attributes to Jesus’ Resurrection Predisposes  

    How One Thinks About Jonah’s Literalness

*  Did Jesus Fraudulently “Guilt Trip” His Listeners? 



Chapter 2:  The Narrative of the Near Shipwreck Itself

            *  The Availability of the Ship Itself

            *  Jonah’s Ability to Sleep through the Severe Storm

            *  The Sailors’ “Belief” in the God of Israel

            *  The Sailors’ “Unlawful” Sacrifice

            *  Jonah’s Knowledge that the Sacrifice Happened At All

            *  7Jonah’s Attitude Toward the Mariners 



Chapter 3:  Challenges to the Credibility of the “Fish” Element of the Story

            *   On the Meaning of “Fish” in the prophet and Jesus. 

*  Are Their Naturally Occurring “Fish” that Could Have Swallowed Him

    Whole?   (inc. ‘whale’ section?)

            *  Was It a Specially Adapted or Even Specially Created Aquatic Creature?

            *  Could Jonah Have Survived Under the Circumstances Described?

            *  Jonah’s Knowledge of the Duration He Spent in the Creature







Chapter 4:

Challenges about Nineveh Itself



Jonah 2:  1 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying,  2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey

in extent.  4 And Jonah began to enter the city on the first day's walk.  Then he cried out and said, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

5 So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them.  6 Then word came to the king of Nineveh; and he arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes.  7 And he caused it to be proclaimed and published throughout Nineveh by the decree of the king and

his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water.  8 But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.  9 Who can tell if God will turn

and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?





*  The Choice of Nineveh as the Target City.  Some have been disturbed by Jonah being sent to Nineveh rather than to Calah, the actual capital.  Nineveh did not become capital under many years after the “real” Jonah--in c. 705 B.C., under the reign of Sennacherib.

It should be noted that Jonah never calls Nineveh the capital.  It is simply “an exceedingly great city” (3:3).  It is also upon the basis of the large population of the city (4:11) that God rebukes Jonah, not upon the basis of the fact that it would have been the very capital city being destroyed.

Indeed there were good reasons why Nineveh would have been chosen.  It was the far larger city than the current capital and God was interested in either punishing mightily or saving mightily—the choice being left up to the local residents.  Acting in regard to Nineveh would have done more of this than threatening the political center itself.

It should also be noted that there is nothing in the text itself that clearly puts the king as in Nineveh.  “Then word came to the king of Nineveh; and he arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes” (verse 6).  He could either have been in the capital or “came to” could be “distancing rhetoric” caused by the fact that he wasn’t physically present.         

Furthermore, “he caused it to be proclaimed and published throughout Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying” that certain acts of public sorrow and regret were to be undertaken (verse 7).  They are not decreed for the kingdom in general but for the specific city under Divine threat. 

They are quite convinced that the city is under Divine threat—and the last thing he wants is for such a massive city to encounter a disaster—and so he acts to assure that public displays of guilt and remorse be undertaken in that community and, so far as we know from the text, nowhere else.  He partakes of the display in so far as sackcloth and ashes to demonstrate his sense of union with and responsibility for the giant town. 

But does he think that this is a nation wide emergency?  His actions do not have to bear the connotation that he thought it was a strictly local matter, but the lack of any specific action to make the displays of sorrow kingdom wide . . . well that apparent omission argues for a serious consideration of the silence.


If this reconstruction is valid, then there may have been grounds of prudence evolved in dictating the choice of city.  How a king might react in his own capital could be the proverbial “role of the dice.”  It could be taken not just as a religious challenge, but as a personal confrontation that disputes the very legitimacy of his rule. 

What happens to a subservient city—even if it is not that far away--well, if a strange foreign prophet has predicted doom in less than a month and a half and is calling on that city in particular—and the kingdom as a whole is conspicuously not mentioned—well that ruler might well order this kind of public display. 

It does no harm.  It calms down the masses of people who might otherwise fly out of hand and require a bloody and needless military suppression to handle.  It’s far easier to exhibit your concern by sharing in the sackcloth and ashes and making sure that the city does so to its full extent.      

            Should he have deduced that what could happen to Nineveh could happen to any other city in his kingdom?  Indeed the entire kingdom?  Of course . . . but rulers of a certain type tend to hear what they want to hear and ignore the rest no matter how obvious it should be.

            But if even Nineveh could alter its character--even for just months or years--at least the other towns might learn the lesson.  For that matter it could easily be considered a Divine “shot across the bow” . . . not only for Nineveh, but for the entire kingdom:  Now only Nineveh is to be affected, but are you ready when the entire realm is at stake?”  

            That they learned this could only be hoped.  That the odds were modest was a “given.”  But at least the opportunity was provided.



            * The Size of the City.  The description of the city as a “three days’ journey in breadth” (3:3) has sparked much discussion.  It has been wondered how the actual size of the city of Nineveh realistically matches up to such a large description.

            Donald F. Ackland argues that such a town would be “some seventy-five miles across.”  No ancient city—including Nineveh—was that vast.[1]  John B. Taylor puts a three day journey as between sixty and seventy-five miles.[2]  Andrew T. Hanson speaks of such a journey as equivalent to “forty-five miles.”[3] 

Taken from this standpoint, the challenge of Jonah’s accuracy is that it is inherently and historically impossible for any ancient town to credibly be described as that large.

            The other side of the attack on historicity comes from the fact that we can make a good estimate of the size from archaeological excavations and that shows that the city is too small to justify three day language rhetoric:  John D. W. Watts notes that the excavations have uncovered a city about 1-1/2 mile wide by 3 miles long.  It contained about 1,800 across of land.[4]  Impressive, true, but nowhere near matching the language of Jonah.            

            First the skeptics’ evaluations.  The reference to side is dismissed as myth and the “exaggeration” is introduced as proof that the book was written many decades after the fall of Nineveh and centuries after the life of the historical Jonah, if there ever was such a person.  With the real city safely locked in the past—but its oppression far from forgotten—the physical dimensions of the city could easily have grown in popular mythology to match the empire’s dangerousness.

            Of course contemporaries might well have exaggerated the size of the city as well.  But the mythological exaggeration scenario is far from the only one available.  To uphold an alternative does not represent some pious attempt to “uphold the text at any cost” but, rather, an attempt to better understand how real people could use such an unexpected expression and—to their minds—convey both a meaningful and accurate sense. 

It may not be how you or I would most naturally write a size description of the city, but we are seeking whether there was a way that would have made full sense to them.  Furthermore, one that would make sense to us as well once we have considered their own frame of interpretive reference.    



            A.  Language Proverbial for Being a Large / Huge City?  George L. Robinson considers the expression to refer to how long “would be required to visit and see all its principal points of interest.”  That may seem a bit strange, but he cites his own experience to show that even in his day such usage could be found in that part of the world.  “Ask a native of Palestine today, as the present writer once did in Nazareth, ‘Which city, Nazareth or Beirut, is the bigger?’  And the answer will be returned quickly, ‘Oh, Beirut is a city of three days’! referring to its superior size.”[5]

            A variant of this ties in the largeness of the city with the fact that its streets would have been winding and slow going.  Taken this way, three days would have been the time required to make one’s way through its crowded, teeming streets—not some theoretical (and non-existent) time it would take to cross if they were empty or skimpy filled.[6]



            B.  Language Indicating the Duration Required to Preach At Length in Each Section of the City or At Each Gate?  Some see in the language of “three days' journey in breadth” an allusion not to the width or size of the city, but to how long it would take Jonah to preach his way through the metropolis.  Obviously this would take much longer than the length of time required to just walk its’ width.  Even if it might take only an hour or two or so to walk through it doing nothing but moving along, it could still require days to preach sufficiently to have given a cross-section of the residents at least the opportunity to have heard his words.

            C. von Orelli argued that the city would have been considered by the people themselves as divided into an unknown number of districts or areas.  (Today a city has legislative districts or self-recognized “neighborhoods” as well—each representing a distinctive “piece” of the city.)  In this approach—and it does make considerable sense—then the three days represented the length of time required to preach in each of these sub-communities.[7]

            John Walton defines the targeted preaching locations as more formal ones, ones that would be inherently important to any ancient city and where de facto and de jure leaders would mingle, talk, and discuss personal, business, and other local matters.  Nineveh had fourteen such gates in the time of Sennacherib (704-681 B.C.).[8]  For Jonah to have covered many or all of these and selected important sites further within the city could easily have taken the three days that are mentioned.[9]

            Price and Nida, however, caution that “the Hebrew text speaks of walking across the breath of the city, and not around it. . . .”[10]  As proof they cite 3:4, “and Jonah  began to enter the city on the first day’s walk” (our emphasis).  This is an interesting argument though not incompatible with the gate hypothesis. 

How did Jonah get from one gate to another?  Did he exit the city and go around the outside wall each time?  Or did he continue through the city he was already in . . . “entering the city” and making his way from one gate to another in the quickest feasible manner by internal streets?  Would this not be an equally responsible way to understand the text?  And fully consistent with Price and Nida’s reading of a “continued” presence in the city.  

(This is based on the scenario that the gates would provide space for the “congregating” crowds who used the locations for multiple purposes.  People with a little time on their hands and a place large enough to hold them—prerequisites if he were to say much beyond the few words “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” [3:4]. 

(Why would it be?  What needed to be done to avert the tragedy?  The gates provided space to discuss such matters.  And the gates were the places where the people traditionally congregated to discuss civic and other concerns anyway.)         



            C.  Language Used Not to Describe the Physical Size of the City but the Duration Required Due to Jonah’s Continued Aversion to Being There At All?  

We certainly know from chapter four and Jonah’s anger at the city’s change, that he wasn’t all that thrilled at his own success.  Hence the fact that the city was a three day’s journey for his preaching did not mean that it, necessarily, was geographically that large.  Simply that he made the work take that long.

            Price and Nida translate 3:4 to mean that Jonah did not deliver his message until the end of the first day’s walk, a view they reaffirm in their commentary-explanation.[11]  If he did, indeed, do that and then left as early in the afternoon as he could—lest night fall with him still within the city and its moral taint penetrate him by his very presence—we would have a man “eating up time” and going through the “required motions” but not with his heart in it.  A man obligated to preach, but wishing to fail.

            The next day he could pass through the same area into a different one rather than taking a more direct route.  Eating up more time with wasted motion.  And doing the same thing the third day.

            The least he could get away with and still be obeying the Lord’s command.  Yes, Nineveh is going to be a “three day’s walk”—for a prophet determined to obey the letter of the Lord’s command and do only the minimum specifically demanded of him.

            We can’t be sure he acted this way, of course.  But doesn’t it perfectly fit his mind frame both before he went (causing him to be swallowed by the giant fish) and afterwards (in pouting at the city’s vow to change)?  In other words, it took three days to do the necessary teaching not because of the city’s size, but due to Jonah’s grim determination to spend no more time and effort than necessary—the place being such an abomination to him.

            Yet even my deep cynicism—fueled by decades of political study—makes me hesitate to think that he could have been this befuddled.  Even so, I would be less than candid not to admit that human prejudice and preferences can make a person act in strange ways at time.       



            D.  Language Explicitly Covering Nineveh Itself and Implicitly the Surrounding Dependent Areas?  My hometown is Richmond, Virginia, and I have repeatedly told people over the decades that “I live in Richmond.”  Literally speaking, I don’t.

            Officially I live over the city line in the county.  And in Virginia—unlike the bulk of states—cities are not within a county; they are fully independent of them.  Yet my mail is addressed to Richmond, the actual border being only perhaps two miles away.  Furthermore, County is economically part of the greater Richmond complex.  Hence I continue to call myself a Richmonder.

            It would have been quite natural for the people in nearby areas to have considered themselves as “part” of Nineveh even though they did not live within the city walls.  Furthermore the fall of the city would acutely affect them as well—if Nineveh fell economically, politically, or militarily they fell as well.  A ministry to Nineveh could quite naturally include them as well.

            Donald F. Ackland first brought this possibility to my mind when he wrote words thoroughly compatible with this approach but not actually stating it:  “it may be that Jonah’s ministry was to a larger area of which Nineveh was the center.[12]  Oddly enough, Peter C. Craig—who insists that the book is merely “an extended parable”[13]—puts forth a similar implicit explanation by referring to Jonah’s mission as targeting “Greater Nineveh.”[14] 

Phillip Cary, who doesn’t think much of the possibility of the book being historical, also is willing to grant some leeway on the matter.  He speaks of the reference to “a three days’ walk” and how, “This makes for a mighty big city.  Yet it is quite literally true of the great city of Nineveh or ‘Greater Nineveh,’ as we might call it, which was an area encompassing four cities, including Nineveh proper and its environs.”[15]    

            Price and Nida reject this “suburb” interpretation on the ground that this would still leave the city too small to require three days to cross.  Khorsabad, which “has the best claim to be considered a ‘suburb’ of Nineveh, is only a dozen miles away.”[16]  If one includes “preaching stops” inside this area as well, however, this would, seemingly, increase considerably the required transit time, would it not?

            A more meaningful objection to the “suburb” approach is probably found in making the opposite objection of Price and Nida:  they argue that Khorsabad is the nearest community that could be considered a genuine suburb.  But they object that its distance of “only a dozen miles” leaves it too close to fit the travel time in Jonah.

I would suggest the opposite:  it makes it too far away to be included.  We are talking bout travel time on foot.  By modern automobile twelve miles may well be close; on foot it is a considerable distance!  In other words would any place that far away be considered as “part” of Nineveh even in casual usage of language?


            E.  Language Equivalent to the Administrative District that Was Headquartered in Nineveh Itself?  The “suburb” analysis is based upon informal language usage and how it can easily cover more than the strict words connote.  In effect, John B. Taylor takes the approach that a more formal district is under consideration and not the ambiguous one of suburbs.  It is “the whole of the administrative district of Nineveh, which incorporated the three cities of Hatra, Nimrud and Khorsabad, as well as the capital itself and which covered an area up to 60 miles across.”[17]

            Now that surely is adequate to be a “three day’s journey,” is it not?  To return to our earlier point that all this is being done by foot travel, don’t we run into the opposite potential problem:  that you can cross it in that time—but do you leave adequate time for any preaching?  Remember Jonah’s success is going to come by his public rebukes and not by the mere act of physically walking across the region!  Does this not push us back toward the earlier option that the text is talking about how long it takes to “preach one’s way” across or around Nineveh itself?



            F. Language Intended to Convey the Length of Time to Walk Around the City’s Walls Rather tham Through the City Itself?  Some ancients considered that Nineveh had walls so long that, if true, Jonah could certainly have taken three days circling the walls alone.  A. J. Glaze, who is skeptical of the historicity of the book we are examining, remarks that “[t]he actual ruins of the city comprise a circumference of some eight miles, which Diodorus Siculus reported that the city wall measured approximately 60 miles (480 stadia).”[18]  (If one wishes to be more exact the wall ruins are “around 7.75 miles” long.)[19] 

            If the wall were as long as Diodorus Siculus claimed we can, indeed, see the circuit as a three days’ journey.  But assuming that the ancient somehow got the figure wrong—rather than it being an error in manuscript transmission—that still leaves us with the question of on what basis did he make his error? 

Now if a broader area was also counted as “Nineveh” we have a logical source for his statement.  Also note above that the administrative district was about sixty miles across.  Has Diodorus Siculus used that figure as the basis for his mistake? 









Chapter 5:

Why did Nineveh Repent?



Jonah 3:  4 And Jonah began to enter the city on the first day's walk. Then he cried out and said, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”  5 So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them.

6 Then word came to the king of Nineveh; and he arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes.  7 And he caused it to be proclaimed and published throughout Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water.  8 But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.  9 Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”

10 Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.



            No change.  It didn’t happen. It couldn’t happen.  So we are informed living more than two thousand years later by those who weren’t there and weren’t even born before more than two millenniums had passed.  But they are intellectuals, they are scholarly, they are even ordained clergy.  Who are we—the “great unwashed” (to use a term from a earlier generation to describe the masses)—to challenge the solemn verdict of our “betters.”

            Yes, I am being hyperbolic, but is it all that unjustified?  Much of the annoyance I feel probably arises from their mind frame in which they believe they can more accurately establish what happened—or did not happen—than the scripture writers do.  Not to mention Jesus of Nazareth.  In effect, they are confident of a greater reliability than either source.  Does the word “arrogance” perhaps come to mind?

            Some of this is, of course, inescapable.  If we still argue in the second decade of the 21st century, what really happened at Pearl Harbor and why on December 7, 1941—were advance warnings deliberately suppressed? (no!)—I suppose it should be no wonder that some folks have an inclination to deny what happened far earlier when it has direct personal spiritual implications for themselves and not merely historical ones.

            But it can still get exasperating at times.  At least we can take considerable comfort that efforts such as this will have some of them reaching for an aspirin.  A strong one.  They do not have the floor just to themselves.  Both sides can still be presented.  For that we have much to be thankful.

            Having let out a little of my personal frustration, in which many of my readers likely share, let us examine the denial that the city repented and some of the explanations for them actually doing so--attitudes and concerns that made them susceptible to Jonah’s preaching.  W. E. Orchard goes so far as to insist that “if anything is certain in history it is that the people of Nineveh never passed through so momentous a moral change as this book depicts.”[20]  Presumably asserted because it produced only a temporary rather that permanent alteration in behavior. 

            T. T. Perowne properly points out that this is not the kind of event we would normally expect to find mentioned or stressed in their records and inscriptions:  “Wars and victories and material works chiefly occupy them.  Moral reformation is foreign to their theme.”[21]

            But fear of the future and considerable respect for the power of predictions of the future is another matter.  And if the price for avoiding calamity carried the implicit or explicit requirement of a change in behavioral lifestyle, were they to let the catastrophe roll over them when they had the option of accepting perhaps an unpleasant, but “doable,” price?  (For change is almost never pleasant and painless.)

            And since it ties in with a matter that doesn’t really fit elsewhere, it should be noted in the current place:  That the king should receive prompt word of prophecies was considered a prudent measure in that part of the world,[22]


            Various Mesopotamian sources demonstrate that every method foretelling future events — divination, oracles, and dreams — was fully validated socially, both on popular and scholarly levels. . . .  The faith of the society in the legitimacy of signs was so strong that their utterance had the authority of official statements.  Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaty states that

any improper word heard from the mouth of a prophet, of an ecstatic, or of an inquirer of oracles should not be concealed from the king.  A prophecy against the king could thus be interpreted as a plot by the people, as these prophets were seldom uttering alone, but preferably in public places where

people would hear the prophecy. . . . Some officials were supposed to report prophecies and signs to the palace.


            And when he received word, was the king to sit there and dismiss it all out of hand?  And here he certainly did have a “sign”—a strange prophet from a far away land.  Presumably preaching that he had been swallowed by a giant fish rather than come in the first place.  And rebuking them for their behavioral excesses. 

            He did not have to endanger his throne by a war.  He did not have to inflict a bloodbath on real or suspected enemies.  It was not, basically, going to cost him the modern proverbial “penny.”  All he had to do was to give public indication of his own sorrow over the condition of his people and “lean” on the Ninevites to do so as well. 

To repeat ourselves:  And he was going to just sit there and do nothing—in a society that took signs and prophecy quite seriously?  I think not.


Furthermore sometimes things just happen—sometimes seriously weird things.  Even in our society of the 21st century.  Hundreds or a few thousands through their modern electronic communication gadgets flock to a certain place and proceed to do X—fill in the blank.  Anything from dancing to ongoing major political demonstrations.

As a historian, these things are annoying.  We seek out clear-cut cause and effect and when things “just happen” we want to pull our hair out.  It “violates the rules.”  But that doesn’t change the reality.

In the past also, if you hit the right combination of fear, concern, guilt, charisma—strange cultural and religious events could occur also.  Not as a regular pattern, but they still happened upon occasion.

Want cultural ones?  How about the July 1518 dance craze that plagued Strasbourg where large numbers danced for days on end—some literally till they died of heart attack or exhaustion.  The phenomena occasionally popped up from the 600s to the 1600s.  Cause?  Your guess is probably as good as anyone’s.

Radical religious changes are more easily diagnosed as to cause—after they have happened!  Guilt over behavior, catastrophes of one type or another in the surrounding world (disease, war, fear of war, etc.), encouragement by some charismatic figure or another. 

An illustration of how massively a people will at least temporarily support a religious innovation can be demonstrated through a religious fraud of the Middle Ages who was named Nicole Tavernier.  In the 1590s she claimed to have seen visions and to be miraculously ordained by God to carry a message of repentance to the people.  (At least her illusions of self-importance did not blind her to the weaknesses of existing society!)

Jean Helle provides this fascinating account of how she pulled off at least a public embracal of her goals,[23]         


From town to town, organizing a religious demonstration in every little hamlet, Nicole gradually made her way to Paris.  On arrival there she knew that she must try to make a hit right away, for in Paris you are accepted or rejected at the outset.

Nicole took no heed of the townsfolk but went straight to the archbishop.  She told him that death was hanging over him and that he would die before three months were out if he did not hear her and do as she told him.

He listened to the conditions she laid down:  a general public procession around Notre Dame by the clergy and following them in order, members of Parliament, of the law courts, the army, merchants, craftsmen, laborers.  The prelate complied with her request, and on his recommendation a public holiday was proclaimed for the procession to take place.

It must be admitted that to arrive in Paris without friends, support, or protection of any kind, preceded only by a somewhat doubtful reputation for sanctity and without more ado to bring ordinary life in the capital to a standstill, to make the clergy, the nobility, the commonality carry out her behests, demands even at a time of crisis very much more than ordinary effrontery.  Nicole Tavernier had brought off a masterly stroke.   


Of course none of this “could” have happened.  After all—these kinds of things just don’t happen—except when they do.  As in the case of Jonah, who was not sent by delusion but against his will and by Divine commission.


            *  A Time of Heightened Religious Concern?  Some have found the thirty year reign of Adarinari IV (c. 810-782 B.C.) as one during which the right attitudes existed that would encourage acceptance of a Jonah-type message.  He is said to have urged a monothesistic like creed.  One inscription implored the people, “Put thy trust in Nebo; trust not another God.”[24]

            Merrill F. Unger calls him Adarinari III but provides this same set of dates.[25]  Geoffrey T. Bull accepts the same identification but alters the date by one year to 783 B.C.[26]  (Possibly a typographical error by one or the other authors.)

            Unger concurs in Robinson’s interpretation by saying that under that monarch’s rule “there was an approach to monotheism in the worship of the god Nabu (Nebo).”[27]

            Under such a king, a plea for moral reform by a monotheistic prophet might well enjoy a special degree of success that it would not under other circumstances.

            John E. Steinmuller provides this detailed argument for the credibility of such a setting—dating Jonah’s mission under a successor’s rule:[28]  


During the brief rule of the queen regent Semiramis and her son Ada-Nirari III (810-782), there was an approach to monotheism under the worship of the God Nebo.  It was during the reign of Assurdan III (771-754) that the prophet came to the capital of the Assyrians.  During his rule there were two plagues, in 765 and 759.  In addition to these plagues there was a

total eclipse of the sun on June 15, 763.

All of these catastrophes or portents were considered as manifestations of the divine wrath.  It is little wonder, therefore, that the Prophet Jonas, even though of foreign origin, could preach the necessity of repentance and obtain a favorable hearing and an attentive audience.


However is this the time period that Jonah did his work in the city?  George L. Robinson, for example, upholds the historicity of Jonah’s journey and ministry and finds the theory interesting but believes the events occurred during the decline in the empire that set in after this time.[29]

            Furthermore, there has been considerable skepticism cast upon Adar-Nirari’s alleged monotheistic leanings (note how different sources will vary the spelling slightly):  inscriptions from his reign repeatedly invoke the names of various Assyrian and Babylonian gods.[30]  This raises the question of whether these come from a different period in the monarch’s rule and whether he was expressing a temporary spiritual “fetish” or a permanent change of heart. 

Not to mention whether he considered this a royal preference and plea or a royal order.  If a Christian had managed to become emperor in the late first century, would we not have a similar tension between the emperor’s preferences and the dominant polytheistic order of the day?   


            Furthermore we should pay close attention to the monarch’s order:  “7 And he caused it to be proclaimed and published throughout Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water.  8 But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.”

            There are four or five elements demanded of the people:

            (1)  There was to be a period of fasting:  “Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water” (verse 7).

            (2)  Every one and every animal was to “be covered with sackcloth” (verse 8).

            (3)  Every one was to pray passionately:  “cry mightily to God” (verse 8).

            (4)  Every one was to change their behavior, positively, for the better:  “let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands” (verse 8).  This could be sub-divided into two separate commands:  “turn from his evil way” and, as well, turn “from the violence that is in his hands” (verse 8). 

            None of these required monotheism.  Indeed, even Jonah is never described in the book nor in the teaching of Jesus as demanding monotheism.  Prayer did not require belief that the intended Listener is the only god; it certainly didn’t in the Roman world or to any pagan.  To pray to your god didn’t have to imply that I believed it was the only one to exist. 

Nor did my change in behavior require me to believe in only one god:  Has there every been a man or woman in history so self-centered and blind not to recognize that he/she falls short of the standards they themselves acknowledge should be followed? 

Hold your hat at this point, for this is likely to be startling:  In fact the book of Jonah doesn’t mention repentance as being explicitly demanded.  It only has him preaching doom and disaster:  “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”  (Jonah 3:4).  We can’t directly prove he even called for repentance unless we shoehorn it into verse 2, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you.”  But unless something is omitted, the only thing he preached (and hoped for, judging by chapter four) was their doom.

Now the need for repentance is a logical deduction from the message:  If doom is coming what two alternatives--short of trying to flee, which would be impractical for most--do you have available?  Prayer, a change in behavior, and outward acts to demonstrate sorrow (the sackcloth and ashes).  In Biblical terms, repentance.  

            Even though the text of Jonah does not make it explicit, the New Testament does.  Jesus properly interprets this message as carrying the explicit or implicit plea for a change in behavior, of repentance:  The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here: (Mathew 12:41; cf. Luke 11:32).     


            Finally we should recognize that the king’s decree was not issued to the entire kingdom, but specifically and only to the city being threatened with disaster:  “And he caused it to be proclaimed and published throughout Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water” (Jonah 3:7).  This limitation makes it unlikely that he embraced a policy like that of Adarinari, pleading for the recognition of a single God for his entire realm.  (And argues against the identification of the two monarchs as the same?) 

Of course one might think—and hope—that such a broader lesson sunk in afterwards as he recalled what had happened and the disaster that was so narrowly averted.  But of that we really have no data to work from and, alas, most monarchs tend to be terribly short-sighted:  If the immediate problem seems resolved there appears no particular reason to return to it.  



            *  A Time of Distress or Disaster?  Shalmaneser III (ruled 858-824 B.C.) faced a major revolt in 827 B.C.  The disaffection of several high officials and much of the lower echelon nobility in the countryside became even more dangerous as open rebellion broke out in a number of towns.  By the time he could crush it, over two dozen cities had rejected his reign and had to be crushed by force.  This required the final years of his reign, until his death.[31]

            If Jonah came to Nineveh while the issue was still in doubt, his warning of disaster would have been especially relevant.  The king’s demand for moral reform would represent no difficulty:  Whatever role he himself and his policies had, this solution put the blame on the people (primarily) and not on himself.  He lost nothing and had potential gain by accepting the message brought to him.  The last thing he needed was for another city to face either rebellion or disaster.

For that matter, to the extent that the city was responsible for embracing the unrest, it put the blame exactly where it belonged—in his eyes.  The displays of sorrow and regret could only help “calm things down.”  Thereby it could help diffuse the tensions and even act as an emotional relief for feelings that could have been targeted at the monarch.  


            During the power struggle during his final years of rule, Shalmaneser stripped his eldest son of the right to succession and passed the throne to his younger child, who took over the kingdom under the name of Shamshi-Adad V (823-811 B.C.).  Gaining his position while still rather young, he was first faced with the grim task of completing the suppression of the revolt.  Perhaps due to these initial pressures, he soon developed into an effective leader who was able to restore the prestige of the Assyrian empire after the prolonged period of bloody internal divisions.[32]  

            If Jonah had arrived during the earlier years of Shamshi-Adad’s reign, the tense situation could well have proceeded along the lines of what we outlined above.  Or the socially tense situation that had not, yet, exploded could still be a matter of considerable concern.  To put it in blunt self-serving monarchical terms:  a city suffering from guilt at offending a deity was not likely to be in the mood to lash out at the current ruler.

            But let us assume that this man had a degree of honest self-judgment and was willing to (privately at least) admit his own mistakes and weaknesses.  There had been “genuine grievances and injustices which sparked off” the rebellion which was going on when he gained power.[33] 

While he might not be able to publicly admit for political reasons his mistakes, the public displays of sorrow would permit him to admit moral guilt without the rebellion itself being specifically in mind.  It could function as a way of emotionally purging himself of the sense of responsibility borne by his father and himself.

            If Jonah arrived in the later years of the reign, the grim memory of those difficult early days would have remained.  Could the people have avoided worrying that they were about to face yet further danger, this time from antagonizing a foreign deity?  They might not normally think much of that one way or another but if the societal framework was shaky . . . with the bulk of the population emotionally “at the throat” of the rest . . . and one all too able to observe the degradation of general behavior toward each other—well that introduces a powerful new factor. 

The very fact that a foreign deity would go so far as to send a messenger to them to change their lives had to be alarming.  Guilt combined with legitimate rebuke would fuel the power of the message from a prophet from a far-off land who had in no way been involved in any of the political and governing shenanigans that had perplexed the country.    


            We are not going to attempt to set a specific date for Jonah’s preaching mission.  From these specific examples, we are simply trying to demonstrate that there were multiple times when the political and emotional situation was such that the people would have been potentially receptive to his message. 

We can’t—from secular history—prove that it happened.  We can, however, convincingly argue that the events were within the range of reasonable probability . . . just as we would want to do with any other contested historical event for which direct evidence is either limited or non-existent.  



            *  Closely Related to the Previous Option:  A Time of Self-Generated Religious Enthusiasm Due to Mass Psychology or Specific Events?  Abrupt mass shifts in public opinion, practice, or attitude are unusual but not unprecedented.  Theodore Laetsch points to how overcome millions of Americans were by the classic Orson Welles broadcast of  H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (October 30, 1938).[34]  Pure fiction, yet thousands were ready to accept it as literal fact in spite of being introduced as a drama and the inclusion of a commercial break midway through.  (Back in those days you could, sometimes, actually do an hour long program with only the one commercial break!)

                Laetsch does not go into the supporting reasons why it worked out this way, but they aren’t that hard to notice.  First of all, it is an absorbing tale.  If you have never heard it, find a quiet evening one day and find yourself a copy.  In its own strange way it drags you into the story even decades later. 

In other words, on its dramatic and literary merits alone it was high quality entertainment for its day.  And if you missed the introduction at the program’s beginning or the break in the middle, it could drag you all too easily into its narrative.  The New York Times’ headline of October 31st was, “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama As Fact / Many Flee Homes to Escape ‘Gas Raid from Mars’ – Phone Calls Swamp Police at Broadcast of Wells Fantasy.”

            The success, though, has more often been attributed to the tense international situation and continued high unemployment at home.  A year or two earlier—or later—and perhaps a significant number of America’s population would not have reacted with the panic they did. 

            Just as the right set of national, international, and even personal circumstances combined to create an incredible emotional reaction, the right combination of internal and external stimuluses have been known to produce a dramatic spiritual reaction in a given community or town at varied points in western history.  (Consider the French 16th century example we cited at the beginning of this chapter.)

A major earthquake or an eclipse could have created an atmosphere of tension and fear that Jonah’s message linked up with and amplified into terror of the future.  John Walton notes that Assyria was well known for its preoccupation with omens (a point we’ve touched on earlier):[35]  For all we know there may have been a series of negative and threatening ones in the preceding days or weeks.

Remember that only a comparatively little has survived of the details of the ancient world.  Enough to inform you, but all too often not enough to brief you in as much detail as much as you wish.  

Jonah’s preaching could easily have been viewed as confirmation of these earlier “omens.”  Indeed, by putting a specific time frame (forty days), the fear could easily have been magnified.  After all this was not a vague “disaster is coming” but “disaster is coming and here’s the date!”

No one can fully answer why the same message can be preached in the same community for years and it produces no real change either in the church membership or the surrounding town.  Yet at a different point in time--not many years or decades later--and the converts coming rolling in just as numerously as they used to seem to be “rolling” in the opposite direction.  Illogical, but it has happened in the course of religious history repeatedly. 


            *  Other Possible Precipitating Encouragements?  Above and beyond the political context, there were at least two types of alarming events—one of which could easily have been interpreted by anxious ancient minds as ominous and at least two cases of another phenomena that unquestionably was ominous in any age.


            In the potentially psychologically alarming category would come eclipses.  Assurbanipal, for example, reacted with great fear to an eclipse, a reaction preserved in the records of two different ancient astrologers.[36] 

            Esarhaddon received a prophecy that his kingship was endangered by a rival.  But “Mar-Issar tells the king he is confident since the apotropaic rituals (namburbî) were appropriately performed.  However, as Mar-Issar writes, it would be preferable for the king not to go out until the threat of the eclipse still ensues for 100 days, and to have a substitute for the king’s cultic duties.”[37]  (The ritual envolved the appointment of a non-functioning substitute king on whose head all predicted or possible calamities were supposed to fall.)[38] 

            Sandstorms and meteors could also be interpreted as meaning something ominous approaching.[39]  And here we have a man reporting he had been swallowed by a monster fish and had been ordered to warn the city that it would soon fall.  And they were to react to it calmly and reject it out of hand?  Hmmm.

            As to ancient eclipses one is recorded in 763 B.C., for example.[40]  Whether this was the time of Jonah’s preaching or not, any time that the two happened to coincide would surely have been viewed by the locals as one sign confirming the other.  Indeed, Jonah’s would have been looked upon as of superior importance for it provided not only a prediction of imminent disaster but the very reason for it.  And when that is known, there is the potential for dealing with it.  


            In the unquestionably psychologically alarming category would come plague.  In both 765 and 759 B.C. plague struck the Assyrian people.[41]  Due to it “striking out of nowhere” it was natural to regard it as a supernatural judgment on those who lived through the period.  An arrival of Jonah shortly after the end of such an event would have, at the least, brought alarming memories to their head and the concern that an even worse disaster was about to occur.



            *  The Role of Jonah’s Own Experience?  If Jonah said anything beyond the bare words of warning, what he said surely would have included the peculiar circumstances leading to him being there.  It would hardly be pushing the imagination to think that he recounted the events with at least the tone of voice—perhaps even the explicit words—“this wasn’t my idea,” disowning the very message he was delivering.  (Paradoxically, that might even have given his words a greater impact on his listeners.  He “wanted you dead”—and yet he was still here!)

            Perhaps his physical appearance confirmed the claim.  J. Vernon McGee rightly remarks, “A man who has spent three days and three nights in a fish simply cannot come out looking like he did when he went in!”[42] 

James T. Draper, Jr., expresses a similar thought when he writes that Jonah must have “looked rather ‘freakly.’ ”[43]  He went on to note that “One [nineteenth century] man who lived for several days in the stomach of a fish and was rescued alive reportedly had skin bleached white from the acids in the stomach of the fish.  Jonah must have been unusual in appearance at least.”[44]

            Caution must be exercised here.  As a very fervent “literalist” once wrote, it makes sense that God would have “preserve[d] him by a miracle from the destructive gastric juices which under natural conditions would have completely digested the victim in less than eighteen hours.”[45]  In other words, to protect Jonah at all would seemingly require either the total elimination of the dangerous juices or a major reduction in their strength.  

            The approach of McGee and Draper, however, seems to require that the maximum amount possible compatible with retaining life at all was Jonah’s fate.  But if God is going to protect him, wouldn’t it make greater sense to preserve him with minimum rather than maximum damage—to prove to him that God was fully capable of both casting him down into an inevitable death and raising him up unharmed as well?

            On the other hand, his mission was the core goal of God.  Jonah’s discomfort—especially after his stunt of running away—would surely have been of only secondary interest.  Leaving him with considerable physical damage would certainly have been a way to force Jonah to talk about how it came about, for questions would inevitably arise.  Thereby enhancing the amazement at his mission, his presence, and his survival.  Building up the credibility of his warning.

            One other factor that would have presumably reduced--though not necessarily eliminate--any physical damage he had suffered.  Depending upon whose numbers you prefer to use, Jerusalem was 500-600 miles from Nineveh.  Jonah’s intended destination (Jonah 1:3) was Tarshish (on the west coast of Spain), about as far as one could get from Jerusalem and still be Europe—2,000 miles from Jerusalem.

            There is nothing in the text to suggest his location at the time of the mighty storm that nearly wrecked the ship.  Theoretically he could have been on the coast of Spain, but one can’t help but doubt that God permitted him to get that close to his refuge lest he be tempted to recant his promise to God. 

(After all, he would rationalize it, of course, as “upon greater reflection.”  And, “if He really meant it absolutely had to be done, surely I would have come ashore somewhere far closer to my homeland!”)

            We know that his journey originated in Joppa (Jonah 1:3; the modern Jaffa).  That is some thirty miles northwest of Jerusalem.  Which translates into the distance from Joppa to Nineveh also being in the 500-600 mile range. 

Assuming that Jonah was cast ashore on the coast near Joppa, the prophet would surely have required a few days or more to recuperate and prepare himself for the hated mission he had agreed to undertake.  Then would come the journey itself:  If he made 20 miles a day you are speaking of 25 days or better, with a minimum duration of a month when one factors in that “recuperation” time.

            The reason we’ve gone into this detail is this:  After thirty days would not the worst of any physical damage have been healed?  Now that is a pure assumption, but it seems a reasonable one.  Now our God is not above having a sense of humor.  So He certainly wasn’t above letting Noah’s recuperation be a very prolonged one while assuring that he would still be up to the long distance journey that lay ahead.  Personally I can see this happening either way.  I simply have no firm chain of logic to offer that requires either approach in particular.


            Assuming that he had visible consequences of the watery confinement, questions were obviously inevitable.  But could he have escape probing questions even if such conditions did not visibly exist? 

For one thing such questions would have arisen even during the journey to the city, among his traveling partners.  One could, of course, claim he traveled alone.  But the distance, the troubled times, and plain prudence and survival would argue he did not. 

I can easily imagine him presenting the Divine judgment upon himself as a warning of the more widespread judgment coming upon the entire city.  On the other hand, let us assume he said little or nothing.  Word could still spread like wildfire.  “You heard that strange man denouncing our city?  Well did you hear how he landed up here!?  I just talked to one of the men in his traveling party and would you believe . . .” and off they would go into a repetition of what had happened.

Yet one finds it hard to believe that Jonah could have avoided being directly challenged as well:  “Why in the world are you, of all people, here?”  Does he have much choice but to tell the tale of high adventure, near disaster, and miraculous rescue?  Upon hearing his rescue from disaster by repentance, would they be able to avoid the conclusion that that was also their best option to avoid the particular catastrophe facing them?[46]

And that would be true whether they heard it directly from him or his traveling companions.  Most likely, in fact, from both.

The Assyrians were omen-ridden.  What greater omen of destruction than the message of destruction from a man who had himself been destroyed by “a” God—and then rescued from his deserved fate?                     



            *  The Role of Jonah’s Message of Reform:  Did He Directly Preach It Or Was It Left Implicit?  We have already touched on how the locals made the leap from looming calamity to a reformed lifestyle as the means of avoiding it.  However some other matters need to be introduced to complete that discussion and here seems an appropriate place. 

            Jesus’ message was one of conditional disaster, “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5).  In contrast, there is no expressly indicated condition on Jonah’s threat, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (3:4).  Not “unless you do such and such the city will be overthrown,” but the flat out and unconditional “yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”

            So far as the actual textual evidence it was left up to them to make the deduction that change might alter the situation.  This can be seen in the ruler’s decree to wear sackcloth, pray to God, and set one’s life right (3:8):  “Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?” (verse 9). 

            Note the “if” and the conspicuous absence of a modifying description such as, “as we have been promised.”  Hence one can easily imagine that the real situation was that Jonah delivered the warning he was instructed, but it was left up to the people to make the necessary connection:  If evil lives equals destruction, then reformed lives equal (physical) salvation.


            It should also be noted that Jonah had every reason not to explicitly mention the repentance option.  As can be seen in Jonah’s aggrieved pouting in 4:1-2, he was deeply annoyed that the city had been spared at all.  His explicit order was to teach destruction. 

Why would he—barring explicit Divine command, of which no record is preserved—have done more?  They might escape destruction!  Psychologically speaking, this reaction fits far better a person who was doing his duty of preaching and preaching only.  He fulfilled that duty completely . . . but carefully did not go one step further as to how they might escape it.

            Is this not the likely reason he did his best to avoid the commission he was given?  “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me” (1:2).  If that destruction was assured, then would he have hesitated to go—to enjoy the gloating if nothing else? 

            The closest we get to what could be considered a direct instruction for Jonah to urge moral reform lies in those words “cry out against it.”  There is some “wiggle room” in his second commission to go as well:  “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you” (3:2). 

But since we know that he preached “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (3:4) and there is no mention of repentance would not the most natural reading be that Jonah avoided adding anything more?  Not because he did not recognize the “implied escape requirement” from their doom, but because since he had not been explicitly instructed to preach it, he was going to rely upon the literal wording of his orders and not add one iota to it that had not been demanded.

And if he somehow summoned up the power to give such a “repulsive” message, do you really think he put much passion in it?  His behavior in chapter four could be read as arguing strongly that he would not have.

Yet would not the question have been inevitable from the locals:  “What must we do to avoid this fate?”  Not just on one occasion, but on many?  And would he have dared not mentioned repentance after all he had been through?  (He surely desired to get back to Jerusalem alive and one can hardly imagine a greater danger to that desire than refusing to tell them what they needed to do.)

I have presented the cases for both preaching repentance and stubbornly not doing so and forcing them to make the deduction solely on their own initiative.  Both cases seem credible, but I would much prefer to believe that he made explicit the repentance option.  That he now had enough dedication to the Lord that he was willingly to overcome his personal prejudices.  At least that much, no matter how much he still resented them taking advantage of it.


History is full of oddities.  One of those is that, in a sense, the hard-hearted Jonah got the last laugh.  (Whether he was still around to enjoy it might be a different matter.)  Jan Overduin notes that whatever “conversion” the city underwent it could not have gone very deep or lasted very long because “after a while Nahum and Zephaniah had to address Nineveh again with prophecies of doom.”[47] 

Jonah would have loved it—if he left out of mind the hard-heartedness of his own people, who repeatedly failed to provide the example of moral excellence that was expected of them.  As Overduin notes, “Was there ever a lasting and continuous conversion in the history of Israel? . . .  It was one continuous chain of apostasy, judgment, penitence, and judgment averted.  And so it went on.”[48]  For Israel to repent, Jonah would have had no difficulty; but for any one else to repent, he harbored the bitterest of resentment.        



            *  Did the People Become (Temporary or Permanent) Monotheists Due to Divine Judgment Coming Upon the City?


            A.  The Case Against Them Doing So.  This may be startling to many, but it at least should be given serious consideration:  Perhaps the reason repentance—at least not in its full, monotheistic sense--was not explicitly demanded was that, in the inclusive and total sense of the term, belief in Jehovah would have been demanded as the one, true, and only God.  Period.  Rather than impose this almost insurmountable obstacle upon an entire polytheistic society (rather than only on individual converts), God demanded what was within their frame of understanding—repentance in the sense of a changed and reformed lifestyle. 

Paul speaks of how even the unbeliever of his day would have a conscience condemning him because by nature he knew that there were certain moral fundamentals and feel guilty because he has knowingly and intentionally violated them (Romans 2:14-15).  Hence the pagan knows sin.  That he can repent of whether he becomes a Christian or not.

Hence the ruler urges the people—not to embrace Jewish monotheism but to “let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands” (Jonah 3:8).  This moral transformation was acceptable to the Lord, “Then God saw their works [their behavior change; not their embracement of monotheism], that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it” (3:10).  Even pagans could expect and demand that of each other and even more so does God (cf. Romans 2:14-15; cf. our discussion in chapter two).

We do not deny that they might have embraced the God of Israel—some or many of them . . . on a temporary rather than permanent basis, unfortunately, being the more probable.  Or, being polytheists by background, they may have simply added Yahweh to their personal pantheon of gods.

Our point is that monotheism was not explicitly demanded of them.  Therefore to argue—as many do--that we know of no point where Nineveh embraced monotheism in no way undermines the credibility of the account.  It was, textually speaking, not demanded of them by Jonah’s mission.  Again, desired is different from demanded.

Indeed there is no explicit mention of the God of Israel in the message Jonah preached; only the destruction of the city (3:4).  Was Jehovah’s name explicitly mentioned at all?  Quite possibly.  It would make fully sense to do so if and where they asked. 

The Assyrians, however, did not have to have the name of a particular deity attached to the prophecy.  They believed religiously and culturally that omens gave forewarning of disaster.  And Jonah’s unexpected appearance—especially joined with any knowledge shared of his past—would surely have been interpreted in such a manner.  Given their background, wouldn’t we have?

Furthermore, their very polytheism may have come back to haunt them and discouraged them from even asking:  it was not without precedent for the act that would assuage one god would be such as to anger another.  Hence there was a fatalism attached to their way of thinking that would not necessarily require them to even ask the name of the God served by the prophet.  The message would enjoy credibility either due to the speaker himself and/or the surrounding national circumstances that seemed to support or deny their pessimism.

So though the question of “which god” may have come up or even been volunteered by Jonah, there is nothing in the text that actually requires this to have been the case.[49]                 



            B.  The Case in Favor of Them at Least Temporarily Embracing Monotheism.  Those disagreeing with the previous section would cite two passages.  The first is Jonah 3:5 and there we find two basic translations

            “So the people of Nineveh believed God” (ASV, ERV, ESV, God’s Word, ISV, KJV, NIV, NKJV, WEB).

            Versus:  “So the people of Nineveh believed in God” (Holman, NASB, Young’s Literal).

            It has been argued that a more literal reading omits that word “in.”[50]  The unneeded “in” easily (though not necessarily has to) shifts the emphasis from believing God’s message to a personal believe in God Himself, i.e., the God of Israel.

            Yet, as we saw, the message Jonah is recorded as preaching was temporal judgment rather than conversion to the God of Israel.  It interjects a conversion to monotheism that the text’s warning to them (3:4) and their response (3:8-9) does not require.  It makes excellent sermonic material, but imposes upon the text a Ninevite receptivity to truth that even God Himself did not demand at that time.     

            In a sense, of course, they believed “in” God for it was His message that warned them.  If they believed the message, they had to believe “in” Him at least that much.  But there is no degree of belief attributed to them that required monotheism.  (Jehovah would certainly have liked it, but He doesn’t demand it of them so far as anything in the text.) 

            In other words they believed “in” Jehovah in the sense that they believed He was a genuine deity with the power to act decisively against them.  But from that to being the God is a major step and nothing in the text requires it.

            Some both add the “in” while denying that it requires a monotheistic interpretation.   For example, A. J. Glaze confidently affirms that “believed God” does not do the Hebrew justice because the Hebrew means “literally, ‘they believed in God.’ ”[51]  However he stresses that this translates into “trust in God” and can provide no clear of evidence how deep their “faith” went in either the Jewish or Christian sense.[52]   


            That leaves us with Jonah 3:9:  “Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?”  T. T. Perowne notes that this is “literally, the God.”[53]  He puts the interpretive “spin” on this that it indicates they now believe in only one God.

            I would argue that the more natural reading of this would be an admission

            (1)  Of Jehovah’s real existence—either under that name or of whatever unnamed God Jonah represented;

            (2)  Of God’s intent and ability to punish;

            (3)  That the people must manifest behavior to convince Him that He should not act on His warning—especially since the threat is short term (forty days) and not one that can be inevitably avoided.

            In what way does any of this belief in “the” God who made the threat require a monotheistic framework?  If the “God” was real, it was real—whether it was the only one or one of many. 

            If a Jew were speaking the most natural construct of intent would be a recognition that this God was the one and only true God.  In the context of a polytheistic Gentile speaking, would it not be an admission that this God also existed, however much He was not one of their own?  (As manifested by the fact that the prophet was a foreigner and not one of their own people.)  In other words, worthy of honor and dignity and high respect—in light of the looming threat if nothing else—and efforts should be made to appease and remove His wrath.

            For the monotheistic Jew this would have been backsliding.  For many polytheists, it would have represented considerable progress:  this foreign Jewish God (for His messenger was Jewish) was real and needed to be honored and respected as well as their own.  To the “purist” who wishes people to leap to full spiritual maturity in one bound this may sound slightly horrifying.  But isn’t it, instead, a quite realistic evaluation?  Don’t expect more of them than was clearly demanded? 



            *  Secondary Issues


            A.  What Language did the Prophet Preach In?  J. Alberto Soggin finds the success of Jonah’s preaching doubly difficult to believe:  not merely because of the degree of success, but also because of the language barrier:  “. . . [T]housands of inhabitants of the Assyrian capital are converted after preaching which we cannot even be sure was in Assyrian.”[54]     

            Based upon an analogy with Acts the second chapter, it is certainly not impossible that Jonah was inspired to speak their tongue—or the hearers were blessed with the capacity to hear it in their own language.  (The Acts text has been interpreted both ways.) 

There is, however, no obvious verse in Jonah that would automatically make us suspect this happened—beyond the not insubstantial fact that . . . if this really occurred at all . . . somehow they did grasp the message of moral reform that was intended for them.  Otherwise their change comes without any encouragement at all and for no apparent reason.

            Of course there would have been traders in any major city such as Nineveh and a few of them (at least) would surely have had knowledge of the Hebrew tongue.  Not the details of it, but enough to fully grasp the central thrust of what was being said.

            The short message of coming destruction would, furthermore, surely not have been difficult to learn in their language.  Indeed if—as noted earlier—his entire explicit message consisted of these words, the task would have been even easier for him.  Teaching a fuller message would be the point of difficulty.  But, in all fairness, if the audience had gotten to the point of listening with interest, one of the traders we mentioned would have been able to provide the core of the rest.

            Now if I were writing this as fiction rather than as history, I would find it inescapable to make Jonah chosen for this very reason:  He knew the language.  Perhaps I would even emphasize that he was the only available Hebrew prophet who did have a sufficient working knowledge of their language to send on the mission!  In fact I would go out of my way to stress the fact either way.  (Do you not think that Hebrew readers would have been just as capable of recognizing the potential “language difficulty” in the narrative?)

Who knows . . . it might even be true.  But interpretive interpolations should be kept to a minimum and involve the least stretches of probability.  The more one can do this, the greater the probability that one’s reconstruction will turn out to be either the truth or close to it.  Hence inspiration or local translation seem the more likely means to explain the situation.   



B.  The Actions of the Animals in the City.  The covering of beasts with sackcloth (3:8) once produced sarcasm from unbelievers.  Not quite as much today perhaps as earlier since more attention has been paid to how ancients used animals as mourning symbols.  Herodotus (IX. 24), for example, notes an ancient Persian custom of cutting short the manes and tails of horses as a sign of mourning for fallen leaders.[55]

            It may seem strange to us, but even we have our sorrowful state rituals:  Black is still the most “natural” color for hearses.  Dark, especially black attire, still the most “natural” for mourning.  It was most natural for the Ninevites to show their mourning through the ceremonial decking of the animals with the attire symbolizing sorrow.


            Then there is always the option of reading the text in a manner that the ancients themselves were hardly likely to.  Terence E. Fretheim argues that it is “improbable that the beasts of Nineveh fasted, cried out mightily to God, and turned from their wicked ways (3:8).”[56]  Later he speaks of how making “the participation of animals in rite of repentance” is an element “one commonly finds in fables.”[57]  (Of course the example from Herodotus argues it is not so fanciful.)

            Furthermore does he quite “play fair” with the scriptural text or bend it so it will sound ludicrous?  Jonah 3: 8 states, “But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.” 

            There is a sense in which the “cry mightily to God” could legitimately be applied to animals—not in the same sense that it applies to humans but one which would be sufficiently comparable to make the remark quite rational.  In Jonah 3:7 we read, “Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water.”    Let a day or two go by and you are going to hear the animals “cry mightily!”  Not in repentance but hunger and thirst.

            They aren’t going to be praying as Fretheim implies, but they are going to be loudly protesting.  They are going to be making a mighty noise, so to speak, “to God.”  Although non-thinking animals (in human terms), it is certainly not impossible for the ruler to have hoped that their discomfort would be taken by God as if a prayer.  A “prayer” to the extent that they were capable of doing such.  By analogy with human motives and behavior.

            Nor is this incompatible with the imagery of the other minor prophets.  In fact in Joel, the physical anguish of animals imposed by national calamity is pictured in similar terms of crying out in noise to the Lord and of both human and beast, each in their own way, begging of the Lord relief from disaster.


13 Gird yourselves and lament, you priests; wail, you who minister before the altar; come, lie all night in sackcloth, you who minister to my God; for the grain offering and the drink offering are withheld from the house of your God.  14 Consecrate a fast, call a sacred assembly; gather the elders and

all the inhabitants of the land into the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord.  15 Alas for the day!  For the day of the Lord is at hand; it shall come as destruction from the Almighty.

16 Is not the food cut off before our eyes, joy and gladness from the house of our God?  17 The seed shrivels under the clods, storehouses are in shambles; barns are broken down, for the grain has withered.  18 How the animals groan!  The herds of cattle are restless, because they have no pasture; even the flocks of sheep suffer punishment.  19 O Lord, to You I cry

out; for fire has devoured the open pastures, and a flame has burned all the trees of the field.

20 The beasts of the field also cry out to You, for the water brooks are dried up, and fire has devoured the open pastures.  (Joel 1).


            If Joel is hardly likely to have intended his rhetoric as intended literal prayer by the animals of Israel, why should we assume that the leader of Nineveh suffered from such literalism?  Or that the author of Jonah did so either?  They are “begging for relief” by their piteous cries—the closest that animals can get to “praying for relief.”  An analogy is intended and it’s a responsible and a reasonable one.

            Its applicability to Nineveh should be obvious:  they were going to face this kind of disaster for if the city fell the animals would be subject to mass calamity and slaughter by negligence if nothing else.  Indeed, God’s final rebuke of Jonah (4:11) stresses not only the huge number of young who would perish but also the presence of “much livestock” that would face the same catastrophe.  Being from an agriculturally dominated country, would not Jonah at least see the propriety of mercy on the innocent livestock of a land . . . even if he could spare an ounce of sympathy for its human inhabitants?   

            Fretheim mocks that the text refers to the animals “turning from their evil ways.”  Does he really believe that the Hebrew prophets were such repositories of ignorance that they really . . . literally . . . believed that animals could be guilty of immoral behavior and that they were capable of consciously modifying their actions accordingly?  Or that the king of Nineveh actually believed such either?  The ancients had their weaknesses and blind spots—historians a millennium from now are really going to have fun with ours!—but to attribute to them this kind of foolishness is to engage in theological mudslinging at its worst.     

            Before we move on, remember one last thing:  that the words quoted in verses 7 to 9 are those of the ruler and not of God Himself.  If there is to be “ignorance” attributed to anyone—and we have already seen it’s not all that easy to do so—let it be fully on the back of the responsible party, the monarch, and not on Jehovah or Jonah.








[1] Donald F. Ackland, “Jonah,” in The Teacher’s Bible Commentary, edited by H. Franklin Paschall and Herschel H. Hobbs (Nashville, Tennessee:  Broadman Press, 1972), 557.


[2] John B. Taylor, The Minor Prophets (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970), 48.


[3] Hanson, 19.


[4] John D. W. Watts, Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible:  Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 19750, 48.


[5] George L. Robinson, The Twelve Minor Prophets (New York:  George H. Doran Company, 1926), 80.


[6] Cited by Glaze, 173, though he does not embrace it.    


[7] C. von. Orelli, The Twelve Minor Prophets, translated from the German by J. S. Banks (Edinburgh:  T. & T. Clark, 1893), 178.


[8] For a map, see John Walton, “Obadiah.”  In John Walton and Bryan Beyer.  Obadiah, Jonah.  Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Zondervan Publishing House, 1982, 1988.  Page 38.


[9] John Walton, “Jonah,” 39.


[10] Brynmor F. Price and Eugene A. Nida, A Translator’s Handbook on the Book of Jonah (London:  United Bible Societies, 1978), 54.


[11] Ibid.


[12] Ackland, 557.


[13] Craig, 214.


[14] Ibid., 229.


[15] Phillip Cary, Jonah, in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Brazos Press, 2008), 107.


[16] Price and Nida. 


[17] Taylor, 48.


[18] Glaze, 173.   


[19] James D. Nogalski, The Book of the Twelve:  Hosea-Jonah, in the Smith & Helwys Bible Commentary series (Macon, Georgia:  Smith & Helwys Publishing, 2011), 438.


[20] Orchard, 147.


[21] Perowne, 83.


[22] Cynthia Jean, “Divination and Oracles at the Neo-Assyrian Palace:  The Importance of Signs in Royal Ideology,” in Divination and Interpretation of Signs in the Ancient World, edited by Amar Annus, University of Chicago Oriental Seminars Number 6 (Chicago:  University of Chicago, 2010), 270-271.  At:  [Accessed February 2014.] 


[23] Jean Helle, Miracles, translated by Lancelot C. Sheppard (New York:  David McKay Company, Inc., 1952), 258-259.  It was claimed that she was demon possessed and that her ability to insightfully comment on spiritual matters disappeared when there was a kind of instantaneous “spontaneous exorcism.”  For a discussion of this see Sarah Ferber, Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France ([N.p.]:  Routledge, 2004), 118-119.  Whatever her delusion may have been, it seems rather incongruous that a demon possessed individual would preach—repentance?

[24] Robinson, 117.


[25] Merrill F. Unger, The New Unger’s Bible Handbook, revised by Gary N. Larson (Chicago:  Moody Press, 1984), 324.


[26] Geoffrey T. Bull, The City and the Sign:  An Interpretation of the Book of Jonah (London:  Hodden and Stoughton, 1970), 117.


[27] Unger, 324.


[28]John E. Steinmueller, A Companion to Scripture Studies, Volume 2, Revised and Enlarged Edition (Houston, Texas:  Lumen Christi Press, 1969), 289.


[29] Robinson, 76.


[30] Walton, 64.


[31] Bull, 117.


[32] Ibid.


[33] Ibid.


[34] Laetsch, 236.


[35] Walton, 45-46.


[36] Jean, note 13, 270.


[37] Ibid., 271.


[38] Ibid., 273. 


[39] Ibid., 273-274. 


[40] Unger, 324.


[41] Ibid.


[42] McGee, Jonah and Micah, 60.


[43] James T. Draper, Jonah:  Living in Rebellion (Wheaton, Illinois:  Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1980), 74. 


[44] Ibid. 


[45] DeHaan, 76.


[46] Hugh Martin, The Prophet Jonah (London:  Alexander Strahan, Publisher, 1866), 345.


[47] Jan Overduin, Adventures of a Deserter, translated from the Dutch by Harry Van Dyke (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965), 113.


[48] Ibid.


[49] Walton, 40-44 provides a useful discussion of this matter, though he would go further than I do in ruling out any mention of Israel’s God to the people.  


[50] Ibid., 47.


[51] Glaze, 174.    


[52] Ibid.    


[53] Perowne, 81.


[54] J. Alberto Soggin, Introduction to the Old Testament, Third English Edition, translated from the Fourth Italian Edition by John Bowden (Louisville, Kentucky:  Westminster / John Knox Press, 1989), 416.


[55] Walton, 53.


[56] Terence E. Fretheim, The Message of Jonah:  A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis:  Augsburg Publishing House, 1977), 63.  I did not have the bibliographical information on this book entered in the first draft of this work decades ago.  This appears to be the only work of his that falls in the right time period and with “Jonah” in the title.


[57] Ibid., 71.