Cutting Jonah Some Slack

Posted on September 22, 2022


By David Ettinger

Good and Bad
Among Israel’s prophets, Jonah, who prophesied from 800 to 750 B.C., is unique.

On the good side, he is the only prophet in recorded Scripture to be sent to a foreign nation to declare, directly to them, God’s message of destruction. Other prophets who foresaw destruction of the heathen (Isaiah [chapters 13-21], Amos [1:3-2:3] and Zephaniah [2:4-15] among them) did so from the comparatively safer confines of Israel.

On the bad side, Jonah is the only prophet recorded in the Bible to have refused God’s commission. He was sent to Nineveh, about 500 miles northeast of his home in Gath Hepher, but instead headed southwest to the Judean seaport town of Joppa. There he boarded a ship going to Tarshish, located in modern-day Spain, which at the time was about as far west as one could travel.

Though Jonah’s disobedience cannot be excused, perhaps it can be understood. Perhaps we can even cut him a little bit of slack?

After all, his was no ordinary mission: a lone Hebrew marching into the jaws of the heathen world and telling them to repent in the name of the God of Israel. Say what you will about the wayward prophet, but this was no easy assignment!

Good Start
We are introduced to Jonah in 2 Kings 14:25. It is the reign of wicked Jeroboam II, the northern kingdom’s longest-ruling monarch, and he has overseen an expansion of Israel’s territory.

The text says: “He was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Dead Sea, in accordance with the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher.”

Good for Jonah! He spoke the word of God, and the Lord fulfilled His word during the prophet’s lifetime. Perhaps Jonah was highly regarded because of this advantageous prophecy which came to pass.

The ancient city of Nineveh

However, despite this short-term expansion, things were not looking good for Israel as a growing power to the north was threatening the Hebrews’ safety. Jonah’s contemporary, the prophet Amos, had said: “‘Therefore I will send you [Israel] into exile beyond Damascus,’ says the LORD, whose name is God Almighty” (Amos 5:27).

At that time, Damascus in Syria was beginning to lose its power as the empire of Assyria – with its capital city of Nineveh – was on the rise. Assyria would eventually conquer Damascus in 732 B.C. and then do the same to Israel’s northern kingdom in 722 B.C.

Though these two events would not occur until after Jonah’s death, he certainly knew that Assyria was a looming pagan power which would spell trouble for his people.

Nineveh, the heart of Assyria, was an amazing city. Including its suburbs, Nineveh may have been the ancient world’s largest city and was home to about 600,000 people.

In all, Nineveh was a vast 60-mile complex of irrigation canals, villages, and rich agricultural land which surrounded the heart of the metropolis with its ornate palaces and gaudy mansions.

Wicked Nineveh!
Nineveh, however, was also the pagan worship center of Assyria and the home of the idolatrous veneration of Ashur, the war god, and Ishtar, goddess of sexual love. The pantheon of Ninevite deities included the fish goddess Nanshe; Ea, the goddess of the water; and Dagon, another fish god which was represented as half-man, half-fish.

The perverted pagan practices which accompanied such idol worship combined with Nineveh’s future role in Israel’s destruction was a toxic mixture Jonah could not swallow.

We can only imagine the shock Jonah felt when God commanded him to, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2). You may wonder why this would displease Jonah. After all, wouldn’t he be preaching against Nineveh?

Yes and no. Jonah knew about Nineveh’s wickedness. However, he also knew about God’s goodness. He knew that if he went to Nineveh, the people would repent and God would forgive them. In other words, the Lord would spare the Ninevites’ lives, allowing them decades later to conquer Israel.

Following Nineveh’s repentance, the outraged Jonah tells God, “Isn’t this what I said, LORD, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 3:2).

This is why Jonah was disobedient and ran the other way. He knew God would forgive Nineveh. Jonah, however, wanted them destroyed. All 600,000 of them! God had much to teach his headstrong prophet about compassion and mercy.

Scripture does not make clear if Jonah ever learned that lesson, but if, as some believe, he is the writer of the book which bears his name, it appears he well could have.

David Ettinger is a writer/editor at Zion’s Hope, Inc., and has written for Zion’s Fire magazine since its inception in 1990.