Much of the attention surrounding the Book of Jonah focuses on the story of Jonah being swallowed for three days and three nights by a “whale.” There is a lot of confusion about this. For one thing, the actual Bible text calls it a “great fish,” and not a “whale” (Jonah 1:17). But in this post, I want to focus briefly on the city where Jonah was called to preach: Nineveh.
Nineveh was the capital of the ancient Assyrian empire. The Bible talks quite a bit about the threat that the dreaded Assyrians posed for the Israelites, a threat that was eventually realized by the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, in the 8th century before the birth of Christ. So, you only imagine the horror experienced by the prophet Jonah, first mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25, when he was called by God to urge the citizens of Nineveh to repent, and come to know the God of Israel.
Nineveh was the last place Jonah wanted to be.
The city of Nineveh is in the news quite a bit these days. Nineveh is part of the greater city of Mosul, in Iraq, where a coalition of military forces have been trying to force the Islamic State out of the city. Many skeptics may dismiss the story of Jonah as a “fairy tale,” but the story of what has happened in today’s Mosul is tragically real. For example, thousands of Christians have had to flee the city from the Islamic State, and surely, some remain, fearful for their lives. We should pray for them. Given what we know about Nineveh/Mosul today, I can relate a bit to Jonah’s desire not to go the Nineveh. I would not want to be there either!
A Reluctant Prophet to a Despised People
The Book of Jonah is such an important story in the Bible (I blogged on one aspect of Jonah’s story previously on Veracity). Yet the message is often overshadowed by questions about its historicity. Nineveh is indeed a real city in Biblical history. Nevertheless, the Bible has a descriptive element about Nineveh that raises a good question.
Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.(Jonah 3:1-5 ESV).
The idea that Nineveh was “an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth” is a very interesting detail. According to archaeological evidence, the city of Nineveh in Jonah’s day was only about a mile in breadth at its widest part. Most people could walk that distance in a matter of hours, not days. The much, much larger city of Mosul today, the second largest in Iraq, is probably a “three days’ journey” wide, so what do we make of these “three days?“
A couple of solutions have been proposed. For example, some scholars argue that the reference to Nineveh here is really to the “greater Nineveh” area, overlapping much of what makes up Mosul today. Perhaps this corresponds to Jonah’s journey across the “city.” Others suggest that the “three days” refers to the amount of time Jonah took to deliver his message in different parts of the city. Others suggest that this reference to “three days” could be a symbol of some sort (or an idiomatic expression?). Could it be that the “three days” across Nineveh has something to do with the “three days and three nights” in the belly of the great fish?
The Oxford don and famous Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis, remarked that the literary style of the Book of Jonah suggests that the book could be a type of fiction designed to teach spiritual truth. Lewis does not specify, and I am not the literary critic that he so expertly was, but it is possible that the “three days” might have been something he had in mind when thinking about the genre of Jonah (Protestant Reformer Martin Luther also had his own doubts and questions about the historicity of Jonah’s story).
It is important to clarify that Lewis was careful to explain himself: “This is not a “rationalistic approach” to miracles. Where I doubt the historicity of an Old Testament narrative I never do so on the ground that the miraculous as such is incredible. Nor does it deny a unique sort of inspiration: allegory, parable, romance, and lyric might be inspired as well as chronicle.”
I know that there are evangelical Christians who would fight tooth and nail to defend the literal historicity of the Book of Jonah. There are very good reasons to accept it as history, given the vivid historical reality behind the contemporary news reports given to us about Mosul. In many respects, the text of Jonah has the look and feel of historical narrative. The greatest argument, though, for the historical character of the Book of Jonah is Jesus’ reference to the story in Matthew 12:40. We should not ridicule the idea of Jonah’s preaching mission as history, simply because there are some elements that strike us as extraordinary or unlikely. Whatever Jesus’ view was of Jonah needs to be our view of Jonah!
In saying this though, I am not prepared to throw C. S. Lewis (or Martin Luther) under the bus on this one. A careful reading of Jonah indicates that the story of Jonah is quite different than what we find from the other Bible prophets. Jonah is very reluctant to go preach to the people of Nineveh. Contrast that with the willing obedience of characters like Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah to perform the mission that God called them to do. Frankly speaking, Jonah was a bigot, and unlike many of the other Bible prophets, God had to do some serious, miraculous work to bring him around to the right way of thinking. Even then, by the end of chapter 4, it is evident that Jonah was still stuck in his ways, despite a brief period of obedience.
Sadly, debates about the historicity of Jonah’s story often obscure the clear teaching that this short, yet theologically rich, text communicates to us, as a part of God’s Word. This much should be clear to the reader: The story of Jonah is a type of satire meant to challenge the rather self-righteous stubbornness of a prophet like Jonah with God’s desire to reach out to the most despised people around us. Are you and I willing to embrace God’s mission to share the Gospel among a people, we would rather ignore and not have in our lives? Who are the “hated” people of Nineveh today in our world, whom God is calling us to love with the Gospel?
UPDATE: December 2, 2016, HT Andrew Wilson. Here is a depiction of ancient Nineveh, what Jonah might have seen on his preaching tour of the city: