Jonah 1:2. God’s commission to Jonah was to rise up and go to Nineveh. Nineveh was about 500 miles from Gath-Hepher, and was situated along the Tigris River. It eventually became the capital of Assyria, the powerful and wicked nation to the east which was threatening the peace, prosperity, and continued expansion of Israel. Though the Assyrians became the bitterest enemy of Israel in pre-exilic times,[ref]Bewer, 29.[/ref] in the days of Jonah, Nineveh was just another city in a nation struggling to survive the shifting power struggles of the Ancient Near East.[ref]John H. Walton, “Jonah,” in Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, ed. John H. Walton (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 102.[/ref]
Though until now, Jonah had only ministered in and around Israel, God was now calling Jonah to go to Nineveh. Such a command was extremely rare for prophets of God. Usually, when God commanded prophets to speak against other nations, it was a message from God for the encouragement and instruction of His own people. Rarely does God send a prophet to another nation to speak a message to them.[ref]Allen, 176; J. Vernon McGee, Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee, 5 vols. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982), 743.[/ref]
Nineveh is described as a great city. But how was the city great? Some believe the city was great in power, but this is unlikely, since at the time of Jonah, Nineveh was not the most influential city of Assyria, and was not the Assyrian capital. A second option is that Nineveh was great in size. This is possible, especially since Jonah 3:3 refers to the breadth of the city and Jonah 4:11 talks about its large population. However, there is a third option about how Nineveh was great, which is hinted at in Jonah 3:3 and developed in more detail in chapter 4. We will develop this point in more detail in those places. At this point in the story, however, the author of Jonah wishes only to point out that Nineveh was a great city, and leaves unanswered the question as to how it was great. Following his lead, we will do the same until the proper time in the story.
After Jonah travels to Nineveh, God wants Jonah to cry out against it. The terminology implies that God wants Jonah to proclaim a message of doom upon Nineveh.[ref]John D. Hannah, “Jonah,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures – Old Testament, ed. John F. Walvoord et al. (Wheaton: Victor, 1985), 1464.[/ref] God sought to judge the city and overthrow it. This is right in line with what the average Israelite expected God to do to a wicked and evil city like Nineveh.
Furthermore, God explains why He wants Jonah to cry out against the city. It is because of its evil. As discussed in the section on the historical background to Jonah, Nineveh was a wicked and evil city. It was widely known for its pride, greed, brutality, adultery, and idolatry.[ref]Ibid., 1465; Radmacher et al., eds., 1065.[/ref]
This is the first mention of evil (Heb. raa) in Jonah, and raises the question about the nature of evil in this book. The word is used nine times in the book, all in varying contexts (1:2, 7, 8; 3:7-8, 10; 4:1-2, 6). It is translated in various ways, and can refer to trouble, harm, difficulty, misery, disaster, or other negative experiences. Various Bible translations reflect this wide range of meanings, but I believe that such a practice causes the reader to miss the “debate” in the book of Jonah about the nature of evil. The author wants the reader to ask questions about evil such as, “What is evil? Who can commit evil? Is evil only in the eye of the beholder? Does evil come from God? Can righteous people—even prophets—do evil things, or is it only evil people who do evil?” Consistently translating raa as “evil” will help the English reader see this issue within Jonah.
Regardless, in 1:2, the word is almost universally translated as “evil.” Yet Douglas Stuart believes that “evil” is a mistranslation here. He makes the excellent point that God is not only concerned about evil, but is also concerned about the troubles people face. He says that “the problems of the Assyrians in Nineveh move God to commission Jonah to preach there,” not necessarily their “evil.”[ref]Stuart, 437.[/ref] This helps Stuart explain why Jonah fled to Tarshish in verse 3: Jonah did not want to help correct the problems in Nineveh. However, such an explanation too quickly resolves the tension in the text, as we will see in verse 3. The Ninevites were evil—at least from a Jewish perspective—and Jonah is called to cry out against them; not help them.
The explanation God gives for why He wants Jonah to cry about against the Ninevites is not just their evil, but that the evil is an affront to My honor. This phrase in Hebrew is literally “come up before my face” and is typically translated “come up before me.”[ref]R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2 vols. (Chicago: Moody, 1980), 727-728.[/ref] But such a translation implies that God has only now just become aware of the great evil of Nineveh, and now that He is aware of it, has decided to do something about it. But such an understanding of this phrase is much too weak for the intended meaning. In Mediterranean cultures, honor and shame were primary values. Above all else, people protected their honor and sought to gain more honor for themselves and their family. To lose honor, or to be shamed, was a great tragedy and required that certain actions be taken in an attempt to defend one’s honor or regain the honor that was lost.
In this society, honor and shame were often symbolized with certain body parts. The head, face, and right hand were symbols of honor, while the left hand, feet, and bottom were symbols of dishonor.[ref]Jerome H. Neyrey, ed. The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991), 34.[/ref] So although it is true that the evil of Nineveh has come before God, the fact that the Hebrew mentions His face is more than just an idiom for saying that this evil has come before Him. Instead, this is a cultural way of saying that God’s honor is being challenged. It is not that God has finally become aware of the great evil in Nineveh and has decided to act. No, He has been aware of their evil from the beginning, but the evil has now become so great that God is forced to respond.
And just as the head of a household or ruler of a nation has the right to call upon family members or the military to respond to affronts to their honor, God is calling upon His prophet, Jonah, to respond to the affront to His honor. As God’s spokesman, it is Jonah’s duty and responsibility to defend God’s honor.
This would be welcome news to any Israelite. Israel was concerned with the growing power and influence of Assyria. News that God had decided to take action against the wickedness of Nineveh would be well-received. They knew from numerous passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that when God pronounced judgment upon a nation because of their wickedness, this meant that God was about to destroy that nation. In Genesis 6:5-7, God saw the wickedness of the people on the earth and sent a flood in response. In Genesis 18:20-21 and 19:24-25, God saw the wickedness of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, and rained down fire and brimstone upon those two cities. When the people of Israel entered the Promised Land, God saw the wickedness of the Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites, and Jebusites, and as a result, told the Israelites to completely destroy these people (Exod 23:23-24). In 1 Samuel 15:18, God told the Israelites to utterly destroy the sinful Amalekites.
These sorts of passages are notoriously famous in Scripture, and cause many debates about how a loving God could command the Israelites to do such things. Though the nature and character of God does become an issue in the book of Jonah, solving this debate is not within the scope of this commentary. The point is only raised here because Jonah, as a prophet of God, would have known about the long history of God destroying wicked nations, and now that God has commanded him to go cry out against Nineveh because of their great wickedness, the average reader would expect Jonah to jump at the chance of going to Nineveh.
If Jonah did what was asked of him, and God destroyed Nineveh as a result, Jonah would become doubly famous in Israel. Not only would he be the prophet who helped Israel expand her borders, but he would also be the one who prophesied against the enemy nation of Assyria before God destroyed them.
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