When studying Scripture, it is critical to gain understanding of the historical background and cultural setting of the book or passage being studied. The most difficult and troubling passages often open their meaning and significance in the most beautiful way when the historical and cultural background of the text is grasped.
This is certainly true with the story of Jonah.
Jonah lived and ministered in Israel during the 8th century BC, during the reign of King Jeroboam II (2 Kings 14:23-29). Second Kings 14:25 says that King Jeroboam II “restored the territory of Israel from the entrance of Hamath to the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord God of Israel, which He had spoken through His servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet who was from Gath Hepher” (NKJV). According to this passage, Jonah had prophesied that Israel would expand her boundaries, and under the leadership of the king, the prophecy had been fulfilled.
Prior to this prophecy, it had been a difficult time for Israel, full of affliction and bitterness (2 Kings 14:26), but God rescued and saved the people of Israel from destruction. Though Jeroboam II was not a good king, God used him to help rescue Israel by giving him victory in war (2 Kings 14:27-28). Through these wars, God fulfilled the prophecy of Jonah, and the borders of Israel expanded.
As a result of these events, it seems that Jonah became a well-liked and popular prophet. People viewed his prophecy about the expansion of Israel’s territory as evidence that God was on their side, that God was blessing them as a nation, and that maybe this was just the first step in Israel finally receiving the full allotment of land promised to them by God (Exod 23:27-31; Num 34:1-15; Deut 1:5-8).
Alongside the expansion in territory, the people of Israel were also beginning to experience peace and prosperity as had not been seen since the days of King Solomon. An economic expansion was also underway. Money was pouring in through business and trade, and people were getting rich. Then, as now, people thought that financial prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing, and so there was much optimism about the future of Israel and their role in God’s plan. Of course, the prophets Amos and Hosea, who were contemporaries of Jonah, had something different to say about the economic expansion of Israel.
The only real concern, however, was that off to the east, there was another nation which was also expanding in territory, power, and might. This other nation was Assyria. Like Israel, Assyria was growing in power and influence. By the 9th century BC, Assyria had gained control of the entire Mesopotamian region and was beginning to think about westward expansion toward Israel.[ref][contentblock id=21 img=html.png]1063. John Walton points out that Nineveh was declining in power and influence at this time, and would not rise to dominance for several more decades. See [contentblock id=22 img=html.png]102. Walton takes this to mean that Jonah, along with the other Israelites, would not have viewed Assyria as a threat. But the memories of their previous battles with Assyria and the tribute which King Jehu paid to King Shalmaneser III were still fresh in the minds of most Israelites, and they knew that their own expansionist plans would eventually run up against similar Assyrian plans. Conflict was inevitable.[/ref] Earlier, in fact, Assyria had gone to war with Israel during the reign of King Ahab. Assyria lost at the Battle of Qarqar in 853 BC. But only a few years later, King Jehu (842-815 BC) came to power in Israel, and history indicates that he joined forces with Assyria, and ended up paying tribute to them.[ref]The Bible does not record these details, but they can be found on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III. For more on this discovery, see Tim Kimberley, “Top Ten Biblical Discoveries in Archaeology – #9 Jehu’s Tribute to Shalmaneser Iii” http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2010/07/top-ten-biblical-discoveries-in-archaeology-%E2%80%93-9-jehus-tribute-to-shalmaneser-iii/ (accessed November 4 2012).[/ref] By the time of Jonah, Israel had freed themselves from Assyrian dominance, and did not want to return to it.[ref]Cf. [contentblock id=6 img=html.png]39-40; [contentblock id=10 img=html.png]13-14.[/ref] Yet as both Israel and Assyria grew in power, both knew that continuing conflict was inevitable.[ref][contentblock id=8 img=html.png]772[/ref]
Furthermore, the people of Israel knew with certainty that God would not want a nation like Assyria to prosper. Aside from worshiping false gods, Assyria was a wicked and brutal nation. Archaeologists have discovered many Assyrian inscriptions and carved stone slabs from this time period which reveals how the Assyrians treated their enemies. They often flayed the nobles, and draped their skins over piles of corpses. They dismembered enemy soldiers, cutting off their nose and ears and gouging out their eyes while still alive, before finally beheading the soldiers and placing the severed heads on sharpened stakes around the walls of the captured city. Those who were kept alive did not fare much better. Their lower lips were pierced with fish hooks on lines, and they were led back to Nineveh where they were then tortured and killed or sold as slaves.[ref]For some of these details, see [contentblock id=13 img=html.png]1494.[/ref] In light of all this, Israel believed that if it came to war with Assyria, God would give Israel victory, just as He had done seventy-five years earlier.
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