When we return on Tuesday, August 24, we will begin a short four-week study of the Book of Jonah. There are few, if any, books as difficult in their teaching as Jonah. The story’s fairy tale structure sugar-coats the true depth of its teaching. At its core, Jonah is a polemic against a nationalistic retributive understanding of God who destroys our enemies in favor of a universal understanding of God abounding in such great mercy as to require us to not only love our enemies but to intercede for their redemption. Jonah is an indictment of our selfishness which causes us to flee from the love of neighbor and delight in the downfall of others. Jonah should make us all uncomfortable.
However, Jonah is also a story of redemption. Outside of the Exodus, few passages of the Old Testament anticipated the coming of Jesus and his teachings more than Jonah. Not just the fish, but the entire book is a great sign of the Messiah (Matt. 12:38-42).
As we begin to read Jonah, context is everything. In the 9th century BC in upper Mesopotamia along the Tigris River, the Assyrians have begun to rebuild their empire. Their capital city is Nineveh (near modern-day Mosul). Over the next century, Assyria will ruthlessly build the largest empire the world had ever seen. Its reach would not be surpassed until Alexander the Great four hundred years later.
Under Tiglath-Pileser III (ruled 747-727BC), the Assyrians pushed their western border from the banks of the Euphrates River to the coast of the Mediterranean. In 740 BC, Assyria went to war with Israel. The war was short with Israel quickly capitulating and paying off Assyria. 2 Kings 15:19. In 732, Assyria once more invaded Israel, and this time conquered and carried away a substantial portion of the country and installed a vassal king. 2 Kings 15:29. Tiglath-Pileser describes his campaign as “utterly destroying” the cities and “carrying off all of their cattle and people.” Ten years later, the new Assyrian king, Shalmaneser V, finishes Israel off. 2 Kings 17.
Assyria’s brutality was unsurpassed. They practiced a combination of total war, whereby everything, including even wild animals, would be destroyed and mass deportations of people groups whereby entire populations were exchanged (2 Kings 17). A favorite saying of the Assyrian kings was “I destroyed, I devastated, and I burned with fire.” Vicious acts of retribution against any person or group that got in their way were the norm.
Under the Assyrians, the ten northern tribes of Israel disappeared. The Assyrians annihilated God’s people. In the Biblical record, the Assyrians are the worst of the worst.
Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, God is seen in very nationalistic terms. The Exodus is a victory of Israel’s God over the Egyptian gods. Ex. 12:12. God takes vengeance on those adverse to him and his people. Deut. 32:43. We see this most clearly in the prophecies against other nations where the prophet proclaims that God will see that certain other nations will be destroyed because of their actions against his people. See, Isa. 13-21, Zeph. 2, Obad. 1, Ps. 137. Specifically, the entire book of Nahum and parts of Isaiah (10:5-19, 14:24-27) pronounce judgment on Assyria upon which is directed “the rod of [God’s] anger and the staff of [God’s] fury.”
This is the God that Jonah wants. This is the God that we all want – one to smite our enemies. However, this is not the God that calls to Jonah.
Unlike the other prophets who announce God’s judgment on Israel’s enemies, Jonah is called to work redemption and reconciliation of Assyria – the very worst of the worst of God’s enemies. The story is about Jonah’s response to God’s call of redemption and reconciliation of the enemy. Our story is about the depth of God’s grace and mercy towards his disobedient servant Jonah and his repentant enemy Assyria.
For our study, all you need to bring with you is your bible. As background for this study, I am using the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary on Jonah (academic approach), Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz’s Jonah – A Social Justice Commentary (modern application approach), and Dr. Robert Alter’s Strong as Death is Love (academic and application). I have attached Dr. Alter’s introduction for your review.
We hope you can join us!
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.Matt. 5:43-44.