A Compassionate God and an Angry Prophet (Bible Study)

A Compassionate God and an Angry Prophet (Bible Study)

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In chapter three of the book of Jonah we step into a third literary theme as well, “to announce” (Hebrew qa-ra-’). So we have now gone from “hurling” (Hebrew ṭûl) in chapter 1, to “appointing” (Hebrew ma-na-h) in chapter 2, to “announcing” (qa-ra-’) in chapter 3. Last week we saw that Jonah, the great man of God, the messenger of the Almighty, who had intentionally and willfully defied the command of his God . . . was given a second chance. As we’ve seen, Jonah had responded to his calling with cognitive ­dissonance—the mental discomfort experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs. As a prophet, it was his task to announce the word of God. But as an Israelite, a member of the theocracy of Israel whose standard audience was Israel, how could Jonah bring a word of forgiveness to Assyrians? Hence, his cognitive dissonance.

This is one of the reasons that Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh—because he thought the gifts of God were only for the people of God. Under the Mosaic covenant this was an understandable mistake. Yet in this strategic story (the only story we have from the prophet Jonah) we all learn that the nationalism born of theocracy in the Mosaic covenant is not all there is to God’s larger plan. And we learn right along with Jonah that God’s vision for the world is not actually new with the new covenant. Alas, Jonah had not quite adjusted to that idea yet.

Real People, Real Places, Real Faith

As we have discussed in lecture, Assyria was an ancient empire. It was first established as the Dynasty of Agade under Sargon I in 2300 BCE. (His name means “legitimate king”—you can hear the political intrigue behind that one!) Under his rule, for the first time, all of Mesopotamia was united under a single monarch, and this would become the paradigm for following rulers of every nation. This Old Assyrian Empire and the following Middle Assyrian Empire (established 1350 BCE) were known for military crusades, broad trade initiatives, and their ultimate ambition to control all the land between the two rivers. And although many of these kings were extremely successful in these endeavors, the millennium and a half following Sargon I will see extreme fluctuations in the political fortunes of the region. The rulers of the southern nations (Sumer, Babylonia, and Elam), Mittani and the Hittites to the north and west, and the Amorites of Mari in the middle-Euphrates region will all push back against the ambitions of the Assyrian monarchs and the 1,500 years of history between Sargon I and the rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire will be just as complex and conflicted as 1,500 years of history in Europe, the far East, or Africa.

Perhaps most important to our reading of the book of Jonah is to realize that during these centuries the religions of Mesopotamia become equally complex. There were hundreds of gods honored in the region. Each ethnic group and city had its own deities, and as was typical to polytheism, there was a broad tolerance for the existence, celebration, and fluid identity of these many gods and goddesses. So, for example, the Sumerian high god Anu of the city of Uruk was understood as the father of Enlil, who decreed the fates and brought kingship to humanity and might be found at the city of Nippur. Aššur, the head of the Old Assyrian pantheon (who, of course, could be found in the city of Aššur) would eventually be syncretized with Enlil by the Assyrians, as would Marduk by the Babylonians.

Our city, Nineveh (settled as early as 6000 BCE), served as the religious center for worship of the goddess Inanna/Ištar (the goddess of love and war) . . . who also happened to be the twin sister of Šamaš, the god of the sun and of justice (located at Sippar and Larsa). These, and a dozen other major gods and goddesses were accompanied by a multitude of demons, spirits, and the ghosts of unhappy ancestors in the spiritual realm of Mesopotamia. Thus, the kings of Assyria and Babylonia, Mari and Elam all understood themselves as agents of the gods, responsible to build their temples, fight their wars, and carry out their wishes.

All said, it is important for us as students of the Bible to keep in mind that our heroes don’t even step onto the stage of world history until the settlement in Canaan in 1200 BCE. They don’t step onto the international political stage until the monarchy (1000 BCE). And we can be sure that their strange concept of monotheism and the backwoods, regional deity they are worshipping—Yahweh—would not garner any interest from the ancient religious systems of Mesopotamia. If our book of Jonah is indeed contemporary with the Jonah of 2 Kings 14:23–29, then we are looking at 800–745 BCE as our arena of real time. This era, as detailed in lecture, was part of a larger era of stagnation and decline in Assyria. This recession not only depleted the luxurious lifestyle of the royal courts, destabilized economies, and sent regular paycheck-to-paycheck citizens scrambling to make ends meet, it convinced the locals that there must be some god somewhere who was unhappy with them.

For Assyria, the official borders of the nation didn’t change, but the provincial governors begin to behave as independent rulers, and surrounding people groups (the tribes of Urartu in particular) started encroaching. Perhaps of greatest interest to those tracking the impact of Jonah’s preaching is that on June 15, 763 BCE—in addition to the existing array of economic and military problems in Assyria—the sun disappeared from 9:33 a.m. to 12:19 p.m.! A total eclipse of the sun is always a big deal. But when you happen to be a polytheist, and one of your primary deities is Šamaš (the god of the sun who is also the twin brother of your patron deity), and he hides his face for three full hours . . . well, I can guarantee you that everyone in Nineveh was more than a little nervous. The question on every heart from the governor’s seat to the fisherman’s hut was the same: Which deity is angry with us and why?

This entry is an excerpt from The Epic of Eden: Jonah. Are you interested in a Bible study on the book of Jonah? In the book of Jonah we find a professional holy man, a lifer in the faith who is about to have the God he thinks he understands challenge him with an assignment that he can hardly get his brain around. In The Epic of Eden: Jonah, Dr. Sandra Richter takes us on a journey through Jonah’s life that leads us all to the place where we realize that our God is way bigger than we thought. Not only will we learn everything we ever wanted to know about the brutal Assyrians of Nineveh, ancient seafaring ships, and large aquatic creatures, but we will also be challenged with the same message that confronted Jonah. Are we willing to let God be God, to move us out of our comfort zones, and embrace a calling that might just take us to the edges of the world we know? Get Epic of Eden: Jonah from our store here.