Background

Many of us would have pictured Jonah as a somewhat sulky individual known for hating gentiles and famous for trying to run away from God and being swallowed by a whale. We aim to show this is an entirely incorrect view of both the man and his character – of those four attributes mentioned above, only one is in fact correct. As we get no introduction to Jonah as an individual in the book, the essential message for us needs to be extracted from the account of his experiences. The work of Jonah is taken up in the NT and expanded in the work of the Lord and the apostles—particularly Peter and Paul.

Something interesting that clearly comes through in the record is Jonah’s resemblance to the great prophet Elijah; he has the same fervent passion and determination, the same abruptness of speech and obstinacy, and he falls into the same black despair. There are also significant differences between the two, but it seems clear that Jonah was motivated by the same spirit and passionate desire as Elijah was, to turn the hearts of the nation of Israel back to their God. But although Jonah, seeking to emulate the spirit of his hero, has his future work completely mapped out in his own mind, God has a different plan for him. Jonah wants to be Elijah to Israel – God wants him to be Jonah to the Gentiles.

In this, the first of five articles, we intend to consider the background to the book to set the scene for the momentous events we read of in the book and help to understand what shaped the Assyrian response to Jonah’s preaching.

To assist with the geography, the key players in the story of the book of Jonah are marked on the map. We’re focussed on the superpower of the day, Assyria; a regional power, Syria, the sailors of the world; Phoenicia, and Jonah’s own people of Israel. The other powers marked on the map will also come up as they all have a big role to play in shaping this drama.

The secular, historical background to Jonah is quite fascinating as it testifies to God’s exercise of sovereign control over the nations. He sets up kings and raises nations and casts them down again to allow something to occur elsewhere. This proves the Bible’s inspiration and accuracy as well! From this history we can quite confidently identify the time period the events described in Jonah took place and also begin to understand the cause of what can only be described as atypical Assyrian behaviour in Jonah chapter 3.

Assyria became a true empire, complete with its voracious appetite for expansion and con- quest in 1353BC when Ashu-uballit I (1353– 1318BC)1 threw off foreign rule and, defeating the Babylonians, installed a puppet ruler in Babylon.This began a long tradition of Assyrian intervention and domination of Babylonian affairs.

Arki-den-ili (1307-1296BC) began the Assyrian tradition of annual military campaigns3 while Shalmanser I (1263-1234BC) is one of the first known Assyrian kings to have a policy of deporting his defeated enemies rather than simply slaughtering them.4 Tiglath-Pileser I (1115-1076BC) was one of the greatest Assyrian conquerors, who made Assyria into the dominant super-power for much of the next 500 years.5

The time from 1076-935BC is pivotal to our story ad demonstrates God’s sovereign control and foresight. This was a period of decline and military setback (relative to Tiglath Pileser I’s benchmark) for Assyria. They experienced famine and war with nomadic tribes invading from the wet and with Babylon in the south.6 With Assyria thus occupied, the Urartu Kingdom of Van (located around Lake Van in the Taurus Mountains, Turkey) began to rise in power and became a powerful force on Assyria’s north western frontier.7

Ashurnasirpal II (883–859BC) invaded Syria crushing the Syrians and the Hittites and, reach- ing the Mediterranean, exacted tribute from Phoenicia—just north of Israel’s border!8 His son, Shalmanesar III (859–824BC) campaigned suc- cessfully against the Mannai and Medes in the east, Babylonians in the south and the Kingdom of Van in the north-west. He also fought an inconclusive battle at Qarqar (north-western Syria) in 853BC against kings of the Levant (including Ahab of Israel, who sent 2000 chariots and 10,000infantry) and exacted tribute of Jehu of Israel in 841 BC.9

824-745BC is another key time period. There was trouble and again relative military weakness in Assyria due to civil war, famine, plagues and a large revolt. This, along with the growing influence of high ranking civil and military officials limited the effectiveness of the king’s rule.10 Jonah 3:7 specifically picks this up. This is the only period of Assyrian history where the ‘great’ men of the kingdom were party to the decree of the king.

Adad-nirari (811-783BC) besieged and took Damascus in 796BC, crushing the Syrians under Ben-Hadad III. This event is critical to the three military victories Jehoash of Israel had over Syria (2 Kings 13:25), which allowed him to expand back into territory lost to Syria.11 Although Shalmaneser III campaigned successfully against the Urartuan Kingdom of Van, he did not defeat them. The previous period of relative military decline (1076-935BC) had allowed Van to become powerful and, in an alliance with the Mannai and the Medes, they were a formidable opponent. The Assyrians had to devote considerable resources to protect their eastern and north-western borders (and to deal with the Babylonian threat to the south).

Tiglath-Pileser III (745-727BC) is generally regarded a usurper who seized control during the civil war that engulfed Assyria in 746BC. He reformed the civil, military, and political systems and created Assyria’s first professional standing army, greatly improving the efficiency and security of the empire. 12 He is credited with being one of the most successful military commanders ever, conquering Israel (under Menahem in 2 Kings 15:19-20 [called Pul, which is his Babylonian name]) and Judah (under Ahaz in 2 Chron 28:20-21).

Our survey of the Assyrians history concludes with Sargon II (722-702BC) who probably usurped the thorn from Shalmaneser V (727-722BC), who may have been his brother.13 He took Israel into captivity in about 722BC (2 Kings 18:3-4 is referring to Shalmaneser V who began the three year siege of Samaria, but the deportation of the people in 2 Kings 18:8-8 was carried out at the orders of Sargon II).

The events described in the book of Jonah have to fit into the period 824-745BC. More will be said in a subsequent article, but this period saw the Assyrians weakened with internal division and largely preoccupied with defending their borders. Notable those to the north-west (the Urartu), the east (the Mannai and the Madai(Medes)) and the south (the Babylonians). Having seriously weakened Syria in 796BC, thereby securing their south-western flank, Assyria now concentrated on the more serious threats closer to their home territory. This preoccupation, and the weakened state of Syria, created a power vacuum that Israel and Judah sought to exploit. It is during this period that the combined territory of the Jewish kingdoms expanded to as much of the area as was reigned over by Solomon (2 Kings 14:25 and 2 Chron 26:6-8; cp 1 Kings 8:65).

Although Syria was not a threat to Assyria, it was still a formidable regional power and Israel struggled to exploit this regional power vacuum. In 2 Kings 10:28-30 Jehu destroyed the house of Ahab and exterminated Baal worship from Israel. The reward for obedience was that the dynasty of Jehu would extend to five generations. In about 841BC, within the first 2-3 years of Jehu’s reign, the black obelisk of Shalmaneser III records Jehu paying tribute to Assyria. Shortly after this, Assyria had stopped intervening as far south as Israel in the Levant for approximately 100 years. Of the roughly 220 years the northern kingdom lasted, Jehu’s family reigned for a coinciding period of about 100 years. This providentially allowed a period of stability designed to create the conditions necessary for national spiritual revival in Israel. Unfortunately, Jehu didn’t take the crucial next step and destroy the worship of the golden calves. Consequently, in 2 Kings 10:31-32, the Syrians became the dominant regional power rather than Israel. In this we see God’s sovereign control in evidence again as He works in the affairs of the nation and tries to reach His people’s unresponsive hearts.

In 2 Kings 13:1-9, generation two, Jehoahaz, is on the throne. God’s sovereign control over the nations is again exercised because of Jehoahaz’s own failure to eradicate the worship of the golden calves and the people’s sins. Now Syria is totally ascendant in the regional power struggle. However, Jehoahaz humbles himself and seeks God, and salvation is wrought and the nation released from Syrian oppression. The “saviour” mentioned in 2 Kings 13:5 may be the Assyrian Adad-nirari. His 796 BC campaign against Syria was the major turning point, allowing Jehoash and Jeroboam II to defeat the Syrians and re-occupy lost territories.

In 2 Kings 13:10-13, generation three, Jehoash, is reigning. Jehoash’s life is summarised and dismissed and it is almost as an afterthought that verse 25 records the fulfillment of Elisha’s prophecy of three victories over the Syrians. The dismissiveness of the record is surely illustrative of the spiritual state of the man and the nation under him.

In 2 Kings 14:23-25, generation four, Jeroboam II has ascended the throne. His reign sees restoration of territory, and to some extent prestige, as prophesied by Jonah the prophet. Jonah would have been overjoyed as this was the same territory as ruled over by Solomon. This is quoted from 1 Kings 8:65; perhaps Jonah thought about the glory of Solomon’s reign when this happened. See verses 61 and 66: he certainly dreamt about the nation returning to the spirit of that time. Jonah is not just interested in land; he wants to turn the hearts of the people back to their God.

2 Kings 14:26-27 describes Israel’s last chance to reform their hearts and turn back to God.The house of Jehu, now in its fourth generation, has reigned for about 80 years—only one more generation of the family will sit on the throne (2 Kings 10:30). Time is fast running out for Israel to appreciate the blessings of God and to respond in thankfulness to Him for the opportunities and the protection they have received during this period. Jonah knew Jeroboam II was wicked, but perhaps he saw the restoration of the land as a divine guarantee of the restoration of the heart and spirit of the people he desired. Unfortunately, Jeroboam II is well named; verse 29 records that “he departed not from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin”.The spiritual condition of the nation during his reign was dire (Amos 7:12; Hos 4:1,6).

Jeroboam reigned for 41 years, the longest reign of any king of Israel. Why would God allow such an evil king to reign for so long? This is an example of God’s long-suffering; a period provided so the people see God is true to His word and are encour- aged to respond to His goodness. This relief from intense pressure is a final window of grace given to respond to Jonah’s efforts at spiritual reformation before God extends grace to the gentiles. In verse 26, the emphasis is on Almighty God’s sovereign con- trol through all of this.There is no helper for Israel; the word indicates military strength. Jeroboam is given military success to allow the nation relief so that Jonah could go to work.

It is probably in the second half of Jeroboam’s reign that Jonah 1:1-2 occurs. This allows sufficient time after Jonah’s prophecy is fulfilled to show there would be no national response to Yahweh’s good- ness. Jonah is deeply committed to the reforma- tion of his people and probably modelling himself on Elijah in seeking to turn back the hearts of a reluctant people to their God. In fact, it appears Jonah is so deeply committed, that he refuses to acknowledge the possibility of failure and the dire consequence this would bring.

References

  1. All dates for Assyrian kings are based on the short chronology, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Short_chronology, accessed 12/04/2019
  2. Based on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enlil-nirari, accessed 12/04/2019
  3. Based on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arik-den-ili, accessed 12/04/2019
  4. Based on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shalmaneser_I, accessed 12/04/2019
  5. Based on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiglath-Pileser_I, accessed 12/04/2019
  6. Based generally on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neo-Assyrian_Empire, accessed 12/04/2019
  7. Based on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urartu, accessed 12/04/2019
  8. Based on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashurnasirpal_II, accessed 12/04/2019
  9. Based on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shalmaneser_III, accessed 12/04/2019
  10. Based on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shalmaneser_IV, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashur-dan_III and https:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashur-nirari_V, accessed 12/04/0219
  11. Based on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adad-nirari_III, accessed 12/04/2019
  12. Based on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiglath-Pileser_III, accessed 12/04/2019
  13. Based on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shalmaneser_V and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sargon_II, accessed 12/04/2019