The Great City

In our last article we saw Jonah, saved from his horror of drowning, acknowledge God’s intention to include Gentiles in His purpose. He promises to offer sacrifices of thanksgiving and faithfully perform his vows to “his God.” Jonah is now about to take up his commission as a prophet of Yahweh again and perform anything asked of him—even preaching to the Assyrians.

We now see intellectual agreement with a principle and emotional acceptance of its reality being two quite different things. After his regurgitation, Jonah probably went to Jerusalem to pay his vows. For a second time momentous news would have spread through Jerusalem, Judah, Samaria and Israel, and travelled with the trading caravans to distant places. Most likely chapter 3:1 finds Jonah home in Gath-hepher having renewed his vows. We don’t know how long Jonahawaited God’s call; long enough for the story of the man who was swallowed and then vomited up by a fish to reach Nineveh ahead of his journey.

Sufficient time also passed for Jonah’s story to spread through the northern and southern kingdoms. The Jewish people had the advantage of the sign of the resurrected man manifested among them first. It is intriguing that Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah are all silent about the impact of this astounding sign. No national response is recorded of either kingdom. Yet, when Jonah arrived in Nineveh, they knew he was a resurrected man and repented in sackcloth and ashes.

It is helpful to establish the key elements of our story and the timeframe in which they occur.

  • 3:1-3 – from receipt of commission (identical to ch 1) to arrival in Nineveh is about 40 days, walking about 1100km from Gath-hepher around the fertile crescent to get there.
  • 3:4-9 – God gave Assyria 40 days to respond to His message (Israel had over 40 years).
  • 3:10-4:11 – following expiry of the 40 days, Jonah is educated in God’s true character and the limit of His grace and mercy to unresponsive people, maybe 3-5 days.

When Jonah was sent to Assyria (circa 772-745BC), the capital city was Calah (Kalhu)1 and archaeology showsNineveh’s population was quite modest (about 35,000). But chapter 4:11 mentions a figure of 120,000. At first, there seems to be significant inconsistency between the Bible and archaeology.

The expression “the same is a great city” is used in Genesis 10:11-12 referring to Nimrod’s newly acquired territory. Nimrod constructed four cities to control his conquests, which (except for Resen whose location is unknown) correspond well to the main cities of central Assyria. This area was under continuous Assyrian rule for 700 years from the 14thcentury BC and was the ‘heartland’ of Assyria geographically, geopolitically, culturally and ideologically.2 Outside of urban areas, the area was almost entirely agricultural, with some of the deepest, most fertile soil in the empire and enough rain to allow dry cropping most years. The 3

The Assyrian heartlands are demarcated by the cities Assur in the south, Nineveh in the north and Arbela in the east. The distance between Assur and Arbela is about 105km, between Assur and Nineveh is about 100km and between Arbela and Nineveh is about 80km.4 This “great city” is about three days’ journey across and supported a population of between 600,000 and 800,000 people. The 120,000 mentioned in 4:11 appear to be young children (0-7 years old). This group represents approximately 20% of the population,5 and would proportionally match the lower end range of the total population of 600,000.

Although Nineveh was not the capital city of the empire, it was marked out specifically because of its name, its history, and its importance to the Assyrian people.

Jonah started work immediately (v4), warning the Assyrians of their peril. His message is simple, stark, bereft of compassion and comprising just five words: “Yet forty days, Nineveh overthrown.” “Overthrown” is the word used to describe Sodom and Gomorrah’s obliteration (Gen 19:25)—no response from the people invited a similar catastrophe onAssyria’s most important centres.

Jonah had no doubt he would witness this area’s destruction in 40 days’ time. He is not seeking repentance; he desires their fiery demise. Jonah was prepared to obey God’s commandment, faithfully paying his vow, but the last thing he expected was the dramatic response of verse 5 and God’s extension of longsuffering to Assyrians!

Verses 4-5 don’t mean national repentance occurred the day after Jonah entered Nineveh. Most likely someone who heard Jonah in Nineveh that first day probably took the message (v6 note “For”) to Calah and spoke to the king. Jonah would then have been invited to Calah to explain himself, followed by a “decree of the king and his nobles” issued to the heartland provinces. For the nobles to be party to a decision by an Assyrian king is highly unusual and Ashur-dan III and Ashur-nirari V are unique in the records of this period. Their effectiveness was curtailed by the power and interference of important court dignitaries, particularly Shamshi-ilu, the turtanu (chief of the army).6

Jonah would have been profoundly shocked. The people of Nineveh are unified in believing “God” (singular) (v5). Faith similar to Abraham’s, “counted…to him for righteousness” (Gen 15:6), is seen in pagan Gentiles. What an incredible contrast with Jeroboam II and Israel, who Jonah had worked with for many years!

The king’s proclamation (v7-9) explains what the people were to do and prescribes universal involvement in ademonstration of national contrition. Israel’s only mandated fast was the Day of Atonement where they fasted, afflictedtheir souls, and pleaded for national forgiveness. Here is a national response of faithfulness and contrition in keeping with the principles taught by the Day of Atonement, which contrasts with Isaiah’s condemnation of Israel’s fasts and neglect of the Day of Atonement (Isa 58:3-4).

One reason Jonah is heartbroken in chapter 4 is because his own king and nation simply would not respond or listen—even to the preaching of a resurrected man! Similarly, the Jews rejected Jesus Christ and their refusal opened the door for Gentiles to hear and respond in large numbers, just as it does here.

We can’t be certain what caused this remarkable change in the Assyrian king and his people however, a number of scriptural allusions, precedents and historical events are helpful.

  1. Luke 11:29-30 – Jonah was a sign to the Assyrians personally. His physical appearance marked him out as living proof of his message and the trading caravan rumours.
  2. Joshua 2:9-11 – the Canaanites attribute Egypt’s destruction to the power of Israel’s God. Momentous events are remembered, perhaps connecting Jonah’s warning and Sodom’s overthrow (Gen 19:25,29) is reasonable.
  3. 765-746BC was tough for Assyria – two plagues (765BC, 758BC) during Assur-dan III’s reign (772-755BC).Revolt starting in Assur (763BC) was suppressed in Gozan (758BC) after a six year civil war.8 Assur-dan’s brother, Ashur-nirari V, ascending the throne (755BC), inherited a difficult situation9 and a weak military position due to the strength of the Uratuans, Elamites and Babylonians.
  4. Bad omens – a total solar eclipse occurred 15 June 763BC: “The eclipse…passed over Palestine, across Syria and Assyria, and in the latter country appearing when the great city of Assur was in revolt, it was viewed as an evil omen.”10 This eclipse may be referenced in Amos 8:9 (prophesying in Jeroboam II’s reign (786-746BC)).Neither Ashur-dan III nor Ashur-nirari V could campaign in each year of their reigns as was customary for Assyrian kings. This usually indicated a weak king, and was seen as a bad omen.11 This inability to campaign is linked to the revolt of 763 BC: “After this for a year the Assyrian army did not go out…Again, after this the army rested at home for a year…now we begin to see the signs of revolts and disorganisation in Assyria itself.”12
  5. Nineveh’s patron goddess – while not the capital or largest Assyrian city when Jonah visited, Nineveh was a key religious centre dedicated to Ishtar. Ishtar was not Nineveh’s original patron goddess; she was named Ninâ, which may be the basis of the name In cuneiform Ninâ is represented by a fish in a house and had become synonymous with Ishtar by about 3000BC. “She who assigned the destinies of lives while swimming as a fish…the sacred sign that spelled her name [was] the same as the sign of the City of Nineveh:13 thus, Ninâ was associated with the great fish that swallowed Jonah but was forced to give up her meal by Jonah’s superior God. Over time Ninâ had herself absorbed the attributes of an older, even more ancient mother goddess, Tiamat. She was the goddess of chaos and the watery abyss, depicted as a long bodied dragon who caused storms by thrashing about under the water.14 Nineveh’s goddess is defeated by Jonah’s God on a second level within her jurisdiction. The storm ‘she’ had conjured up was stilled by Jonah’s God who proved Himself to be the living God and master of all ancient earth-mother goddesses.
  6. Assur abased before Yahweh – as Assur’s earthly representative, the king was to uphold his dignity and to pursue the religion of his dominance over other nations’ Changing raiment, adopting a position of humility in sackcloth andashes, and commanding the same for his nation demonstrates Assur’s inferiority to Jonah’s God.

Curiously, cattle are included in the king’s proclamation. These are the valuable domestic herd—draught, meat, and dairy—cared for as part of the family, hence, they were to share in the national lamentation. People and animals are commanded to “cry mightily” (v8), so the bleating and lowing of animals locked in their stalls and clothed in sackcloth—mingled with the voices of 600,000 people lifted up in prayer—would have made an impressive noise.

But the decree’s key element is the urgency for moral reform. External observances are not enough; only genuine change in behaviour could win Assyria reprieve. Later Nineveh was known for violence and robbery (Nah 3:1) just like Samaria (Amos 3:9-10 [Ashdod = Assyria (LXX)]). The example of Assyrian repentance is pointed out to Israel (see Matt 12:39-42; Luke 11:29-32).

The moral elements of this story are thoroughly Jewish. Verses 8-9 show the king was instructed in God’s morality by Jonah. Assyrian religion was purely ceremonial, focusing on the king and lacking any subjective ethical morality. The army campaigned annually to continually assert Assur’s dominance. Violence and fear were the chief weapons in projecting Ashur’s power and any practice was tolerated if Ashur’s superiority was acknowledged[15] (see 2 Kings 18:28-35).

The king’s words (v9) help us understand Jonah’s incredible anger in chapter 4:1. Like the sea captain (1:6), the king acknowledges God’s sovereign right to show mercy or severity. No works guarantee God’s forgiveness; he doesn’t presume God will turn from His anger. At some level, he acknowledges Jonah’s God is superior to Ashur; He is the God “which hath made the sea and dry land” and a God of salvation.

The king is paraphrasing Exodus 32:12,14—proof of Jonah’s instruction in the character of the living God. These verses appear in the context of Israel worshipping a golden calf! God invites Moses to do the opposite of His instructions; He wants Moses not to leave Him alone. Because Moses understands God’s character, he makes intercession on behalf of the people and God doesn’t destroy them. This model of intercession appears in 2 Kings 13 and 14, and it seems likely that the intercessor is Jonah. In Jehoahaz’s reign, compassion is shown to Israel because of the covenant with the fathers (2Kings 13:23 cp Exod 32:13), but an ominous warning sounds, “as yet.” In Jeroboam II’s reign, Israel was given relief from their afflictions (2 Kings 14:25-27). In verse 27 God denies He intended to blot Israel’s name out (cp Exod32:10,12); the wording indicates someone (Jonah?) was suggesting this was God’s intention.

Not only did the Assyrians repent (v10) but they demonstrated faith by their works (v6-7); their genuine response andactions demonstrating some element of faith results in mercy and a delay in Assyria’s destruction.


  1. Nineveh was made capital by Sennacherib following ascension to the throne (705/704BC), Adam W. Schneider & Selim F. Adalı, “No harvest was reaped”: demographic and climatic factors in the decline of the Neo-Assyrian Empire”, pg 5, Climatic Change, Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht, 2014
  2. Karen Radner, “Central Assyria, the lands between Assur, Nineveh and Arbela”, Assyrian empire builders, University College London, 2012 []
  3. Adam W. Schneider & Selim F. Adalı, “No harvest was reaped”: demographic and climatic factors in the decline of the Neo-Assyrian Empire”, pg 4, Climatic Change, Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht, 2014
  4. Karen Radner, “Central Assyria, the lands between Assur, Nineveh and Arbela”, Assyrian empire builders, University College London, 2012 []
  5. Keil & Delitzsch citing M. v. Niebuhr in notes on ch 4:11, accessed from eSword
  6. Based on and, accessed 12/04/2019
  7. Based on, accessed 12/04/2019
  8. George Smith, Assyria: From the Earliest Times to the Fall of Nineveh, pg. 74-75, Scribner, Armstrong & Co., 1876
  9. Based on and, accessed 12/04/2019
  10. George Smith, Assyria: From the Earliest Times to the Fall of Nineveh, pg. 75, Scribner, Armstrong & Co., 1876
  11. Based on and, accessed 12/04/2019
  12. George Smith, Assyria: From the Earliest Times to the Fall of Nineveh, pg. 74, Scribner, Armstrong & Co., 1876
  13. Sjur Cappelen Papazian, “Lagash, Nineveh and Nina”, Cradle of Civilization Blog, Posted February 20, 2019, []
  14. A. H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion, pg. 277-283, Williams and Norgate, 1898
  15. Marcelo Rede, ‘The image of violence and the violence of the image: War and ritual in Assyria (ninth – seventh centuries BCE)’, Varia Historia, Belo Horizonte, vol. 34, n. 64, p. 81-121, 2018