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Why Does “Our” God Send Jonah to Save the Assyrians in Nineveh?

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Why Does “Our” God Send Jonah to Save the Assyrians in Nineveh?

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Why Does “Our” God Send Jonah to Save the Assyrians in Nineveh?

The Book of Jonah is unique in describing an Israelite prophet sent to an Assyrian city to rebuke them for their sins and persuade them to repent. Were the Assyrians merely bit players in the divine plan for Israel, or does God really care about the sins of non-Israelites? Radak, Abravanel, and ibn Ezra have very different theological approaches to this question.

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Why Does “Our” God Send Jonah to Save the Assyrians in Nineveh?

Illustration of Assyrian palaces, The Monuments of Nineveh, Sir Austen Henry Layard, 1853. British Museum

The biblical prophets generally address Israel and speak to the concerns of Israelites.[1] Even the category of prophecy that scholars call “the oracles against the nations” relate indirectly to Israel by prophesying the punishment or demise of Israel’s enemies.[2] One exception is the book of Jonah,[3] which features an Israelite prophet sent to a foreign nation to prophecy to them, in the hope that they will repent and avoid punishment:

יונה א:א וַיְהִי דְּבַר יְ־הוָה אֶל יוֹנָה בֶן אֲמִתַּי לֵאמֹר. א:ב קוּם לֵךְ אֶל נִינְוֵה הָעִיר הַגְּדוֹלָה וּקְרָא עָלֶיהָ כִּי עָלְתָה רָעָתָם לְפָנָי.
Jonah 1:1 The word of YHWH came to Jonah son of Amittai: 1:2 Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me.

Jonah is not sent to just any non-Israelite city, but to Nineveh, which served as the capital of the Assyrian empire until it was sacked in 612 B.C.E. In the years following Jonah’s mission, the Assyrian Empire will first subdue and then destroy the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and cause great damage to the Southern Kingdom of Judah.

While the book is set in the period before the Assyrian conquest of Israel, it is written in Late Biblical Hebrew and dates to Second Temple times.[4] Thus, the author is aware of the havoc Assyria wreaked upon Israel and Judah. So why write a story about how Israel’s enemy, the Assyrians of Nineveh, merit YHWH’s interest and a visit from one of their own prophets?

A Universalist Message

R. David Kimchi (ca. 1160–ca. 1235) of Narbonne, known as Radak, was a grammarian and a Bible commentator in the philosophical tradition.[5] In his commentary on Jonah, he understands the text as offering a universalist message. Radak begins by asking what the book of Jonah is doing in the Bible:

ויש לשאול למה נכתבה נבואה זו בכתבי הקדש? וכולה על נינוה שהיתה מאומות העולם ואין בו זכר לישראל ואין בכל הנביאים זולתה כמוהו!
We should ask, why was this prophecy written in the Holy Scriptures? The whole thing is about Nineveh, which is a non-Israelite nation, and there is no mention of Israel at all. There is nothing like this anywhere in the Prophets!

Radak answers that the story offers a message for the Israelites:

ונוכל לפרש כי נכתבה להיות מוסר לישראל שהרי עם נכרי שאינם מישראל היה קרוב לתשובה ובפעם הראשונה שהוכיחם הנביא שבו בתשובה שלמה מרעתם וישראל מוכיחים אותם הנביאים השכם והערב ואינם שבים מרשעם.
We can explain that it was written to be a moral lesson to Israel: A foreign nation that is not a part of Israel was close to repentance and the first time that a prophet rebuked them they turned to a complete repentance from evil. And what about Israel, whom the prophets rebuke from dawn until dark, and still, they do not turn from their evil?

Radak then adds[6] that the story also teaches an important message about God’s relationship with humanity:

ללמד שהאל יתברך חומל על בעלי תשובה מאיזה עם שיהיו ומוחל להם וכל שכן כשהם רבים:
It teaches that the God, who is Blessed, is merciful to those who repent from any nation and grants them mercy even more so when they are many [in number].”[7]

Similarly, R. Yehoshua ben Shuib, an early 14th century Spanish student of Rashba, and a commentator in the kabbalistic tradition, wrote in his derashot “homilies” (in the Yom Kippur derasha):

ולכן באה נבואת יונה בן אמיתי להורות, כי השם ית' רחמיו על כל מעשיו, ואפי' על אומות העולם כל שכן בישראל,
Thus, the prophecy of Jonah ben Amitai teaches that the LORD, who is blessed, “his mercy is upon all his creations” (Ps 145:9), even the non-Israelite nations of the world, and certainly upon Israel itself.

God Cares Directly about Israel Only

In contrast to this universalist approach, Don Isaac Abravanel (1437–1508), a Portuguese sage, politician, and financier, who was forced to move first to Spain and then to Italy, had difficulty seeing a prophetic message aimed at non-Israelites.[8] He opens his commentary on the book with this problem:

מה לו לש"י עם נינוה אם רבו פשעיה לשישגיח בה וישלח עבדיו הנביאים להוכיחה ולישרה...
Why should the LORD, may He be praised, get involved if the people of Nineveh are filled with sins, and send his servants, the prophets, to rebuke them and set them on a straight path?

Abravanel notes that according to Deuteronomy, only Israel has a direct relationship with God:

הלא הוגד מראש שזהו היתרון והמעלה שעשה הקב"ה אל עמו ואל נחלתו ישראל להשגיח בהם בפרט או בכלל בהשגחה עליונה נפלאה... אמנם שאר האומות הם תחת ממשלת המשרתים אשר חלק ה' אותם לכל העמים...
Were we not told in advance that this is one of the special things the Holy One, blessed by He, established with his people Israel, to watch over them specifically or generally with amazing divine providence… (Deut 32:12) while other nations are under the rule of lesser beings whom the LORD divided amongst them (Deut 4:19)…[9]

Abravanel suggests that YHWH spares Nineveh, not despite its future role as the destroyer of Israel, but because of it (gloss on Jonah 1:2):

מפני שהיה גזור לפניו להחריב את מלכות ישראל שומרון ובנותיה מפני עוונותיהם על ידי אשור, ולכן היה משתדל יתברך להציל את אשור מהרעה המעותדת לבוא עליהם בעבור החמס אשר בכפיהם כדי שינצל אשור מהכליה ויהיה כלי זעמו של הקדוש ברוך הוא להחריב בו את ישראל...
The Kingdom of Israel, Samaria and her daughters, was destined to be destroyed because of their sins by the hands of Assyria. Therefore, the Blessed One worked to save Assyria from the evil that has been designated to come upon them as a result of their violence so that Assyria would be saved from annihilation and thus be available to function as the instrument of anger of the Holy One, blessed be He, and thus able to destroy [the Northern Kingdom of] Israel… (Isa 10:5)

In other words, God is only saving Nineveh temporarily, as part of the divine plan for Israel:

ומפני זה רצה הקדוש ברוך הוא לישר את נינוה ראש מלכות אשור וזה טעם שליחות יונה אל נינוה... לא מאהבת השם אותם וחשק בהם אלא כדי להצילם מהרעה כדי שיהיו מעותדים נכונים למועדי רגל של ישראל.
And because of this The Holy One of Blessing wants to straighten out Nineveh the central city of the Kingdom of Assyria. And this is the reason that he sent Jonah to Nineveh… not because God loves or desires them, but to save them from the evil [destined to befall them] so they would be ready in the future when the time for Israel’s [destruction] came about.

Malbim

R. Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel Wisser (1809–1879), widely known by the acronym of his name Malbim, offers the same interpretation in even sharper terms.[10] Malbim begins with the same problem as Abravanel:

לא מצאנו בשום מקום שישלח ה' נביא מבני ישראל בפרטות שילך אל מדינה מן האומות להחזיר אותם בתשובה, כי זה רק מיוחד לישראל שחלה בם השגחה האלהית כמ"ש חז"ל.
We don’t see anywhere else that God sends an Israelite prophet personally to one of the lands of the gentiles to get them to repent, for this is something special for Israel, for whom God manifests divine providence, as the Sages have told us…

Thus, Malbim too argues that the mission was not really for the benefit of the Assyrians:

רק כי היתה ההשגחה על נינוה בשביל ישראל אחר שאשור הוכן להיות שבט אפו של ה' לרדות בו את ישראל שנתחייבו למקום, רצה ה' להשיבם בתשובה כדי שיהיו מוכנים למלאת גזרתו על ישראל,
The providence over Nineveh was for Israel. Since Assyria was destined to be the rod of God’s anger (see Isa 10:5) to punish Israel who were deserving of divine punishment. Thus, God wished to bring about their repentance so that they will be ready to fulfill His decree regarding Israel.[11]

Malbim then adds a secondary consideration:

וגם כדי שלא יאמר המתלונן "למה התביט בוגדים תחריש כבלע רשע צדיק ממנו," רצה ה' להראות שאשור יש לו זכות יותר מישראל שהם שמעו לדברי הנביא ועשו תשובה וישראל הקשו ערפם משמוע,
Moreover, so that the scoffer will not ask God: “Why do You countenance treachery, and stand by idle while the one in the wrong devours the one in the right?” (Hab 1:13). Thus, God wished to demonstrate that Assyria possesses greater merit than Israel since they hearken to the words of the prophet and repent. And Israel stiffens their necks to avoid hearkening [to the call of the prophets].[12]

Here, Malbim goes so far as to note that the Assyrians react more piously to the prophetic call than do the Israelites. Even so, causing them to repent is only a benefit to God and Israel, insofar as it highlights the justice of Israel’s future punishment.

The Appointment of Hazael: Precedent

A biblical precedent for Abravanel and Malbim’s interpretation is YHWH’s sending the prophet Elijah to appoint Hazael as king of Aram Damascus:

מלכים א יט:טו וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֵלָיו לֵךְ שׁוּב לְדַרְכְּךָ מִדְבַּרָה דַמָּשֶׂק וּבָאתָ וּמָשַׁחְתָּ אֶת חֲזָאֵל לְמֶלֶךְ עַל אֲרָם. יט:טז וְאֵת יֵהוּא בֶן נִמְשִׁי תִּמְשַׁח לְמֶלֶךְ עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶת אֱלִישָׁע בֶּן שָׁפָט מֵאָבֵל מְחוֹלָה תִּמְשַׁח לְנָבִיא תַּחְתֶּיךָ. יט:יז וְהָיָה הַנִּמְלָט מֵחֶרֶב חֲזָאֵל יָמִית יֵהוּא וְהַנִּמְלָט מֵחֶרֶב יֵהוּא יָמִית אֱלִישָׁע.
1 Kgs 19:15 YHWH said to him [=Elijah], “Go back by the way you came, [and] on to the wilderness of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael as king of Aram. 19:16 Also anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king of Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah to succeed you as prophet. 19:17 Whoever escapes the sword of Hazael shall be slain by Jehu, and whoever escapes the sword of Jehu shall be slain by Elisha.”

While Hazael is a foreign king of a foreign nation, the point from YHWH’s perspective is that he will slaughter Israelites, and thus, knowingly or not, his reign is part of YHWH’s plan for Israel. Eventually, it is Elisha who appoints Hazael, and indeed, in that scene, the prophet is explicit with Hazael that he will be the cause of much slaughter among the Israelites (2 Kgs 8:7–15).[13]

Assyrians Were God-Fearing

R. Abraham Ibn Ezra (1092–1167), a commentator with a philosophical and peshat approach,[14] offers an approach somewhere between universalism and particularism. Based on a reading of Jonah 3:3, which describes the city as וְנִינְוֵה הָיְתָה עִיר גְּדוֹלָה לֵאלֹהִים “now Nineveh was a large city to God,” ibn Ezra explains that the Assyrians were believers in God:

ופירוש "לאלהים", כי היו יריאים השם בימים הקדמונים, רק עתה בימי יונה החלו לעשות רע. ולולי זה שהיו בתחילה אנשי השם, לא היה שולח נביאו אליהם.
The meaning of “to God” is that they were people who feared God going back to ancient times; only now, in the time of Jonah, they began to act wrongly. If it weren’t for the fact that they had been “people of renown”[15] in early times, [God] would not have sent his prophet to them.

Ibn Ezra goes on to support his point by noting what an easy time Jonah had:

והנה ראינו ששבו תשובה גמורה, אין כמוה, ולא תמצא כתוב ששברו מזבחות בעלים או גדעו פסילים, והנה מזה נלמוד שלא היו עובדי פסילים.
Now we have seen that they repented with full repentance, the likes of which is unprecedented. Moreover, you do not find any reference to their smashing the altars of their false gods, or breaking their statues. From this we learn that they were not idol worshipers.

According to this, God’s relationship with Israel may be unique, but it stems from God’s care for those who believe and worship the one true God. In this case, ibn Ezra argues, Assyria is the obvious exception to God’s lack of concern for non-Israelites because they shared Israel’s monotheism.[16]

While we cannot know what motivated ibn Ezra to take this creative stance, he may have been influenced by living among Muslims and Christians who profess faith in the one God as well. Perhaps ibn Ezra was looking for a way to take a more universalist stance towards his neighbors. If God could care about the wicked Ninevites, because they were monotheists, did this not naturally extend to ibn Ezra’s own neighbors? While we cannot prove that this was the motivating factor in ibn Ezra’s reading, it seems like a likely explanation.

Published

October 2, 2022

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Last Updated

December 2, 2022

Footnotes

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Rabbi Steven Bob is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Etz Chaim in Lombard, IL. He serves Guest Faculty at Wheaton College and as an Adjunct Professor at Elmhurst University. He is the author of: Go to Nineveh: Medieval Jewish Commentaries on the Book of Jonah translated and Explained (Pickwick Publications, 2013) and Jonah and the Meaning of Our Lives: A Verse-by-Verse Contemporary Commentary (JPS, 2016).

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