Arminian(?) Alvin Rapien of The Poor in Spirit writes of Jonah:
It is especially important to note that Jonah was a prophet, not a missionary, and Jonah’s message had no call to repentance, to destroy their idols, to stop their evil deeds, and there was no message of possible forgiveness. Prophets in the Ancient Near East (ANE) were those who spoke with (usually) divine authority. They proclaimed messages about “particular political and social situations, a message that was not limited to issues of religious belief”. Prophets were not limited to Israel. Assyria had their own history of prophets with “consistently positive [messages], affirming the king’s actions, decisions, and policies.” However, Jonah’s message could be classified as an “unfavorable omen” – a threat of judgment to Nineveh from the God of Israel.
Reading the narrative, it would seem peculiar that the Ninevites reacted so quickly and genuinely to Jonah’s preaching. In 21st century America, whenever calls of judgment are being preached, the masses are quick to dismiss such a thing as religious fanaticism. Why did the Ninevites react the way they did to an Israelite prophet? It seems historically implausible from a few standpoints: The warlike nature of Assyrian society, the immediate response to a foreign god, and the coincidental “Israelite fashion” of fasting. However, there are a few possibilities, and they are not mutually exclusive.
First, the city of Nineveh and the Assyrian empire may have been in a vulnerable state, signified by their lack of war activities against Israel. Second, Jonah’s omen may have coincided with unusual phenomenon within Nineveh, such as the strange signs from the entrails of the sacrificed animals, the flight pattern of birds, or any celestial signs. If Jonah’s message found some type of corroboration with Nineveh’s prophets, it would have immediately built credibility for Jonah’s message. Third, Jonah as a “foreigner, would have served as evidence of the truth of his message, for why would someone have traveled all this distance unless impelled by deity?” Since prophets were taken seriously in the ANE, a foreign prophet visiting from hundreds of miles away would have been a significant event. The polytheism in most ANE religions allowed for a belief in many gods that could take action, whether for or against an empire or kingdom. Therefore, Jonah’s declaration that the God of Israel is about to judge Nineveh is not an implausible statement in the theological atmosphere of the ANE. If one were to take a historical approach to the story of Jonah, then working through these issues is crucial. However, such an approach is not necessary, as I mentioned in my first post. We are focusing on the theological message of Jonah in its post-exilic form, not necessarily its historicity and plausibility.
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