Tuesday of Week 27 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Jonah 3:1-10

After his three days and nights in the belly of the big fish, Jonah was, at the word of God, “vomited out onto the dry land”. Without delay, the word of Yahweh comes to Jonah a second time. It is almost as if God was saying to his prophet, “OK…let’s try this one more time!”

Jonah is told again to rise up, to go to Nineveh and to preach to it in the words that Yahweh will lay down. That, of course, is the role of the prophet – to pass on a message from God, not to preach his own word. A much chastened Jonah now submissively, if not with much enthusiasm and against his better judgement, obeys and sets out for Nineveh. He is not expecting much response.

We are told that:

Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across.

In Hebrew, it is literally “great in the eyes of God” – the strongest superlative in the Hebrew language. So big, in fact, that it took three days to walk across it.

Later in the story we are told that the city had more than 120,000 inhabitants, just a large town by today’s standards. Archaeological excavations indicate that the later imperial city of Nineveh was about 12 km around. The fact, however, that “a visit required three days” may suggest a larger area, such as the four-city complex of Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah and Resen mentioned in Genesis 10. Greater Nineveh covered an area of some 100 km in circumference.

On the other hand, “three days” seems to have been a conventional way of describing a medium-length distance. But, as we are dealing here with a story, the author simply wants to say that Nineveh was a very big place with a lot of people.

Having arrived at Nineveh, Jonah had only walked one day’s distance into the city proclaiming Yahweh’s warning:

Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!

The 40 days are reminiscent of the 40 days of the Flood or the 40 years of Israel wandering in the desert. Jesus will also fast for 40 days in the desert and, in the Acts of the Apostles, ascend to his Father 40 days after his Resurrection. And the response:

…the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

A fast and sackcloth were conventional signs of repentance for sin. This speedy conversion of the Ninevites after hearing God’s word will be commented on later by Jesus and contrasted with the reluctance of the Scribes and Pharisees to accept Jesus’ word:

The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and indeed something greater than Jonah is here! (Matt 12:41)


When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.

This is the mighty King of Assyria, king of an empire which brought so much suffering to the Chosen People. Here he is, humbly submitting to Yahweh and acknowledging his sinfulness.

Further, he gives orders for a general fast from eating and even drinking water, an order extended to both people and animals. And he gives the order:

Humans and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.

Inclusion of domestic animals was unusual, but here it expresses the urgency with which the Ninevites were to seek mercy.

Said the king:

Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.

He knew they deserved any punishment God could send them, but they lived in hope that Jonah’s God might relent and put aside his great anger against them. In Jeremiah, Yahweh says:

At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. (Jer 18:7-8)

And, indeed, God does see their efforts to abandon their evil ways and withdraws the disaster he had planned for the city.

One would imagine that Jonah would have been absolutely delighted with such a response to his preaching and with the conversion of the Ninevites to the Lord, but he reacted very strangely indeed. For his actual response we will have to wait for tomorrow’s reading.

Like the pagan sailors in the boat, the people of Nineveh show that they are ready to change their ways and recognise the power of Yahweh. Ironically, the one rebellious person in the story is a member of God’s own people and his prophet. In our world, too, non-Christians can frequently put us to shame in the way they show a Christian spirit.

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