There are several historical references that one encounters while reading the Book of Jonah. Rather than include this detail in later posts when the references appear, I thought it good to provide some details early on. The setting of the book is a period of Israel’s history when there is a lot going on – inside and outside the traditional boundaries of the Promised Land. The Kingdom of David had split into the Northern Kingdom (confusingly called Israel and consisting of 10 tribes) and the Southern Kingdom (called Judah consisting of two tribes) still loyal to the throne of David and centered in Jerusalem. Beyond the borders was the ever-looming threat of the Assyrian Empire whose capita city was Nineveh. It was located in the area of modern-day Mosul in Northern Iraq. Compared to Israel, it is to the northeast at some distance.
The Assyrian Empire was the largest empire (911 to 609 BCE) prior to that of the Greeks under Alexander and the later Roman Empire. To locate that in history, it rose to prominence just after the reigns of King David and his successor Solomon and lasted until the rise of the Babylonian Empire (about 25 years before Babylon conquered Jerusalem and ended the Kingdom of Judah). The Assyrians created the blueprint for no-compromise, take-no-prisoners empire building. They were the first to have iron weapons, they created unique military tactics, and established imperial rule that was copied by many later empires. Part of their imperial rule was to destabilize effective cores of resistance to their rule by deporting half the population and replacing them with Assyrians or other conquered people, eliminating religious practices other than their own, and forcing Akkadian language upon the people. At its height the empire was as far north as the Black Sea, extended to the Red Sea in the east, and included the area now known as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Egypt.
There were many kings of Assyria. The two that figure prominently in the history of Israel were King Sargon II and King Sennacherib. Sargon’s military exploits included the effective elimination of the 10 northern tribes of the covenant people in 722 BCE. From then on, the fear was that Assyrian attention and ambition would be focused on the Kingdom of Judea, the Mediterranean ports and Gaza. As a symbol of Assyrian might, King Sennacherib built Nineveh as his capital. It was the largest city in the world in its time with an outer wall seven miles in circumference. In 701 King Hezekiah of Judea joined an Egyptian-lead alliance against Sennacherib. While Jerusalem was spared, more than 46 towns and villages of Judea were destroyed.
While there are lots more historical details – here are the take-aways. In the memory of the covenant people, Assyria represents the personification of evil. They are the mortal enemy, the boogie-man, and worst nightmare rolled into one. If God swept Sodom out of history, one had to wonder what God had planned for Assyria and its capital Nineveh.