The events in Chapter 21 originate biblically in the Book of Jonah’s third chapter. Our novel may differ from that text in several interpretive ways.
Jonah 3:3 tells us it took three days to walk across Nineveh. This is not a point of contention between the Bible and the novel, although it factors into some. Verse 4 tells us Jonah spent his first day preaching God’s warning – and that’s the last time this Old Testament book mentions his ministry. Verse 5 says the Ninevites believed Jonah, started a fast, and donned sackcloth. It does not specify when this support actually started, although to modern audiences that pay closer attention to continuity than did ancient writers and readers, the context may suggest this support happened quickly.
While upcoming chapters reveal early backing for the Dove, the novel also depicts Assyrian skepticism, frustration, and anger. The Prophet and the Dove spreads Jonah’s ministry over 39 days, as implied by the length of God’s notice, the unrest encountered, and the sheer size of the city. In this and the next several chapters, the novel details several debates between Assyrian leaders, civilians, and the Dove as he reaches out to each part of Nineveh, all under the shadow of the sirocco. These debates start the first day, as Jonah’s efforts cause such a disruption among those who understand his speech – there are language and cultural barriers to overcome, after all – that Assyrian guards arrest the Dove and take him before the king.
Verses 6-9 tell of one meeting between the Assyrian king and Jonah, with the monarch agreeing to Jonah’s call. This novel depicts two meetings, the first one early and hostile, the second late and somewhat friendly.
Why these differences? As discussed frequently in this study guide, the Book of Jonah consolidates or leaves out details modern readers may expect, for many possible reasons. The novel attempts to provide these details, ever focusing on cultural differences and existing animosity between the Assyrian and Hebrew peoples. It also depicts Jonah’s ministry happening during one of Assyria’s most turbulent historic periods. We will come back to this point as this study guide progresses, although Benjamin’s viewpoint provides hints of these cultural differences through his first-person examination of Assyria’s largest city.
While these descriptions of Nineveh, its laws, and its culture follow known histories, they also parallel to some extent our modern societies. As I researched that ancient time period, my mind drew frequent Assyrian comparisons to Nazi Germany. Other factors reminded me of American pride and prejudice. One reader told me she saw signs of communist China in Benjamin’s words.
What impression did that narrative leave with you? Does that impact how you view the novel, or the Bible?
For Benjamin, the primary result of his city tour is enlightenment. “Throughout my life, I considered Ninevites as little more than snarling killers,” he tells readers. “No, actually, as nothing more than hungry, stalking beasts. Yet these streets flowed with pulsing, inventive, joyous lives.”
Have you ever found your preconceptions so threatened – that something you encountered was nothing like what you expected? How did this impact you?
What truly surprises Benjamin is how Jonah shares none of this amazement. The Dove then tells his sidekick to look deeper at his surroundings, and when he does, Benjamin finds elements that offend his faith and conscience.
Have your initial appraisals ever been so quickly or completely overturned? How did you respond?
Despite these reappraisals, Benjamin still wonders how and why these people earned our Lord’s wrath. We watch our protagonists enter citadels, offices, and palaces that dwarf all others Benjamin’s seen, impressing him with wealth aplenty, until he views the king. “I think back upon it now as yet another part of my education,” Benjamin tells us. “The man who held aloft that ornate silver crown – that man adorned with those fabulous silver and crimson robes, the golden bracelets, the dancing tassels, and embroidered collars – he was such a common-looking fellow that I almost laughed.” Or so Benjamin thinks, until the king engages Jonah in a discussion. Then our narrator realizes this Ashur-nirari – who in historical records bears a V after his name – more than fills his kingship.
That revelation leads us into a heathen divination ceremony somewhat common of religions and monarchies of that age. Did it offend you? What may be today’s equivalent to this test?
The king breaks their deadlock by calling on Jonah to sing. It offers both a challenge of the prophet’s skill and hope of reconciliation, one only a shared appreciation of music may accomplish. But this tune ends in the surprise appearance of the sirocco, a disruption the palace guards handle with skill. The great wind accomplishes one thing – it forces the king to make a decision on how he will handle this upstart Hebrew. He decides on judgment and death, only to discover the insider hand the Lord has in his court – the priest of Ashur.
This reminds us that God works through all things, people, and faiths when it suits His purpose. If you’re like Jonah, you recognize that, at some level, this priest Ashur-minal actually has a relationship of sorts with the God of Israel, just as the priest of Ashur accepts that his god holds some allegiance to the Hebrews. Through the rest of the chapter, each character tries to figure out just what this means, and how that works. Do you have an answer?