An Ancient Lesson for a Modern World

Stars & Planets For Signs & Seasons

On April 8, 2024 millions of people who live or travel into the path of totality, will witness a full solar eclipse. During the daylight hours, for a few brief moments, the sky will become like the night. Seven years ago, on August 21, 2017 millions also witnessed a total eclipse of the sun in which daylight was turned to complete darkness. To those who were able to witness it, it was an incredible event that they will not soon forget.

Over 2700 years ago another eclipse appeared over the skies of ancient Assyria, and it may have played a key role in the ancient city of Nineveh’s turn to God in repentance. If the historical and astronomical calculations are correct, it means that the eclipse occured when Assyria was in a time of national upheaval and internal turmoil.

Eclipses in the ancient world held great significance to many ancient Near Eastern cultures, including the neo-Assyrians. Using methods of modern astronomy, history and archaeology we may be able to pinpoint an exact date for the Old Testament prophet, Jonah and his preaching of repentance to the ancient city of Nineveh.

The Prophet Jonah & the Eclipse of Ancient Nineveh

The ancient neo-Assyrian empire existed between 911 and 612 B.C., and the first king to reign during that period was Adad-nirari II (911-891 B.C.). Seven generations later, after the reign of Adad-nirari III (810-783 B.C.), the nation was in disarray both internally and abroad. The outer borders were under pressure and in continual need of defense from the Urartu as well as the Aramean states located to the northeast. There was also civil unrest and war within her own borders. At this time the OT king of Israel, Jeroboam II and Uzziah of Judah regained territories that had been previously lost [1].

Stele from Assyrian King Adad-nirari II (911-891 BC). First king of the Neo-Assyrian Dynasty (Wikipedia)

It was during the time of external national upheaval in Assyria that Jonah likely undertook his preaching mission to Nineveh. It seems that even with God the timing was flawless. Old Testament scholar, Dr. Eugene H. Merrill, states:

Given these chronological limits, the most likely time for the mission of Jonah to Nineveh was during the reign of Assur-dan III (722-755 BC) …In addition [to being in political upheaval], plague and famine struck repeatedly until the empire was left impoverished and in total disorder. This would have been an ideal time for Jonah to deliver his message of judgement and of the universal redemptive program of the God of Israel. Assyria’s own pantheon and cult had failed miserably [2].

What makes the Jonah story even more remarkable is not only the famous episode of him being swallowed by a great fish (Jon. 1:17-2:1-10), but also that he, a foreigner, came to Nineveh, exhorted them to repent and turn to the God of Israel, and they did. Many interpreters and scholars have proposed that because of these factors, the story should not be taken as literally true. However, conservative interpreters see the events in the book of Jonah as historically accurate. D.J. Wiseman writes:

Until comparatively recent times this line of interpretation was followed by most Jewish and Christian scholars. The latter reinforced their belief in the historical nature of the narrative from the emphasis placed by Jesus Christ on the ‘sign of Jonah’ as prefiguring his own death and resurrection and on the repentance of the men of Nineveh in the face of Jonah’s preaching as condemning the unbelief of Christ’s own day (Mt. 12:39-41; Lk. 11:29-30). His assertion that ‘now one greater than Jonah is here’ would carry little conviction if the men of Nineveh were mythical [3].

On June 15, 763 BC ancient Nineveh witnessed a full solar eclipse [4]. The astronomical calculations of this date are certain.

Relevant to the Jonah story and the repentance of Nineveh and the king, is the role that eclipses played in ancient Mesopotamia and in particular, Assyrian culture. Louise Lerner writes:

To ancient Mesopotamians, eclipses portended misfortune, and their dramatic manifestations constituted omens of enough significance to affect the entire land or the king himself. Even a partial eclipse could be as interesting—if not more so—than a full eclipse. Depending on the quadrant of the sun or moon obscured, misfortune was directed toward lands in the north, south, east or west. Because the moon was sometimes compared to a ‘crown,’ lunar eclipses especially foretold the deaths of kings [5].

When one evaluates the Assyrian context of the Jonah story, all of the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, and the story assumes a strong place in history. Assyriologist D.J. Wiseman explains:

Jonah’s prophecy or message ‘In forty days Nineveh will be overthrown’ (3:4) reads like the apodosis of a prediction of a type readily understandable to the Assyrians. Since it ‘touched, affected’ the king (3:6); has this sense here rather than as a hapax (‘came ויגעto’ the king; so AV), and was used of divine judgment, cf. Job 4:5; Jer. 51:9), he or his message would be brought to the king. The fact that the latter sat on the throne (3:6) may also indicate that the prophet was received in official audience. The immediate response shows clearly that the message was taken as affecting not only the city of Nineveh, as was obvious from the statement, but also the king and his position [6].

In the same article Wiseman also cites a letter from an unnamed king, possibly Aššur-dan III to Mannu-ki-Aššur, governor of Gozan which says:

Decree of the king. You and all the people of your people, your land, your meadows will mourn and pray for three days before the god Adad and repent. You will perform purification rites so that there may be rest [7].

This decree is very similar to the repentance as described by Jonah in Jonah 3:7-10:

And he caused it to be proclaimed and published throughout Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink water. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?
Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way, and God relented from the disaster that He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.

Jonah & Nineveh: An Ancient True Story with a Modern Application
In our modern world, astronomical events don’t hold very much weight aside from a few astronomy enthusiasts, and when most people think of the story of Jonah the first thing they think of is of him being swallowed by a great fish [perhaps by a basking shark or a whale shark?]. This may be appropriate, because after all, Jonah’s time of three days in the belly of the whale was a foreshadowing of when Christ would spend three days in the heart of the earth (sheol, or the grave), only to “rise again,” as did Jonah on the third day. Christ himself affirmed the historicity of Jonah and He scolded the unbelieving Pharisees for not believing in the “one who was even greater than Jonah (Luke 11:32).”

An Icon of the Prophet Jonah & the great fish

When the Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign that He was indeed Messiah, He responded this way:
The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah –  (Matthew 16:1-4)

Knowing now that a total solar eclipse foreshadowed Jonah’s preaching to ancient Nineveh on June 15, 763 B.C., it is tempting to note the parallels of Nineveh and our own country. Internal and external upheavals and civil unrest threatened them as well as us, and the need of national repentance and turning to God for mercy has never been greater.

Like Nineveh of old, may the solar eclipse of 2024 be a reminder for us as a nation to repent of our national and personal sins, and turn to God through His Son Jesus Christ for forgiveness. 

Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish? (Jonah 3:9)

FOOTNOTES: 

[1] see, Eugene H. Merrill, Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), p.388

[2] Ibid (emphasis mine).

[3] D.J. Wiseman, “Jonah’s Nineveh,” in The Tyndale Bulletin 30 (1979) 29-52.

[4] see, M.B. Rowton, The Cambridge Ancient History, 1.1.(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), pp. 202–204. “There is firm chronological evidence for the last three centuries of Assyrian history, including a solar eclipse in 763 B.C. The eponym of that year is known, so that correlation with the Assyrian eponym-lists and kings-lists is possible. From that point the Assyrian king-list carries the record back to the beginning of the dynasty of Adasi, c. 1700 B.C.” (pg. 202)

[5] Louise Lerner, “Eclipse Reflects Sun’s Historic Power” (http://www.uchicago.edu/features/eclipse_reflects_suns_historic_power/) accessed Aug 17, 2017

[6] D.J. Wiseman, p.44. Also of interest is this, “Throughout the ancient Near East, from at least c. 1000 B.C., though probably from as early as the Old Babylonian period, planetary phenomena were recorded. Observations were connected with historical events and from this arose a reference work series which came to be used also for predictive purposes: the series Enuma Anu Enlil consists of seventy or more tablets of which Tablets 16-22 relate what will happen in the event of ‘a solar eclipse which turns day into night’. Tablet 23 covers the same
subject with different principles and interpretative approach resulting in more general prognostications. Another omen series (šamaš; bē1 dīnim) deals with the same subject. The rarity of the total eclipse always portended something of special significance and pointed to a major public disaster. While affecting individuals the predictions were not aimed at them but at the country as a whole or at the royal family and nobles and at the overthrow of the dynasty and city.” p. 45 (emphasis mine).

[7] See Wiseman, p. 51, and referenced also in a footnote by Eugene H Merrill (1987), p.388 (see footnote 68)