Sennacherib had the wealth to do all this because, before him, the Assyrians had made Mars, god of war, proud. By 900 BC, they had conquered all of Mesopotamia. They had defeated less powerful rulers because they had a professional army. Their army also had stronger iron weapons than those they chose to attack.
The Assyrians of course made Jupiter proud by exercising severe control over conquered peoples. They intimidated others by committing atrocities and became notorious for them. Weaker rulers of cities could either pay debilitating taxes or face attack. If the Assyrians attacked a city, they would take control of it, burn it to the ground, and take its wealth back to Nineveh. The inhabitants would be scattered, enslaved, tortured, or murdered. It was by delighting in these methods that the Assyrians created an empire encompassing Mesopotamia, central Levantia, and eastern Egypt.
None of this had escaped the notice of Yahweh. He had his prophet Nahum reveal the truth of what Assyrian devotion to the Olympian gods meant: Ah! City of bloodshed, utterly deceitful, full of booty—no end to the plunder! The crack of whip and rumble of wheel, galloping horse and bounding chariot! Horsemen charging, flashing sword and glittering spear, piles of dead, heaps of corpses, dead bodies without end—they stumble over the bodies! Because of the countless debaucheries of the prostitute, gracefully alluring, mistress of sorcery, who enslaves nations with her debaucheries, and peoples through her sorcery, I am against you, says [Yahweh] of hosts…” (Nahum 3:1-5a).
Eventually Yahweh called Jonah to serve as his messenger: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2). So Jonah (eventually) went to Nineveh and proclaimed, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be thrown down!” (Jonah 3:4).
But then the strangest, most unexpected, event occurred. The people of Nineveh believed Yahweh. This word of the one true god, freely spoken to even the Ninevites in love, in turn freed them from the spell cast upon them by the false Olympian gods. They discerned and affirmed the destructiveness, the wickedness, of their ways and repented. They repented: they abandoned their old way of being and completely reversed direction. Everyone, from the most central to the completely marginal, signified this by refusing to eat and by wearing the same ugly uncomfortable clothing (Jonah 3:5).
Even more surprisingly, we are told that even the king of Nineveh, even the Ninevite government, repented. Even he repented of his devotion to the Olympian gods and made devotion to Yahweh the new law of the city.
The Ninevites abandoned their wicked ways for two reasons: one useful (extrinsic, instrumental, a means to an end) and one meaningful (intrinsic, an end in itself). First, they all repented as a means of encouraging Yahweh to repent of his commitment to their destruction. But that was not the most important reason. They repented primarily because it was right and good to do so. They had been spellbound by the sorcery of the gods. Now they could see that and regretted it. Even if Yahweh rightly destroyed them for it.
Yahweh, being the god of life and not of death, followed their free decision to repent by freely choosing to preserve them.
Like the city of Nineveh yesterday, our Global Technological System (GTS) today rushes headlong toward destruction. Yet forty days! As with the people of Nineveh, all of us, regardless of any personal virtue, are being carried along by it to our deaths.
Our most creative response? The book of the prophet Jonah teaches us that it lies not in people overthrowing the government, nor in people replacing one ruling political party with another, nor in drastic solutions being tyrannically imposed by the government on the people, nor in a gradual reform of society, nor in slowly replacing fleets of oil tankers with forests of wind turbines. Our most creative response lies in government and people together repenting of our shared worship of the Olympian gods and abandoning further growth of the GTS that embodies our devotion to those gods. “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish” (Jonah 3:9). And our response is most creative if we repent of the GTS, as the Ninevites did, no matter what.
(Today we continued our reflections on Jacques Ellul's The Meaning of the City (Eerdmans, pp. 66-71). Today's biblical quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version except for that of Jonah 3:4 which is my own).