Malbim, short for Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel, was a Jewish rabbi who lived from 1809-1879. Malbim was one of the first Jewish commentators to comment on the whole Old Testament since the Middle Ages.
While Malbim’s comments on why Jonah fled from God’s command to prophesy against Nineveh shares similarities with previous commentators in Steven Bob’s book Go to Nineveh: Medieval Jewish Commentaries on the Book of Jonah, there was one element present that I had not previously found. Malbim writes,
So that they will return in repentance. The mission was not for the benefit of Nineveh. For we have not found another case in which the Eternal sent a prophet from Israel to cause idolaters to return in repentance. It certainly is not the intention of the Eternal to send prophets only to Israel. Rather God’s concern for Nineveh is really out of concern for Israel. After Jonah’s prophecy Assyria will be prepared to be a rod of The Eternal’s anger to punish Israel who have obligated themselves to God (i.e., who deserve punishment). The Eternal wants to cause the Assyrians to return in repentance so that they will be ready to fulfill His decree on Israel. And so that the cynic will not ask why did God choose the faithless Assyrians to uproot the Israelites, it would seem to be evil people destroying those more righteous than themselves. The Eternal wanted to demonstrate that Assyria possesses greater merit than Israel. For they hearken to the words of the prophet and repent. And Israel stiffens their necks to avoid hearkening to the call of the prophets (113-114).
The reoccurring theme I have found in many of these commentators is the idea that Nineveh’s repentance would shame the Israelites who are stiff-necked and unrepentant. Malbim has taken it a step further. Assyria’s repentance prepares them to be a worthy instrument of Israel’s destruction. Jonah’s flight from the God to Tarshish was his attempt to frustrate God’s plan to punish Israel through Assyria.
Considering the fact that Malbim believes Assyria’s repentances makes them worthy to be used as a “rod of the Eternal’s anger to punish Israel,” I thought that he might break from the general mold of how to understand the nature of Assyria’s repentance. Most commentators believe that Nineveh only repents of her violent ways. She has not cast down and destroyed her idols. Malbim follows suit. He argues that Assyria has only received a temporary reprieve. After she serves God’s purpose of disciplining Israel, she also will be disciplined for her idolatry.