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After Jonah preached to the Ninevites, they responded by proclaiming a fast.

Jonah 3:5, 6 - And the Ninevites believed God. They proclaimed a fast and dressed in sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least. When word reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, took off his royal robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.

Jonah did not tell them to fast. I'm sorry for my lack of knowledge but I'm not getting a good background of the Pagans, was it customary for even the Pagans to fast like the Israelites? Israel used to fast and wear sackclothes while mourning but the Pagans fasted the same way in the book of Jonah. If it was not customary for the Pagans to fast that way why were the Ninevites fasting in that manner if it was not customary to them to fast that way?

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  • The "Fast" / Tsom (צוֹם֙) in Yonah 3:4-7 is modeled after the fast in Devarim 9:8-9. – חִידָה Dec 12 '20 at 12:57
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Job showed how ancient Orientals mourned.

Job 1:18 While he was still speaking, yet another messenger came and said, “Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, 19when suddenly a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on them and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”
20 At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship

Job 2:7So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head. 8Then Job took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes.

Job 33:19 “Or someone may be chastened on a bed of pain
with constant distress in their bones,
20so that their body finds food repulsive
and their soul loathes the choicest meal.

When one is in mourning, it is natural to avoid food, i.e., fasting. This can be a sign of repentance. Then God comes to the rescue.

Psalm 107:17 Some became fools through their rebellious ways
and suffered affliction because of their iniquities.
18 They loathed all food
and drew near the gates of death.
19Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he saved them from their distress.
20He sent out his word and healed them;
he rescued them from the grave.

Nineveh was part of the ancient Oriental culture. It was natural/spontaneous for them to follow the custom of fasting and sackcloth.

Jonah 3:5 The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

Ellicott agrees to this sentiment:

Proclaimed a fast.—Apparently on a spontaneous resolution of the people themselves. (See Note to Jonah 3:6.) The fast would no doubt be for one day, according to the Jewish and the general Oriental custom.

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The custom of the three elements, fasting, sackcloth and ashes, are an ancient eastern custom to show humiliation and repentance. It was neither invented nor originated by the Israelites but was common in the ancient east. We see this often in many places, even in Job who was before Moses and thus was not a Hebrew. The practice lasted into NT times. Here are some examples:

  • Job 16:15 - "I have sewed sackcloth over my skin and buried my brow in the dust.
  • Est 4:1 - When Mordecai learned of all that had happened, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the middle of the city, wailing loudly and bitterly.
  • Isa 58:5 - Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one's head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?
  • Dan 9:3 - So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.

In commenting on Jonah 3:5, the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary notes this:

fast … sackcloth—In the East outward actions are often used as symbolical expressions of inward feelings. So fasting and clothing in sackcloth were customary in humiliation. Compare in Ahab's case, parallel to that of Nineveh, both receiving a respite on penitence (1Ki 21:27; 20:31, 32; Joe 1:13).

Similarly, Matthew Poole observes:

Proclaimed a fast; every one called upon other to fast, of cried out it was high time to fast, repent, and supplicate God, so some think; but this passage is an anticipation, tells us what was done, and will tell us afterwards on what grounds, authority, and example it was done.

Put on sackcloth; a ceremony very usual in mournings, private or public, in those countries, and a token of their true mourning; this all did, great and small, rich and poor.

Similarly Gill observes:

and proclaimed a fast; not of themselves, but by the order of their king, as follows; though Kimchi thinks this was before that:

and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them; both, with respect to rank and age, so universal were their fasting and mourning; in token of which they stripped themselves of their common and rich apparel, and clothed themselves with sackcloth; as was usual in extraordinary cases of mourning, not only with the Jews, but other nations.

Similarly the Pulpit Commentary has this:

So they believed in God, and proclaimed a fast. Spontaneously, without any special order from the authorities. Before the final fall of Nineveh, the inscriptions mention, the then king ordered a fast of one hundred days and nights to the gods in order to avert the threatened danger (see a note by Professor Sayce, in G. Smith's 'History of Babylon,' p. 156). Put on sackcloth (comp. Genesis 37:34; 1 Kings 21:27; Joel 1:13). The custom of changing the dress in token of mourning was not confined to the Hebrews (comp. Ezekiel 26:16).

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