For reasons that make the book of Jonah a ripping good story, it takes a good while for Jonah to get to Nineveh.
But when he finally delivers God's message, the word spreads throughout the city. It even reaches the ears of the king, who proclaims a fast of both humans and beasts. "Who knows?" says the king; perhaps God will change his mind and avert this disaster.
And indeed Nineveh's repentance does result in God changing his mind. This is when the real fun begins. I knew it! says Jonah. Didn't I say at the very beginning that you are a merciful god? The rest of the story is God's answer to Jonah's complaint, as well as to our own perennial tendency to define and delimit the goodness of God.
Almost from the beginning of the Christian tradition, this little story has fascinated Christian interpreters. Jesus identified himself with Jonah, and Christians have puzzled over the "sign of Jonah" ever since. Matthew understood the sign as an allusion to Jesus' death and resurrection, as well as an indictment of those who rejected Jesus: "The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here" (Matthew 12:41).
Sadly, Matthew's triumphant Ninevites are eventually invoked to support the Christian claim that the church has displaced the Jewish people as the elect of God. This, says Martin Luther, is what irks Jonah so: "To think that he should be the first to make Judaism contemptible and superfluous" (W, XIX, 241). But the story of Jonah is not about Jews and Gentiles; much less is it a story of the displacement of one people in God's affections by another. It is a story about God, Israel, and the nations, but we would do well to see this dynamic in terms of neighbors and enemies, not winners and losers.
Perceiving God's decision not to punish Nineveh as a "great evil" (NRSV: "very displeasing"), Jonah prays. Some commentators have observed that Jonah's prayer is pretty bold, as prayers go. However, the Hebrew verb may have a closer connection to prayers of lamentation and complaint, in which case Jonah's tone is perfectly understandable. Such prayers complain of divine absence and seek the return of God's favor and mercy. Jonah complains of the very mercy most people seek, since this mercy has been extended to his enemy Nineveh.
Jonah's statement in 4:2 is a virtual quotation of the first part of God's revelation to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7. In both Exodus 34 and Jonah 4, God's attributes of mercy appear in conjunction with God's change of mind (Exodus 32:14), an idiom which indicates the reversal of a decision to execute punishment.1
The question is why mercy for Nineveh should seem an evil to Jonah. One possibility is that Jonah regarded God's "steadfastness," or "lovingkindness" as the unique, covenantal possession of Israel. However, it was not unthinkable that God would "change his mind" with regard to the nations. This possibility is raised in Jeremiah 18:7-8: if God plans evil against a nation but it repents, then God would change his mind, and not bring disaster against that nation. The nation in question would have mended its ways and sought to live in accordance with the divine will. There is thus nothing arbitrary or inconsistent in the divine decision to act with mercy; God's purposes have been achieved.
The story of Jonah can be regarded as a test of the hypothesis set forth in Jeremiah: just how far does this principle extend? Nineveh was the capital of Israel's greatest enemy, Assyria. Nineveh's deliverance in Jonah's lifetime means that it will "live to fight another day," so to speak. And fight it will: in 722 the northern kingdom will be utterly destroyed by the Assyrians, and for much of the next century Judah and Jerusalem will be firmly under the thumb of Assyria as its vassal. God's mercy for Nineveh appears, then, to come at a cost to Jonah, and to Israel. If that is the case, then the question of God's mercy might be a question of winners and losers after all.
However, the dialogue between Jonah and God shows no indication that God gives up on Jonah (or Israel) even if Nineveh should be spared. As Jonah waits to see what would happen to the city, God makes a gourd grow up to shelter Jonah and just as quickly causes it to wither by allowing a worm to devour it. Although the exact meaning of the gourd remains uncertain, certain features of the narrative suggest that it is a symbol of Nineveh.
Running throughout this episode is the question of Jonah's anger. When Nineveh was spared, God had asked Jonah, "Is it right for you to be angry?" Now, when the gourd dries up, God asks the same question: "Is it right for you to be angry about the gourd?" When God remarks that Jonah has done nothing to cultivate or nourish the gourd, it is tempting to hear God telling Jonah he can get rid of his anger by realizing that the gourd (i.e., Nineveh) is not his concern. But this is a story about how God, Israel, and the nations hang together, so perhaps there is another solution to his anger. That solution comes when Jonah can see Nineveh as God sees it.
The author may be suggesting that Nineveh is like a gourd to God. If so, then the author intends to parody Assyria's own self-understanding as the cosmic tree in whom all the creatures of the earth find their shade. It was a powerful image, lending not only prestige to Assyria but also grounding its world conquests in an ideology promoting its almost immortal power and strength. At least one other prophet, Ezekiel, ridiculed this ideology (see Ezekiel 31).
By presenting Nineveh as a gourd and not a cosmic tree, the author presents an alternative understanding of Nineveh: it is God who plants it, God who allows it to become great, and, eventually, God who brings it down. The gourd is, in effect, God's counter-complaint to Jonah. "The grass withers, the flower fades" (Isaiah 40:7); so also do apparently enduring kingdoms like Assyria. Knowing as God does what will eventually happen to Nineveh, why would Jonah begrudge God's pity?
The gourd also grounds the meaning of God's justice and mercy in God's identity as Creator. Where Jonah's declaration of God's mercy in 4:2 is very closely connected to Israel's covenantal traditions, the parable of the gourd emphasizes what Jonah also knows, that the God of Israel is also Lord of the Earth and Sea. God's mercy and justice are therefore rooted not only in God's commitment to the covenant, but also in the Creator's commitment to creation. The shift is subtle but significant, because it grounds God's mercy in the natural order of things. Consider the consequences if God chose arbitrarily to honor some commitments and not others. Should I not pity Nineveh? What would happen to my covenant with Israel if I did not?
In his impressive theological commentary on Jonah, Phillip Cary raises the possibility that God's question, "should I not pity Nineveh?" is, in effect, God asking Jonah's permission to love his (Jonah's) enemies.2 But God does not give Jonah that power; instead, God's question urges Jonah to see Nineveh as God does. The question is reminiscent of God's questions to Job about Behemoth and Leviathan. Those questions shattered Job's narrow definitions of justice; God's question to Jonah shatters Jonah's equally constraining conception of mercy. If God pities these poor Ninevites, why in the world does Jonah insist on being angry? If the enemies are God's concern, then just maybe they should be Jonah's concern as well.
1See Phillip Cary, Jonah (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible; Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008), 134-135