The Book of Jonah is simultaneously pathetic and hilarious.

November 11, 2012

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Commentary on Jonah 1:1-17; 3:1-10; [4:1-11]

The Book of Jonah is simultaneously pathetic and hilarious.

It is pathetic because the character Jonah is so completely unfaithful. It is hilarious, first of all, because the narrator portrays so hyperbolically Jonah’s recalcitrance and the repentance of the people of Nineveh. And furthermore, the joke is on Jonah, since God fulfills God’s purposes by way of Jonah, even though Jonah remains thoroughly uncooperative to the very end.

That the narrator is up to something artistically clever is evident as soon as Jonah is mentioned. He is identified in 1:1 as “son of Amittai,” a name derived from the Hebrew root that means “to be faithful.” But, of course, Jonah proves to be anything but a “son of faithfulness.” Even so, by the end of chapter 1, Jonah has made a boatload of converts! In sharp contrast to the disobedient prophet, the pagan sailors are models of piety and faithfulness, as they honor God, offer sacrifices, and make vows (verse 16; see Psalm 66:13).

To his credit, Jonah does one thing right in chapter 1 — that is, he utters an eloquent affirmation of faith in the “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (verse 9). Of course, the fact that Jonah is trying to flee from this God of all creation makes him look even more comically stupid. As for Jonah’s seemingly magnanimous gesture of requesting to be thrown overboard (verse 12), it is probably more of a death wish, especially in view of Jonah’s repeated requests to die in chapter 4. Jonah could hardly look worse.

But God is not finished with Jonah, as 1:17 makes clear. For many readers, it is precisely 1:17 that makes the Book of Jonah difficult — that is, how could a human survive being swallowed by a big fish? But the Book of Jonah is not meant to be a historical account. Rather, it is something like a theological short story; and this means that the really difficult thing to believe in the Book of Jonah is that God cares about the Assyrians, a brutal and hated enemy that was responsible for destroying the Northern Kingdom in 722 BCE (see the Book of Nahum).

Chapter 2, which is not part of the lection, seems to indicate that Jonah has learned his lesson. At least he prays here (in contrast to chapter 1); but his prayer rings suspiciously hollow in verse 4 (Jonah was not “driven away” from God’s sight!) and in verses 8-9 (since Jonah himself had forsaken his “true loyalty,” while the pagan sailors were the ones who had vowed and sacrificed to the LORD!).

But at the beginning of chapter 3, Jonah at least obeys God when given a second chance (verses 1-3). Even so, his effort seems pathetically weak. In contrast to the carefully crafted and insightfully detailed oracles of judgment in many of the prophetic books, Jonah offers a five-word (in Hebrew) proclamation!

Remarkably, however (and this is part of the comic hyperbole), Jonah’s sermon is extraordinarily effective. The Hebrew syntax emphasizes the immediacy of Nineveh’s repentance, since the word “overthrow” that concludes verse 4 is followed immediately by the verb “believed” (verse 5). The response is as thorough as it is immediate, complete with fasting, sackcloth (even for the animals — another aspect of the comic hyperbole), ashes, and exemplary words. In fact, the language of 3:9-10 clearly recalls Exodus 32:14, where God changes God’s mind in order to spare the people of Israel after they had made the golden calf.

There is a major difference between Exodus 32:1-14 and Jonah 3:1-10, however — namely, only God repents or changes God’s mind in Exodus 32, not the people. But in Jonah 3, the people of Nineveh do repent. It is pathetic but true — the Assyrians do what the people of Israel virtually never do in response to the prophetic preaching!

One might reasonably conclude that Jonah would be overjoyed at the incredibly positive response to his prophetic mission, or at least that he might be relieved that a hated enemy had come to the Lord. But no! We are told in 4:1 that Jonah found the whole turn of events to be “very displeasing.” Interestingly, the Hebrew root of “displeasing” is the same one used back in 1:2 to describe Nineveh’s “wickedness.” The repetition presses the question: who is the evil party now?

And the answer is clear — it is Jonah, who gives himself away in 4:2 when he explains why he originally fled to Tarshish. It was not because he feared the brutal Assyrians. Rather, it was because he knew that God is “gracious . . . merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” Jonah’s words echo God’s self-revelation to Moses at the conclusion of the golden calf episode (Exodus 34:6).

It is clear that Jonah knows God well! But it is equally clear that Jonah does not like God’s way of doing things. So, in perhaps what is the most jarring juxtaposition of ideas in the Old Testament, Jonah’s affirmation of God’s gracious, merciful, and steadfastly loving character is followed immediately by a request in 4:3 that amounts to this: “So, kill me!”

While Jonah himself had been the recipient of God’s grace, and while the people of Israel were continually forgiven by God, Jonah the Israelite prophet cannot even begin to imagine that God’s grace might extend to “the other,” especially not to the hated Assyrians. So, four times in chapter 4 Jonah expresses the wish to die rather than to “forgive those who trespass against us.”

Of course, Jonah’s opposition to God’s grace is not unusual. Jonah’s response anticipates the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (see Luke 15:11-32, especially verses 29-30); it anticipates the workers hired first in the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (see Matthew 20:1-16, especially verses 11-15); and perhaps it anticipates those of us who still find it extremely difficult to follow Jesus’ eminently clear and straightforward admonition to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44).

The Book of Jonah ends with a question that Jonah does not answer, and this open-ended conclusion effectively suggests that the question is now ours to answer. Will we do any better than Jonah when it comes to resisting the pervasive and persistent temptation to restrict the scope of God’s concern to us and to our kind of people?

God of the seas, sky, and land,
When Jonah turned to run from you, you showed him that nothing and no one could hide from your presence. You are in all things, and you love all things. Show us the gift of your presence, and help us to carry your word of compassion and grace to all the world, in the name of the one who carried out your love flawlessly, Jesus Christ our redeemer. Amen.

Wash, O God, our sons and daughters   ELW 445, UMH 605
Will you come and follow me   ELW 798
Forgive our sins as we forgive   ELW 605, H82 674, UMH 390

Down in the river to pray, arr. J. David Moore