Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Scholars have expended a lot of energy and paper trying to establish the genre of the Book of Jonah.

Men weeding a field
"Men weeding a field." Image by Dhammika Heenpella via Flickr licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

September 24, 2017

First Reading
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Commentary on Jonah 3:10—4:11

Scholars have expended a lot of energy and paper trying to establish the genre of the Book of Jonah.

What kind of story is it? The Book of Jonah is completely unlike any of the prophetic texts in the Hebrew Bible, and Jonah himself is unlike any other prophet. In terms of the text itself, it is primarily narrative rather than poetry; the story features Jonah as a character rather than the narrator or God’s mouthpiece; the story is filled with the absurd — storms on demand, whales swallowing people, God-appointed worms — rather than warnings, judgment, and critique; and the story ends with actual resolution — God says he will act and he does — rather than the hope of resolution.

In addition, the main character, Jonah, is as un-prophetic as one can possibly be. In fact, I would call him an anti-prophet. It is almost as if God has skipped the vetting process entirely. Not only does Jonah lack the experience needed, he has no interest in, no passion for, and no demonstrated potential to be a prophet (at least from what we are told).

Nevertheless, the story has a prophetic flavor to it, beginning as many of the books of the prophets do, “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh.’” Generally, we can expect that with these weighty opening words we are going to hear something from God through one of God’s prophets. But not with Jonah — he doesn’t even wait long enough to hear what he’s supposed to say to the Ninevites before he takes off running.

Occasionally the prophets will come up with excuses… “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy,” cries Jeremiah. The more persistent Moses states, “Who am I to go to the great Pharaoh in Egypt in order to rescue the Israelites?” Jonah, however, doesn’t even bother with excuses. Instead, he runs in the opposite direction, hopping aboard a Tarshish-bound ship and hoping to get as far away from both Nineveh and God as he can.

But God doesn’t let Jonah off so easily. God pulls out all the stops — a storm at sea, a whale, and miraculous survival — to make sure that Jonah does what he has been asked to do.

Once he finally arrives in Nineveh, Jonah follows God’s orders and begins his walk through the great city — a journey of three days from one end to the other — shouting, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” The text indicates that Jonah makes it through only one-third of the city — one day’s walk — and the Ninevites put on sackcloth and ashes and begin to repent. He doesn’t even have to confront the king directly — the word spreads so quickly.

Once the king hears the message, he immediately sets out a decree of fasting and repentance for the entire city. Even the animals must put on sackcloth and fast.

This is unheard of. The people never listen to the prophets in biblical stories, at least not at first.

And then there’s Jonah, the anti-prophet — a day’s walk through Nineveh with an eight-word message and even the animals are fasting and wearing sackcloth. And God changes God’s mind, and doesn’t destroy Nineveh.

Yet Jonah isn’t satisfied. He’s ticked off. “I knew this would happen,” he says. “That’s why I fled to Tarshish in the first place; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and easy with punishment.”

Every single prophet in the Bible hopes, prays, and dreams of the response of the Ninevites. Yet it never, ever happens this way. When they are worn out, chased, harassed, run down, and at their wit’s end, the prophets can only say, “Lord, it would be better for me to die.” Jonah, on the other hand, after the single biggest success story in the Bible — 120,000 people and countless animals change their ways in one day — goes on to say, “Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

God tries to ease Jonah’s pain in the wake of all this success, and appoints a bush to grow and provide shade, so that Jonah can take in the great miracle from his vantage point just outside the city. Overnight a worm comes to attack the bush and it withers and dies. Jonah wakes up to the hot sun and again begs to die. God asks Jonah not once but twice, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” Jonah never gives an inch, responding, “Yes, angry enough to die.”

The story ends with God asking Jonah a final question, “You are concerned about the bush, which you didn’t work for and which you did not grow … Shouldn’t I be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” I think we often read this question, assuming what Jonah’s response will finally be. But I don’t think Jonah would have given in. I think this story concludes with a truly perplexed God. A God who says, “I have pulled out all the stops, I have given you the prophet’s dream job — all of the people and even the animals in the biggest city on earth have changed their ways in one day’s time. And yet you are still angry, and you still want to die.”

The Book of Jonah pushes us to see how God often works with us in spite of ourselves! I think it’s amazing that God provides a shade bush so that Jonah can watch the unprecedented transformation of the city unfold before him in comfort, but he just can’t seem to enjoy it. It’s easy to blame Jonah for being petty, but we often do the same thing ourselves. Can we lift up our eyes from our own concerns, just for a second, to see God acting right in front of us?