Commentary on Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Jonah, the book, is a great story with fantastical imagery, from a great fish swallowing Jonah to cattle in sackcloth.
It’s a story told around campfires to make a point. Or recited in Sunday School to finalize a moral. The word “great” signals that this story may be a folktale or satire, built around an obscure prophet who prophesied during Jeroboam’s reign (1 Kings 14:23) as the people faced the Assyrian invasion (722 BCE). The book appears to be an effort to explain God’s inscrutable mercy toward Assyria, where Nineveh was capitol. In the book of Jonah, the protagonist is not called a prophet, but rather a “Hebrew,” referring to the pre-monarchic times of the nation-state.
Jonah is mentioned in the apocryphal books, first in 3 Maccabees 6:8-9, when the priest Eleazer prays using a litany of people God has delivered in distress before: “And Jonah, wasting away in the belly of a huge, sea-born monster, you, Father, watched over and restored unharmed to all his family. And now, you who hate insolence, all-merciful and protector of all, reveal yourself quickly to those of the nation of Israel — who are being outrageously treated by the abominable and lawless Gentiles.” The writer of 2 Esdras 1:39 lists Jonah among the patriarchal ancients and prophets after whom books are named. This story also lived on in Christian times, referred to by Jesus in Matthew 12:38-41 (see also Luke 11:29-30).
As a book, Jonah is a commentary on the ancient Israelite creed about God’s mercy found first in Exodus 34:6-7:
The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed,
“The LORD, the LORD,?
a God merciful and gracious,?
slow to anger,?
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,?
yet by no means clearing the guilty,?
but visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children?
and the children’s children,?
to the third and the fourth generation.”
The creed represents God’s self-understanding and the people repeated time and again, in Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17, Psalms 86:17, 103:8, and 145:8, and the prophets Joel 2:14-3, Micah 7:18-19, and Nahum 1:2-3. It’s quoted in the Apocrypha, Sirach 5:4. But, the book of Jonah wants to know, just how wide is God’s mercy? And, what gets the guilty off the hook? Placed in the canon before Micah and Nahum, Jonah’s version focuses on the mercy, while Micah seems to limit the mercy to the people of Israel (Micah 7:18-20), wondering “who is like our God,” and proclaiming God’s “unswerving loyalty to Abraham, as you have sworn to our ancestors from the days of old.”
Nahum, following canonically on the heels of Micah and celebrating the downfall of Assyria, pretty much delights in them “getting what they deserve,” by focusing, not on the mercy of God, but on God’s jealousy for God’s people, Israel, and the fact that God will not clear the guilty: “A jealous and avenging God is the LORD, the LORD is avenging and wrathful; the LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries and rages against his enemies. The LORD is slow to anger but great in power,?and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty.”
Thus, our story of Jonah’s running from God and having to hear God say “a second time” go to Nineveh appears in this theological construct. Why wouldn’t he run in the opposite direction? Assyria, represented here by its capitol city, has been a thorn in Israel’s side, ransacking the northern kingdom and overthrowing it, followed soon by the complete devastation by Babylon who overtook Assyria. There is no reason to go to the “great city” to announce a “great” opportunity to repent. As their nearest enemy, their invasion ended Israel’s existence as a nation-state (1 Kings 17).
This background may help the preacher situate the story in its pathos. It’s a comic relief of a sorrowful tale. It’s an answer to a theodicy question. It’s the call to speak on behalf of all people, and to see even Ninevites as “chosen” if they repent. Who know; perhaps God will spare us if you call upon God’s name, the sailors declare (Jonah 1:6). Who knows, the king of Assyria asks. God may relent and change God’s mind (3:9; see also Micah 7:18-19). And that is the theological conundrum.
Who wants God to change God’s mind, especially when it means not destroying those whom we despise? Jonah becomes angry after preaching because he says, “O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and great to relent from punishing?” (Jonah 4:2). And Jonah sees God changing God’s mind as “greatly” displeasing. But changing God’s mind when people or nations repent also is a part of the divine character (see Jeremiah 18:7-8). But, Assyria, too, God?
And it also is why God has to call Jonah “a second time.” Because when he ran, he did not want to see Nineveh repent. He didn’t want that abounding grace to extend beyond his people, even though he KNEW, he just KNEW, it would. Jonah’s conversation with God in chapter 4 reads like a lament psalm, like “why do the wicked prosper.” And the people do repent. It’s a comical site: Jonah emerges from “a great fish” with seaweed wrapped around his head, and cries, “repent!” They have 40 days to do it, but the story is that they don’t hesitate like Jonah did. They respond immediately. The people of Nineveh are like the sailors who are not Hebrews; as soon as they know, they too repent (Jonah 2). That third chapter opening tells us pretty much all we need to know about human behavior in relation to other people and God as we understand God.
There are so many juicy parts to this “great” story. There is the drama of “who knows” what God will do. God is a radically free agent unbound by human theological expectations, and by the way, God revealed that about Godself a long time ago. And there are the religiously astute non-Hebrews. We get to see people who don’t have Jonah’s religious “training” or ability to “hear” from God, and yet, they respond with prayers and repentance. True, we have to be careful about blaming natural phenomena on God, but God IS responsible in Jonah’s tale. God is behind the “great storm.” In fact, Nahum says God’s ways are in the whirlwind and the storm (Nahum 1:3).
We learn, too, that repentance is not just an Israelite thing. And this reality has a couple of ramifications for us in our time. The first is that we do not know how God has already been among a people. Missionaries have used this text before, and I have noted in another place that they have used it often as a battering ram against non-Christian cultures.1 But this text suggests that God moves on people’s heart at the sound of truth. They fast and pray of their own initiative, because “the people of Nineveh believed God” (Jonah 3:5). They do not need Jonah to tell them how to meet God.
It is quite possible that when we speak in other contexts, we are called to share with people who know God, and not to “convert” them. God has good reason for changing and accepting their repentance, after all. God’s final question in the book of Jonah is the one that hung in the midst of the story all along: “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:11). Well, what do you say to that?
- Valerie Bridgeman, “Jonah,” The Africana Bible: Reading Israel’s Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora, Hugh Page, gen. ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.