Third Sunday after Epiphany

Mediate the toxic “us versus them” culture

Coventry Cathedral - Fish
Spence, Basil. "Coventry Cathedral - Fish," from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. Original source.

January 21, 2024

First Reading
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Commentary on Jonah 3:1-5, 10

The book of Jonah is the fifth book of the minor prophets collection in our English Bibles and is in many ways unique among its literary siblings. One way it is unique is that the narrative about Jonah and his interactions with God is the overwhelming emphasis of the book, and not the prophetic proclamation of the prophet, which amounts to one half-verse in the entire book (Jonah 3:4b). A reading of Jonah 3 therefore needs to take into account its entire narrative context.

Structure and genre of the book of Jonah

Jonah 3:1 (“The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying”; compare Jonah 1:1) divides the book of Jonah into two halves (chapters 1–2 and chapters 3–4). The identification of the genre of the book of Jonah turns mostly on the question of whether the narrative is an example of historical fiction or whether it reports on an actual historical event despite its obvious rhetorical exaggerations. The current scholarly consensus is that Jonah is a novella,1 which emphasizes both its narrative nature and its didactic purpose.

The point of Jonah 3

In Jonah 1:1–2, God gives Jonah a prophetic assignment, using language typical of such a call in verse 1, with the assignment stated in verse 2: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city [hair haggedolah; compare 3:5], and cry out against it, for their wickedness has come up before me.” The rest of chapter 1 narrates Jonah’s refusal to accept God’s call by fleeing by boat to Tarshish, a place that has not been definitely located.2 The central point of the chapter is to underscore the extent of Jonah’s refusal to obey the call of God. With the life of his fellow sailors at risk, Jonah tells them to throw him into the sea (1:12); they do exactly that, and the “the sea ceased from its raging” (1:15). (Notice that the sailors worship God afterward, as will the Ninevites in chapter 3.)  Jonah is swallowed by a large fish (1:17), which later spits him out “upon the dry land” (‘el-hayyabbashah, 2:10 which in the Masoretic Text is 2:11; see also 1:13).3

With Jonah back on dry land, the events of chapter 1 replay themselves. The word of the Lord comes to Jonah again, with the same command to go to Nineveh “and proclaim to it the message that I tell you” (dober-‘el, verse 2).4 This time, Jonah complies; he arrives at the city in 3:3 and preaches his sermon in 3:4. What was the result of his preaching? “And the people of Nineveh believed God [wayyaaminu … belohim, the same phrase used of Abraham in Genesis 15:6 and of the children of Israel in Exodus 14:31]; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth” (Jonah 3:5). Fasting and sackcloth are behaviors typical of repentance in the Hebrew Bible,5 and the narrative follows the typical pattern of “threat of harm … repentance and then … God’s decision not to bring about the harm after all.”6

Verses 6–9, omitted from the lection, move from the reaction of the people to the royal response to Jonah’s preaching; as it stands, it seems likely that these verses are a “flashback.”7

Verse 10 then brings the chapter to a close with the note that “when God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind [wayyinachem ha’elohim; compare Exodus 32:12, but see also Numbers 23:19] about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it [welo asah].” Chapter 4 will narrate Jonah’s disapproval of what God has done (4:1), and God’s response to Jonah’s disapproval. And the book will close with God’s rhetorical question, “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?”

Homiletical options

There are several different ways one might preach this text.

The first would be to pair it with Matthew 12:38–41 (not the assigned Gospel lesson for this Sunday) because it references Jonah 3 in verse 41. In this case, the Jonah story becomes a prediction of Jesus’ resurrection and a warning about rejecting Jesus’ message, because “something greater [pleion] than Jonah is here!” and could be the foundation for an evangelistic sermon where the congregation is urged to pledge their allegiance to the risen Savior.

A second way would be to pair it with the narrative in Joshua 2. There, despite a commandment from YHWH to the Hebrews to “utterly destroy” all the Canaanites who were living in the Promised Land (for example, Deuteronomy 7:2; compare Leviticus 27:29), Rahab voices her confession of belief in Israel’s God (Joshua 2:9–13) and she is saved from the utter destruction that befell the rest of the inhabitants of Jericho.

A third way would be to pair it with 1 Timothy 2:1–7, where the author proclaims to his audience that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone” because God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (verses 1, 4; see also 2 Peter 3:9). That is not a far cry from God’s rhetorical question to Jonah in Jonah 4:11 (see above).

Both of these last two options serve to mediate the toxic “us versus them” culture that has filtered down into the church these days. Both remind us that whatever divisions exist and whoever we identify as our “Ninevites,” God still cares for them and still desires that they be saved. Whatever side of the current divides over critical race theory, “woke-ism,” abortion, or white privilege we might take, God still cares for our “enemies” and still desires our “opponents” to be saved. That is theological reason enough for the church to stop drawing such sharp dividing lines over issues of theology, politics, and ethics.

Leslie Allen puts it this way: “A Jonah lurks in every Christian heart, whimpering his insidious message of smug prejudice, empty traditionalism, and exclusive solidarity. He that has ears to hear, let him hear and allow the saving love of God which has been outpoured in his own heart to remold his thinking and social orientation.”8


  1. See, for example, Hans Walter Wolff, Obadiah and Jonah, Continental Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1986), 82: “the novella seems to offer itself as the most appropriate genre.”
  2. For example, David W. Baker, “Tarshish,” Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary 6:333: “We are not able to say with confidence where Jonah was heading when he set sail from Joppa. All we can be sure of is that he was going west, and that he thought he would be leaving his God behind.” Hence, Douglas K. Stuart, Hosea–Jonah, Word Biblical Commentary 31 (Waco: Word Books, 1987), 444: translates as “to sea.”
  3. Note that the narrative does not tell us what dry land Jonah was spewed onto.
  4. “We … cannot be certain whether God’s message had been, is being, or will be delivered.” Jack M. Sasson, Jonah: A New Translation with Introduction, Commentary, and Interpretation, Anchor Bible 24B (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 227.
  5. Leslie C. Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, New International Commentary on the Old Testament; (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 223–224; Sasson, Jonah, 246.
  6. Stuart, Hosea–Jonah, 489.
  7. Wolff, Obadiah and Jonah, 143.
  8. Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, 235.