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The Story of Jonah—an Adventist Irony?



The story of Jonah contains significant ironies that can best be understood against the background of ancient maritime practices and Assyrian royal rituals. Various literary clues in the story highlight the ironic sequence of events that pack an enormous theological punch. The story begins with Yahweh’s command to Jonah: “Get up, go to Nineveh, the great city, and proclaim against it because their wickedness has come up to my face” (1:1)[1]

The first irony emerges in verse 2: “But Jonah got up to flee toward Tarshish away from Yahweh’s face” (v. 2a). Stark and clear, this irony, which serves as the foundation of all the other ironies in the book, consists of Yahweh’s prophet refusing to speak for Yahweh and literally fleeing—not merely from his assignment to Nineveh (though he no doubt loathed the thought visiting the hated Assyrians!), but from Yahweh Himself. In his flight, he heads west, the opposite direction away from Nineveh, but this direction also allows him to begin a voyage across the Mediterranean Sea. Perhaps the sea was really Jonah’s intent since the ancient mind viewed the “great deep” as the region of chaos, a region less controlled by deity. As if to make his intent clear, Jonah heads down to the bottom of the boat (as close to the water as he can get?), where the captain later finds him fast asleep.

While Jonah sleeps, “Yahweh hurled a great wind to the sea,” threatening to break up the ship (v. 4). As all sailors in antiquity did in Mediterranean storms, “each cried out to his deity” (v. 5). Since sailors from the ancient Near East viewed all calamitous events as coming ultimately from an angry god, all gods represented by those on board had to be duly sought and appeased. When the storm does not abate, they hurl cargo overboard to lighten the vessel.

Upon taking roll call, the captain discovers a missing passenger—Jonah. When he finds him down in the hold sleeping, he bellows, “Why are you sound asleep? Get up! Call to your god! Perhaps the god will consider us that we not perish” (v. 6). Hearing the words “get up” and “call”—the exact same verbs as Yahweh’s original directive to His prophet, Jonah indeed wakes up.

With Jonah now praying, the sailors cast lots to know who had angered which god. This action fits very well with what we know about ancient maritime practices. If only one god were angry, the offender could be dealt with and the sea calmed. Rather than lose many lives, only the offender’s life would be sacrificed. When the lot falls on Jonah, the sailors demand to know what he has done to bring this storm on them, who he is, where he is from, and his ethnicity. Ironically, Jonah states his ethnicity (the last question) and proceeds to tell them what they did not ask: who His God is—“Yahweh, the God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land” (v. 9)—with Yahweh’s name in the position of emphasis. Somewhere in the conversation, he adds that he is running away from his God (v. 10b).

The sailors waste no time. “What shall we do to you that the sea might be quiet,” they ask (v. 11). Studies done regarding Phoenician and Canaanite maritime practices show that, when faced with a war, a captain might stab himself and allow his blood to cover the image of the protective spirit aboard the ship as a human sacrifice to save his sailors. A Punic relief on a tomb shows a person being thrown into the sea from a warship. Sailors typically made sacrifices to their gods before setting sail and once they arrived back on land. Possible evidence suggests that sailors made vows to their deities to offer a child as a sacrifice to placate an angry deity if they made it back safely again.[2]

Apparently, Jonah knows of these practices, for he responds: “Pick me up and hurl me to the sea and the sea will be quiet from upon you, for I know that this great storm is upon you on my account” (v. 12). This is a second major irony: Yahweh’s prophet stoops to offer himself as a human sacrifice when, according to the prophets, this is clearly not what Yahweh wants.[3] Yet another irony lies in what the sailors do. Instead of following Jonah’s wishes, they try in vain to row back to land. That is, they do what Jonah refused to do—turn the ship around to take Jonah back to Joppa. But Jonah’s heart still runs from Yahweh and the storm rages on.

A fourth irony foreshadows a later one. Faced with inevitable destruction unless they follow Jonah’s command, they pray to Yahweh (something Yahweh’s prophet seems unable to do), pleading with Him not to hold them accountable for the life of His prophet. Given the ancient maritime practices outlined above, it seems they would have had few reservations about offering Jonah to the God who made the sea to calm His anger. Their reluctance to throw Jonah overboard hints that they perceive Jonah’s God as One who is merciful, and they fear killing his (innocent?) prophet. Once the sea is calmed, they worship Yahweh with offerings and make vows. Did those vows include child sacrifices? There is no way to know, but their willingness to pray to Yahweh will reach a fuller denouement in the repentance of Nineveh.

God initiates a fifth irony—to save His runaway, now suicidal, prophet from his own self-destruction by a large fish. Jonah takes three days to repent, but finally, he prays to Yahweh and Yahweh delivers him. When the word of Yahweh comes a second time, the command ends quite differently from the first: “Get up, go to Nineveh, the great city, and proclaim to it the proclamation that I am speaking to you” (3:2). It appears that God may not fully trust His prophet to speak for Him and wants to insure that Jonah gives His message, not something the prophet manufactures.

The narrator explains that it should take Jonah three days to walk across the city of Nineveh delivering his message. Jonah begins going into Nineveh one day, delivering the message: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh will be brought down” (v. 4b). The message can stand on its own; yet it could also represent the second half of a larger sentence that went something like this: “Unless you repent, just forty days, and Nineveh will be brought down.” In any case, the reader can only wonder if Jonah delivered all God’s message.

Jonah’s one-day walk into Nineveh nets a dramatic response. “The people of Nineveh—from the greatest to the least—believed God; they proclaimed a fast and wore sackcloth” (v. 5). This is a sixth irony: Jonah, Yahweh’s prophet, takes three days to come to repentance; the wicked Ninevites take just one day. News reached the king and he “got up from his throne, took off his royal robe from upon him, covered himself with sackcloth and sat upon the dirt” (v. 6).[4] Since the verb “took off” means “to transfer,” this verse may contain a clear allusion to a practice done by the Assyrians whenever the omens signified disaster to the throne. The king would take off his royal robe,[5] descend the throne, and a substitute king would take his place for a specified number of days, as high as 100, while the actual king absented himself from the palace. At the end of the time period, during a great banquet, the substitute king and his wife were taken out and executed. Then the actual king would be reinstated.[6]

In the book of Jonah, the king of Nineveh took off his royal robe and stepped down from his throne, obviously leaving the palace to sit on dirt, but the text says nothing about installing a substitute king and having that king executed. What the king does instead is to repent and to issue orders that everyone in Nineveh—even the animals—shall fast from food and water, covered with sackcloth. “Let them cry out strongly to God, and let everyone turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their palms. Who knows—God may turn and relent; he may turn from his hot anger that we not perish” (vv. 8, 9). This heightens the sixth irony with a perception about deity that ancient Assyrians did not often exhibit. Angry gods needed appeasement, not repentance. Angry gods needed whatever would soothe them before they would forgive. Merely fasting and praying (a very Hebrew ritual) would not seem adequate to an Assyrian to persuade a god not to destroy, once he made such a warning. Why would an Assyrian king presume to hope that Jonah’s God would show such mercy, especially when Yahweh’s own prophet does not portray Him as merciful?

This paves the way for the next irony in the book. When the people turn away from their evil deeds, Yahweh does just what they hope He will:  He turns away from destruction. And Jonah? “To Jonah it was evil, a terrible evil. And it made him mad” (4:1). His complaint explains why he ran away from Yahweh’s face: he knew all along that God was gracious, merciful, slow to anger, great in kindness, and relented from evil. Without saying so, Jonah rejects Yahweh’s compassion, and it throws him into a suicidal state. Of course, it may be because he feels as though he is now a false prophet, but the greater issue seems to be his basic loathing of the Assyrians. He wants them all to die and he abhors God’s mercy that keeps them alive. This is one of the greatest ironies in the book.

In the gourd that grows over Jonah’s head, we can see yet another irony. God asks Jonah why he “pities” the transient gourd whose lifespan is so short but doesn’t want God to pity Nineveh, with its 120,000 inhabitants. Can Jonah himself not see the irony? God’s compassion expresses itself in His description of these people who can no longer see the difference between their left hand and their right. The fast is still going on under the hot Assyrian sky. Without water and without food, the people are quickly losing their mental capabilities and will soon perish if the fast does not end. And the animals? God remembers them, too, because the fast was imposed on them as well. The whole city faces destruction. And God’s spokesperson, Jonah, would rather die than to go back into the city and tell the Assyrians the good news that God has exercised His mercy, and now they can all eat, drink, and rejoice in His goodness. This is the most tragic of ironies.

The great overarching irony of the book of Jonah is that God’s spokesperson, with a prophetic message about the end of Nineveh’s world, prefers a punitive god who demands human sacrifice rather than repentance, who seeks destruction of evildoers, who is slow to mercy—a god that looks more like the Assyrian deities than Yahweh. And wicked Nineveh, accustomed to the worship of these deities, actually trusts in Yahweh’s compassion as He responds to their repentance with salvation. The ironies stab us in the heart with calls to repentance.

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all translations are mine.

[2] Aaron Jed Brody, “Each Man Cried Out to His God”: The Specialized Religion of Canaanite and Phoenician Seafarers (Harvard Semitic Museum Monographs 58; Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1998), 100, 101.

[3] See Micah 6:1-8.

[4] See Charles Muenchow, “Dust and Dirt in Job 42:6” JBL 108 (1989): 597-611.

[5] This is implied in the Assyrian texts describing this ritual rather than stated.

[6] For a description of this institution, see Jean Bottéro, Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning, and the Gods (trans. Zainab Bahrani and Marc Van De Mieroop; Chicago, Ill.: The University of Chicago, 1992), 138-155.

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