Sabbath School commentary for discussion on September 18, 2021
Editor's note: this article first appeared in the Spectrum Journal (vol. 15, no. 5) in 1987 and appears here in its entirety.
The Bible is a record of literary genius as well as spiritual vision, and often spiritual vision is expressed through literary devices. The Book of Jonah, a jewel of the storyteller's art, runs counter to what we would ordinarily expect in a prophetic work. For one thing, the prophetic message itself is only one sentence long. The author is less interested in the prophecy of Jonah than in the story about the prophet.
The story of Jonah has everything a good story should have. Its cliff-hanger plot is filled with exotic adventures, a storm at sea, merchant ships, long journeys, and prophecies of doom. Its settings include a ship at sea, a great and mysterious capital city, and the belly of a fish. It features a cast of thousands with roles for a wind, a fish, a vine, and a worm. Most important for a good story, it has conflict. And the conflict is not, as the scenario might suggest, between Jonah and Nineveh. It is between Jonah and God.
The narrator creates in Jonah an anti-hero, a prophet who represents everything a prophet should not be, turning upside down our expectations about how a prophet should act. Instead of a powerful and patient ambassador working with God for the salvation of a recalcitrant people, Jonah is a petty little spokesman who sets prophetic tradition on its head. Prophets are expected to follow God's commands. Jonah runs straight in the opposite direction. Most prophets speak God's words to deaf ears. Not Jonah. Every time he opens his mouth, masses flock to repent. Prophets are an unhappy lot in general. They are accustomed to being ignored, if not worse. They grieve over the sins of their people; they mourn over the fate of their nations. Jonah, too, is unhappy. But he is unhappy for the opposite reason. His message has been received. His listeners have repented. Nineveh is saved. Poor Jonah.
The real prophet of the book is not Jonah at all, but the narrator. He tells the story to express his vision of God's plan for Israel and the greatness of God's universal love. That vision is very different from Jonah's. The master storyteller keeps his reader in suspense while also satirizing this cantankerous prophet and the upside down world-view he professes. He sets up the conflict between Jonah and God and develops it through the four major scenes of the book.
Scene One: After the Dove
A good story begins with action, something intruding into the status quo of an ordinary situation. Here, God sets the story in motion when he tells Jonah, "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it (Jonah 1:2 RSV). The reader may recognize some familiar echoes from other Old Testament prophets. God often sends his word to a prophet, and we expect the next line to read "And Jonah rose up and went to Nineveh that great city and cried out against it, according to the word of the Lord."
But Jonah doesn't know his lines. The narrator sets us up for a surprise as he tells us that Jonah rose not to go, but to flee; not to Nineveh, but to Tarshish; and not according to the word of the Lord, but away from the presence of the Lord (Jonah 1:3).
God's command, too, has some surprises. Other prophets brought God's word directly to Israel, the people of God. His prophets sometimes cried out against the surrounding nations, but they did so from the streets of Jerusalem. To cry out against Nineveh was a respectable thing for a prophet to do—Nahum did it with vigor. But "to put in a personal appearance"—that was a new touch.1
God is not sending Jonah to just any foreign city, but to the capital of Assyria, the most ferocious and violent nation in the world. Nahum describes it as a "bloody city, all full of lies and booty" with "heaps of corpses, dead bodies without end."2 No wonder Jonah heads straight for Tarshish. The narrator seems to catch Jonah's hurry as he tells us in a flurry of verbs that Jonah "rose," and "went," and "found," and "paid," and "went on board," "away from the presence of the Lord."
The scenario is a comic one. Some commentaries point out that Jonah's name means "dove" and his father's name means "faithfulness."3 So, to begin his story, the narrator paints an ironic picture of God's dove, the son of faithfulness, taking wing and flying from the work God has given him to do.
Action and counteraction. The story is underway. It is once again God's turn. Will he let his prophet rest quietly in the hold of a ship while Nineveh waits? Not likely.
But why does Jonah flee? Is he afraid of Nineveh? Or like many other prophets, does he feel unworthy? Might he be worried about his reputation? Maybe he is a gentle dove who does not want to be an instrument of God's wrath. The narrator lets us wonder. Jonah does not explain it until the fourth scene, and by then the narrator has given the reader enough information to see it for the uncharitable reason that it is.
Jonah flees because he fears that the people of Nineveh will hear the word of God and repent. Then, since God is a gracious and merciful God, he would send mercy rather than justice, love rather than fire. This is not just a question of Jonah's credibility; it is a question of justice. What is going to happen to this vengeful, cruel city with the blood of nations dripping from its hand? Would its people get justice? Would they get what is coming to them? While Israel suffers at the hands of Nineveh, would Nineveh now get off scot-free with just a word of repentance? Would God do that? "Yes," says Jonah. "God would do that. And it just isn't right. It isn't justice."4
This is the point of conflict. It is not so much a question of obedience as it is a theological dispute that Jonah has with God. It is not because of unbelief that Jonah flees; it is because he knows God all too well.5
Scene Two: Enter the Whale
God does not confront his prophet directly with a theological argument. Rather, like a good dramatist, he works behind the scenes, setting the stage for the salvation of Nineveh and the resolution of the conflict.
While Jonah sleeps, God hurls a great wind upon the sea. Elie Wiesel describes the scene like this:
The wind is howling, the waves are roaring, the ship is about to break: up into a thousand pieces; everybody is busy, everybody tries to help, some work, others pray, all efforts, all energies are being mobilized; everybody is trying to be useful except Jonah. What is his contribution to the collective rescue operation? Incredible but true: in that hour of crisis and mortal danger, when the world is upside down, when creation is in turmoil, the prophet-who should, by definition, be more sensitive, more alert, more tense than the common mortal—is asleep! Instead of sounding the alarm and leading the rescue activities, he goes on sleeping!
God's windstorm gets everyone's attention. The sailors want to know what it means and seek their own gods for the answer. The prophet, who knows the answer, is asleep. The pagan captain must wake him to do his duty: "Arise, call upon your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we do not perish" (Jonah 1:6). Jonah's response to the sailors is a confession of faith. He tells them that he fears the Lord, "the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land"(Jonah 1:9). What would his tone of voice be like? Is it the reverent awe of a believer who sees anew the power of God? Or is it the monotone of a creed once meaningful but now routine- the god who made the sea and the dry land?
It doesn't really matter. What does matter is that the sailors now know God. Our reluctant prophet is marvelously successful. He recites his creed, and his entire audience turns to worship the Creator. God makes use of the natural world to carry out his purposes in this story. He hurls winds and appoints fish and plants and worms. Yet God needs his prophets to interpret the meaning of such actions.
Jonah introduces God to the sailors as the God who made the seas, but his very presence on the ship belies his testimony. In the Psalms, the seas were often a symbol of the world of chaos, the world outside of God's creation.7 Maybe Jonah had thought to escape God there. Maybe God won't be able to find him in the deep waters. The sailors know better. They are horrified at Jonah's answer. Who would run to sea to escape the Maker of the ocean?
Jonah has a choice. He could repent. If God would have mercy on Nineveh, he would certainly have mercy on Jonah. But this answer is too simple for Jonah. He chooses rather to be thrown into the sea. Why such a drastic measure? Maybe he thinks of himself as a sacrifice for the sailors. With him out of the way, he explains, "the sea will quiet down for you" (Jonah 1:12). For Jonah, it is a matter of pure and simple justice.
Jonah's situation is just like Nineveh's. He has been wicked, and he deserves to die. While Jonah is silent, the heathen sailors assume the prophetic role and plead with God to save his life. They pray for him. They intercede for him. They fight to save him. They refuse to take the last drastic step until they are absolutely sure that there is no other way.
What are the sailors thinking as they see Jonah bobbing in the water and finally sinking slowly out of sight? Do they think "This is one tough god. Offend him once and look what happens?" No wonder they offer sacrifices and make vows. Perhaps later they will learn more about this god they met on the high seas. Perhaps they will learn more than Jonah was able to teach them at that moment.
What are Jonah's thoughts as he sinks into the cold black waters? Perhaps he is feeling slightly smug. After all, he is not going to Nineveh. What has happened is what ought to have happened. He may be saying, "See, God, this is justice. The soul that sinneth, it shall die. Take note: This is the way to run the universe."
But God has his own ideas about how to run the universe. He breaks into Jonah's neat and tidy little scheme with the most famous character in the book. Talk about a scene stealer. The big fish swoops in from backstage and gulps down Jonah and practically runs away with the show.
Jonah has had center stage long enough. Now it is God's tum to act. He acts "quite apart from the question of justice" to deliver Jonah from the depths of the sea.8
Jonah sings from the belly of the fish a song of praise. He may still argue with God; he may still try to tell God how to run the universe, but he does know how to give thanks. And here, surrounded by fleshy walls and sitting in a semi-digested pool of fishy delights, Jonah praises God for his great grace.
God is the God of all creation, and everything in the natural world works with him for Jonah's salvation. Even in the midst of the sea, this chaotic world supposedly outside of God's created order, even there God works, and the chaos monster himself turns out to be a servant of the Most High.
But has Jonah changed? "Deliverance belongs to the Lord," he says in his psalm (Jonah 2:9). Now that he has received the great mercy of God, is he willing to extend that same mercy to others? The next scene will tell us.
Scene Three: On the Road Again
It begins with words almost identical to those we heard in the first chapter. "Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying 'Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.' So Jonah arose and [it's about time] went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord" (Jonah 3:2).
The narrator does not let us forget how great the city of Nineveh is. Repeatedly in the story he refers to Nineveh as a great city. It is a city of three-days' journey. But Jonah goes no deeper than one-day's journey. He may be going to Nineveh, but he isn't going any further than he has to. His message is brief and perfunctory: "Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be over- thrown"(Jonah 3:4). That is it. Where are the ap- peals to repent? Where is the presentation of the mercy and justice of God? Where are words of sorrow or of hope? "Just forty days and wham! A graceless message delivered by one living in the shadow of an experience of grace."9
The response is phenomenal. Just as he inadvertently did on the ship, our reluctant prophet meets with total success. On the first day, he converts the entire metropolis. The whole city, from the least to the greatest, falls to its knees in repentance. Repentance becomes a government policy. The king hears the word and proclaims a national fast. The conversion of the Ninevites is so complete that it includes the animals, too. St. Francis may have preached to the animals, but the beasts in the book of Jonah are covered in sackcloth to pray and fast and repent.10
The response of Nineveh is like the sea captain's: "Who knows, God may yet repent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we perish not?" (Jonah 3:9). The heathen understand something that Jonah does not. "God acts as it pleases him, which may or may not conform to human expectations." God is sovereign, and if he chooses to deliver, he can, and because he is a gracious God, he will.11
Scene Four: I Told You So
God acts with great mercy toward this great city, and Jonah responds with great anger. He is a "man of law and order." His system of retributive justice has been broken.12 His world has been invaded by a god who is greater than his neat moral package, a god who steps into the cycle of sin and punishment with mercy and forgiveness. In the final scene of the story, the narrator brings Jonah face to face with the implications of his belief in a remarkable dialogue with God.
Jonah begins with "I told you so—I knew it. I just knew it. That's why I fled to Tarshish." His tone is undoubtedly churlish as he describes the character of God as gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and repenting of evil (Jonah 4:2). He may be whining or snarling or sneering, but he is not happy. He throws this familiar, confessional description of God's character into God's face as if it were a fault.
Jonah is on an emotional roller coaster. He had expressed great joy when he was delivered from the belly of Sheol. When Nineveh experiences this same mercy of God, he is furious. It's all right for God to be gracious to Jonah and merciful to Israel. Jonah believes in this confession of faith he has just cited; he just wants to limit it to Israel. Mercy is fine, Lord. You've just got to be more careful who you give it to. Forgiveness of Jonah, yes, that is good. Forgiveness of the Ninevites, well, God should think twice about that.13
So strongly does he believe this that he asks God to take his life. "Let me die," he says. "I cannot bear the awful sight of Nineveh spared."
Jonah's anger makes no sense. "Do you do well to be angry?" asks God (Jonah 4:4). But Jonah has no more to say: He stalks away, leaving God's question hanging in the air.
God, though, knows other ways to communicate. When words are no longer effective, he has the whole creation at his service, and now he employs a vine to speak for him. The vine grows overnight, like the magic plant in Jack and the Beanstalk. It grows and it grows in just the right place and shelters Jonah from the hot sun. And Jonah is not just glad for the vine, he is exceedingly glad. After all, it saves him from discomfort. Once again God exercises his grace for Jonah, and Jonah gratefully receives it.
And so he sits in the shade of God's grace. God is no doubt watching his response with great interest and hope: Maybe when Jonah cools down and sees my grace operating for him, maybe then he will be more generous toward the Ninevites. But no. There Jonah sits in a fit of temper, hoping for fire and brimstone to fall from heaven.
So the same God who commissioned the leviathan now brings another creature into the act. He employs a worm to cut down the vine. This is one hungry worm, for the plant dries up within minutes. And then, just to drive the point home, God appoints a sultry east wind to come on stage and gives the sun a featured role, driving the fainting Jonah to wish he were dead.
Once again God asks Jonah, "Do you do well to be angry—for the plant?" Jonah is not silent this time and whines, "I do well to be angry, angry enough to die" (Jonah 4:9).
God is trying hard to communicate with Jonah. The first and last parts of the story are mirror images of each other. In the first part, God has compassion on Jonah, and Jonah approves. In the second, God has compassion on Nineveh, and Jonah disapproves. In the final scene with the plant, God attempts to connect the two incidents in Jonah's mind.
Do you pity the plant? What an odd word. Pity. For a plant. Yes, Jonah pities the plant. He is not without feeling. He pities plants. And though he would like to see an entire city wiped out, he is angry at the destruction of his beloved plant. Something is out of balance. God is asking Jonah to learn something new. He understands God's justice, but he needs to learn God's mercy.14
God starts him off with a very easy lesson. You have compassion on the plant, don't you Jonah? That's good, Jonah. Pity the plant. But now, can you take one more step? Can you not understand how I can pity a city filled with thousands of people, with men and women and children and also much cattle? As you pity the plant and want it to live, can you not understand that I pity Nineveh and want it to live?
The story ends too soon. Where is Jonah's answer?
Where Is the Fifth Act?
There is an answer to God's question. The narrator leaves it to the reader. It might not be until this point that we really understand who Jonah is. Of course Jonah is Israel, chosen by God to be a light to all nations. And yes, Jonah is the church. But James Limburg says in Old Stories for a New Time that a story really hits home when the application moves from them to us and finally to me.15
Jonah may have been speaking to Nineveh, but the narrator is writing to us. Jonah's message to Nineveh was bound by time and place, but the message of the narrator is universal.
Jonah is one who can spout pious phrases, but does not pity the people of Nineveh. Jonah is one who knows all the right religious answers, but sleeps while the pagans fight to save the ship and the people in it. Jonah is one who takes offense at God's work among people outside his group.16
I am Jonah, and God is telling me that his love extends far beyond the borders of my community, that his love embraces his entire creation, from the great cities and cultures of the world to "the cows of Nineveh."17 God needs me to speak his love outside my community and he can use me and bless me, even in my most cantankerous moments.
The end of the story makes a lot of people happy. The Ninevites are happy. Destruction has passed them by. God is happy. His word has been heard in Nineveh.18 Only Jonah is sulking on a hillside. We can leave him there. But God's question, "Can't you understand that I love Nineveh?" hangs in the air, waiting for an answer. And the narrator, whose account leads us to laugh at the pouting, uncharitable Jonah, has shown us how we must answer.
Notes & References:
1. Terence E. Fretheim, The Message of Jonah: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1977), p. 76.
2. Nahum 3:1-3 (RSV).
3. Hans Walter Wolff, Obadiah and Jonah: A Commentary, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986), pp. 98-99. See also Alan Jon Hauser, "Jonah: In Pursuit of the Dove," JBL 104 (1985): 21-37.
4. Fretheim, pp. 33, 76-78.
5. Fretheim, pp. 77-78.
6. Five Biblical Portraits (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), pp. 144-145.
7. Wolff, pp. 131-137.
8. Fretheim, p. 93.
9. Fretheim, pp. 107-108.
10. Edwin M. Good, Irony in the Old Testament (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1981), p. 49.
11. Fretheim, pp. 84, 112-113.
12. Thayer S. Warshaw, "The Book of Jonah," in Literary Interpretations of Biblical Narratives, eds. Kenneth R. R. Gros Louis, James S. Ackerman, and Thayer S. Warshaw (Nashville: Abingdon, 1974), p. 193.
13. Fretheim, pp. 22-26, 118-119.
14. Warshaw, pp. 193-194.
15. (Atlanta: John Knox, 1983), pp. iv, 114.
16. Limburg, pp. 114-115.
17. Limburg, p. 116
18. Wiesel, p. 131.
Beverly Beem, PhD, is emeritus professor of English at Walla Walla University.
Image: "The Prophet Jonah" by Michelangelo, (Sistine Chapel) c. 1542–1545.
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