Jonah: 40 days

Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed.” (Jonah 3:4) I think it noteworthy that Jonah does not announce the reason for the destruction or by whose hand, what the Ninevites can do to avert disaster, only that there is a set time of 40 days. What was the reaction of the Ninevites to Jonah’s proclamation? “When the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.” (v.5) It does not seem as though it took a whole lot to get Nineveh to repent.

Notice that the text does not say they believed Jonah. The text, literally translates as ‘the men of Nineveh believed in God.’ These simple words have been understood in two ways: (1) the Ninevites believed God’s word (the following English language bibles – NEB; AV, RSV, GNB, NIV); or (2) the Ninevites believed in God (JB, NAB). The Hebrew idiom he’ĕmîn bĕ, ‘believe in’, denotes more, however, than just believing what someone has said; it expresses the idea of trusting a person.

I wonder if this short passage strikes the original hearers “right between the eyes.” If they are faithful Jews with a knowledge of their own history with God in which trust/belief is the very thing that God asked of and expected from his own people – the covenant people, “dove” – the meaning of the name Jonah. The narrative’s example of trust is not Jonah.

Looking to the past of the covenant people, the response of the Ninevites is contrasted against their own stories. Consider Ex 14:31, the people watching the waters of the Red Sea destroy Pharaoh’s army “saw the great power that the LORD had shown against Egypt, the people feared the LORD. They believed in the LORD.” This is but one example from their own stories. And there are other stories when God asked the people to trust him, but they did not. In the Book of Numbers, the people are at the threshold of the Promised Land, but the spies sent to reconnoiter the land came back with stories of giants and armies that could not be defeated. Only Joshua and Caleb called the people to trust in God, but to no avail. “And the LORD said to Moses: How long will this people spurn me? How long will they not trust me, despite all the signs I have performed among them? (Num. 14:11)

The Hebrews in the desert, on the banks of the Jordan River, and many other times they received great signs and wonders so that they might trust God. Nineveh got a single, possibly unenthusiastic prophet – and the response is instantaneous. “They proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes.” (3:5b-6) It is as though the Word was so powerful, that it “went viral” – without the aid of social media!

In a narrative that is filled with “greats” it is surprising that the author does not specifically refer to this as a “great fast” as it is certainly worthy of such a great city. It extends from king to each and every subject, each donning sackcloth.

Putting on sackcloth was a common means in the ancient world of expressing grief, humility and penitence—the hallmarks of true repentance. When denounced by the prophet Elijah, the Israelite king Ahab responded in a similar fashion: “When Ahab heard these words, he tore his garments and put on sackcloth over his bare flesh. He fasted, slept in the sackcloth, and went about subdued.” (1 Kgs 21:27) The prophet Joel, possibly a contemporary of Jonah, demanded that his hearers should fast and don sackcloth as a sign of their repentance (Joel 1:13–14). The sackcloth used was a thick coarse cloth, normally made from goat’s hair; to wear it symbolized the rejection of earthly comforts and pleasures. The response of the Ninevites was unanimous: from the greatest to the least. No class or section of Ninevite society felt exempt from the need to humble themselves before God.

When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes.” The Hebrew “news” (dābār) can also mean ‘word’, ‘affair’ or, ‘thing.’ It is not clear if the king heard the brief proclamation from Jonah or it was reported to him, or he is learning of the city’s reaction to the prophet. Either way his reaction is a nice pattern of rising, putting off, putting on, and sitting down. Rising from his throne and replacing his royal robes with sackcloth, the king sits on the ground amid dust. He identifies himself with the sin and injustice of his people and he went one more step than anybody else. He sits down in the dust.

Pause for a moment. Here is the mightiest king in the known world of that time. He has one encounter with the LORD and voluntarily goes “down” from his throne. He humbles himself before the LORD and begins a path of repentance. God did not chase him to the depths with a great wind or swallow him whole with a great fish. He sent the saboteur prophet and the king responded, first time, instantly.

7 Then he had this proclaimed throughout Nineveh, by decree of the king and his nobles: “Neither man nor beast, neither cattle nor sheep, shall taste anything; they shall not eat, nor shall they drink water.
8 Man and beast shall be covered with sackcloth and call loudly to God; every man shall turn from his evil way and from the violence he has in hand.
(Jonah 3:7–8)

The king’s response is a royal summons to call urgently on God. It is reminiscent of the earlier directions of the captain to his crew for them to pray (1:6, 14; 2:2). The king also demands his subject’s genuine repentance: let them give up their evil ways and their violence. No outward show of piety will deliver Nineveh from her approaching destruction; only a radical transformation of heart and behavior offers any hope of a reprieve. To offer religious practice of repentance only without associated changes/action in one’s life, has ever been a challenge then and now. The prophets were often warning Israel of this reality: “Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment. Perhaps he will again relent and leave behind him a blessing…” (Joel 2:13-14)

Such is the hope of the King: 9 Who knows, God may relent and forgive, and withhold his blazing wrath, so that we shall not perish.” (Jonah 3:9) Like the sea-captain (1:6) and his crew (1:14), the king and his nobles acknowledge the absolute freedom of God to do as he pleases. They realize only too well that pious actions and prayers can never merit or guarantee divine forgiveness; God is under no obligation to pardon. There remains, however, the hope that he may look upon them with mercy and turn away his fierce anger. A complete turnabout by the Ninevites (v. 8) may possibly encourage God to do likewise. The king echoes the earlier hope of captain and crew

10 When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out. (Jonah 3:10)

God, who sees into the hearts and minds of people and rewards according to the merit of their deeds (cf. Jeremiah 17:10) saw a true conversion from the Ninevites, and God “repented of the evil that he had threatened.” What should strike us as odd, at least in our current religious sensibilities is God “repenting.” To our mind, we associate repentance with evil, sin and wonder what this would have to do with God.  Yet the translation is common in the Hebrew scriptures. Consider Jeremiah 18: “7 Sometimes I threaten to uproot and tear down and destroy a nation or a kingdom. 8 But if that nation which I have threatened turns from its evil, I also repent of the evil which I threatened to do.”  As Jeremiah 18:7–8 makes clear, prophetic pronouncements of judgment were not absolute, but conditional. God can change his mind.

The underlying word is niḥam that refers to a decision to act otherwise (changing one’s mind). In this context, modern English speakers would prefer “relent” in that God changed his mind and relented from bringing punishment upon the city of Nineveh. The word niḥam can also carry the meaning of finding a measure of relief from sorrow and distress – while God’s intent remained if there was no repentance from Nineveh, there was a divine “sigh of relief” because the Ninevites repented.

The repentance of Nineveh is described as “turning” from their evil ways. The word “turn” is a key word in the writings of the prophets. It is developed particularly by Jeremiah and forms the basis of his call to the people. If the people “turn,” Yahweh “repents”. These two words merge into the concept of metanoia, or repentance, which, in the New Testament, is demanded of those who would belong to the kingdom of God (see Mark 1:15 and parallels).

From the poetry of Thomas John Carlisle on this passage of Jonah:

God changed His mind
because they had changed
their hearts.
He repented
because they repented.
That is the way
we word it
sometimes.
But always
He is limited
only by
His limitless love

This would be an awesome place to end the story of Jonah and the Ninevites; roll the credits at this happy ending. Jonah repented, the Ninevites repented, and God relented. Surely the Word that came to the reluctant prophet is powerful indeed. Such is the nature of God.

Of course, the king who came down from the throne to sit in the dust, can also rise again, put on his royal robes and resume his prior, evil ways. Carlisle captures this when he wrote: “Think twice before you pardon. Men repent even in ashes. But repent again of their repentance.”

We only need to think of our own experience with repentance. We have descended and then re-ascended to our own thrones.

And so, the credits do not roll.  We will next turn our attention to Chapter 4.

1 thought on “Jonah: 40 days

  1. This is historical narrative. This is pealing away the layers to expose the many nuances of the Jonah story —- to bring a variety of perspectives to the story and different, profound meanings to the many participants —- and, of course, to provide context for us. I can already see the screenplay with Russel Crowe as the grumpy Jonah. More importantly, I can see millions of people saying: “On my goodness, I’ve never imagined this story as meaningful to me; I’ve never understood the symbols and how they relate to me and to our current society —- how easily we could be cast as the people of Nineveh.”

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