“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) Great! The Ninevites repented, God relented, and Jonah’s prophetic mission is complete. As mentioned, that would have been an “they all lived happily ever after” ending. But there is another chapter in the story whose first verse gives us an idea that the story’s ending is anything but happy.
“But this was greatly displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.” (Jonah 4:1) Jonah’s reaction reveals something about the nature of repentance. In Nineveh, the King and all the subjects repented in their heart and in their actions. And Jonah? While externally he is obedient, he has long since lost the inspiration that fueled his psalm of thanksgiving in the belly of the great fish. When God relents of the destruction of Nineveh, the “fuse” runs out on Jonah’s own internal bomb. The prophetic saboteur falls prey to his own true feelings. When it becomes clear that Nineveh will be saved by the gracious mercy of God, Jonah is infuriated – “greatly (gā·ḏôl) displeasing.”
“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.
The American poet and Presbyterian minister, Thomas John Carlisle, wrote a short collection of poems in a volume, “You, Jonah” – a poetic commentary on each chapter of the Book of Jonah. Here is one of his poems, rather summarizing the book to this point:
“I know a better way to circumvent your silly streak of mixing love with righteous judgment,
All I need to do is take the next flight west beyond Your jurisdiction.
This will give you time for sober, second thoughts to swear off this kick of simpleminded kindness. Inside the monster I was as low as I could get when I remembered God,
odd, that my distress impressed me with His apparent absence
when his premised daily presence hadn’t meant a blessed thing.
Finding myself in that hole with my soul fainting and rolling with the swell of my swollen ego.
It was a good enough to kill me.
Instead, I saw stars in the dark and started home on a welcome water spout.”
When last seen Jonah had just hit bottom, swallowed alive. Up to this point, despite lots of opportunities, Jonah had not prayed, even when commanded by the ship’s captain in the midst of the raging tempest at sea – even as all the crew around him offered prayers to a pantheon of gods. But now it is different. He is alone, his choices and their consequences have “consumed” him, and … and what?
1:15 Then they took Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea’s raging abated. 16 Struck with great fear of the LORD, the men offered sacrifice and made vows to him. 2:1 But the LORD sent a large fish, that swallowed Jonah; and he remained in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
Interestingly, many modern translations position Jonah 2:1 as Jonah 1:17, including it with the previous chapter where it makes more sense from a literary point of view. It is good to be reminded that chapters/verses were assigned by Robert Estienne in 1551 for the New Testament and 1571 for the Hebrew Scriptures for his print editions and so chapter/verse is not sacrosanct. But if you read other Bibles and commentaries and are wondering why the verses are “off” by a single digit…now you know.
11 “What shall we do with you,” they asked, “that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more turbulent.” 12 Jonah said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea, that it may quiet down for you; since I know it is because of me that this violent storm has come upon you.”
These were the ending verses in the previous post. But there was also a question to ponder: What is the motivation for Jonah to suggest being thrown into the sea? To be fair, the narrative is silent on the matter, we only know of the suggestion. It seems there are at least two plausible motivations:
- Jonah has had a change of heart. He has realized that his choices and actions are a wrecking ball in the lives of the captain and crew. In an altruistic moment, he takes responsibility and offers his life as the solution, as the means of salvation. He is willing to die as he recognizes his guilt before God.
- Jonah is not done running. If Tarshish is not far enough away, then maybe death is. He would rather die than obey God and be part of a potential rescue of the people of Nineveh from their sins.
The tempest rages, the crew prays, each to his own god, the cargo is being tossed overboard in an attempt to save the ship that is in danger of breaking up. Jonah is curled up in a corner below decks fast asleep.
6 The captain came to him and said, “What are you doing asleep? Rise up, call upon your God! Perhaps God will be mindful of us so that we may not perish.” (Jonah 1:6) Did the captain go looking for Jonah? I suspect not. I think he is below deck to see what other cargo can be tossed overboard when he stumbles upon Jonah asleep. Everyone else is working to save the ship, save themselves. The captain, exasperated shouts out “What are you doing asleep?” Seriously, dude, get your sorry self up and if you’re not going to lend a hand to help us, at least “call upon your God!” We’ve shot-gunned our prayers across a whole passel of gods seeing if we can appeal to the god behind this storm. “Perhaps God will be mindful of us so that we may not perish.” (Given that he is sea captain, there were no doubt some “salty” words mixed in the middle.) Continue reading
“But Jonah made ready to flee to Tarshish, away from the LORD. He went down to Joppa, found a ship going to Tarshish, paid the fare, and went down in it to go with them to Tarshish, away from the LORD.” (Jonah 1:3) So much for the son of faithfulness (Amittai).
Why run away? The wickedness of Nineveh. Would you want to go? Fear seems like a healthy reaction to avoid this mission. But there is more to it. For this we have to peek ahead to Chapter 4 (spoiler alert!). At the end of Chapter 3 the king and the entire city of Nineveh has heard Jonah preach against it and repented. “When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out.” (Jonah 3:10)
This is the word of the LORD that came to Jonah, son of Amittai” (Jonah 1:1)
Such is the traditional opening of God reaching out to communicate the divine will to a prophet. The 1st century hearers would have been attuned to the opening and then jolted by the verse’s end: Jonah son of Amittai. Nationalistic feelings ran deep in their memory. This name brought to mind the prophet of the Northern Kingdom, which had seceded from Judah and Davidic rule after the reign of Solomon. Unlike the prophets Amos and Hosea, Jonah did not rage against the sins and misdeed to tribes to the north and their rebel kings. Rather he prophesized the expansion of the rebel kingdom’s frontiers under King Jeroboam II, the thirteenth king of the north (mid-8th century BCE): Continue reading
There are several historical references that one encounters while reading the Book of Jonah. Rather than include this detail in later posts when the references appear, I thought it good to provide some details early on. The setting of the book is a period of Israel’s history when there is a lot going on – inside and outside the traditional boundaries of the Promised Land. The Kingdom of David had split into the Northern Kingdom (confusingly called Israel and consisting of 10 tribes) and the Southern Kingdom (called Judah consisting of two tribes) still loyal to the throne of David and centered in Jerusalem. Beyond the borders was the ever-looming threat of the Assyrian Empire whose capita city was Nineveh. It was located in the area of modern-day Mosul in Northern Iraq. Compared to Israel, it is to the northeast at some distance.