As with the book of Job, the book of Jonah also comes to us as a kind of folk tale or parable, not obviously linked with a particular historical context. As with Job, one possible scenario for Jonah is that it was written in the post-exilic era in ancient Israel meant to challenge conventional wisdom.
During this time, for understandable reasons, the Israelites focused on their internal life, hoping to establish a clear sense of identity and to sustain their communal existence in this uncertain time following the destruction of their nation-state and Solomon’s great temple. However, if we take Jonah as a response to this emphasis, we may see that there were dangers of becoming too insular, too concerned simply with establishing boundary lines that fostered an attitude to hostility toward those outside the community and, perhaps more seriously, a reducing of God to a tribal God limited simply to the confines of the people Israel. If this problem was present, the message of the book of Jonah focuses on reminding the people that Yahweh is the God of the whole world who has called Israel to be a people in order to be a channel for the blessing of all the families of the earth (Gen 12:1-3).
According to the story in the book of Jonah, God asked prophet Jonah to preach in Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, one of the worst, most oppressive empires in the ancient Near East. Jonah’s attitude toward God’s call was basically – no way am I going to feel compassion for those heathen in Nineveh. Jonah refused to go to Nineveh. But God won’t let Jonah off the hook, and ends up trying to teach Jonah a lesson.
The book of Jonah was probably written during the time after the people of Israel had returned from exile in Babylon. These Israelites were self-protective. They were prone to narrowness, defensiveness, hostility toward surrounding people. The book of Jonah, though, offers an alternative to separatism and fearfulness. The book of Jonah offers a prophetic cry that our God is not limited to us. Our God, a God of love and mercy, is loving and merciful toward the entire world, even the bad guys.
We read in the first few verses of the book that Jonah has a problem. He was privileged to receive a direct call from God – “Go to Nineveh and preach against its wickedness.” We read elsewhere in the Old Testament how wicked Nineveh was. The book of the prophet Nahum is titled “an oracle concerning Nineveh.” The entire book is a vision Nahum had concerning the destruction of Nineveh. It concludes: “Everyone who hears the news about you claps his hands at your fall, for who has not felt your endless cruelty?” (Nahum 3:19).
So Jonah is being called to prophesy against one of ancient Israel’s worst ever enemies. “But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish” (1:3). Tarshish was way west of Israel, in the general area of Spain. God wanted Jonah to go east to Nineveh, but Jonah took off the opposite direction to the western reaches of the known world.
We aren’t told right away why Jonah ran. But, later, in 4:2, Jonah says that the reason he ran away was because he was afraid that God would not destroy Nineveh. Even this terrible oppressor might repent and find mercy with God – something Jonah couldn’t accept. So, Jonah’s responded by opting out. He simply refused God’s call and “ran away from the Lord.”
The Lord, however, turned Jonah every way but loose. God simply would not let Jonah go. Jonah got on a ship going west and was below the deck sleeping when the Lord “sent a great wind on the sea,” causing a violent storm. The sailors on the ship were decent, god-fearing people who “each cried out to his own god,” while Jonah – the only one who knew the true God – remained asleep. The captain finally wakes Jonah up and tells him to pray to Jonah’s god.
It soon became clear that Jonah’s rebelliousness caused the storm. He offers to be thrown overboard (and certainly drown) in order to save the ship. The sailors, being moral people, didn’t want to do that but quickly realized that they had no choice. Jonah knew that he was guilty and was ready to accept God’s punishment.
The sailors throw Jonah overboard, and the sea immediately calms. Then, we read, the sailors “greatly feared the Lord, and offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him” (1:16). In spite of Jonah’s rebelliousness, God used him to help these sailors, these “outsiders” encounter God. God responds graciously even to the gentile sailors.
Jonah goes overboard, but he does not drown. The Lord “provided a great fish to swallow Jonah” (1:17). Jonah, in spite of his stubbornness, finds mercy. Jonah is saved from death and given another chance to do God’s will. He had rejected God’s call and run away, but God didn’t write him off. God pursued Jonah. God chastised Jonah with the storm and being tossed to sea. Then, God rescued Jonah with the great fish.
Jonah finally reaches the point of praying to the Lord, after all his running (2:2-9): “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry….You brought my life up from the pit, O Lord my God….I, with a song of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you….Salvation comes from the Lord.”
So Jonah turns again to the Lord. He recognizes God’s mercy for him as an individual and he trusts in God. So the Lord has the fish spit Jonah onto dry land. Jonah is given a second chance.
In many ways Jonah’s story is the story of ancient Israel. Israel ran away from its calling to be a light to the nations. The Hebrews became like other nations in their trusting in weapons of war, in their taking on oppressive social structures that left the few rich and the many poor. And they suffered terrible consequences.
However, as with Israel, God did not reject Jonah. God sent the fish to rescue him. We see in 2 Isaiah that even amidst the rubble of exile, Israel rediscovered God as a God of love and mercy. This story of Jonah challenges Israel to remember their calling to be a light to the nations – they still can fulfill this calling as a response to God’s mercy.
After Jonah’s rescue from the deeps, God gives him another chance. “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you” (3:1). This time Jonah obeys. He goes to Nineveh and preaches what God told him – “Forty more days and Nineveh will be destroyed” (3:4).
Jonah’s unwillingness to go to Nineveh was based on his fear that the Ninevites might actually repent. And if they did, the Lord, who Jonah knows is a “gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (4:2), might actually respond to the Ninevites’ repentance by withholding destruction. Jonah hated the Ninevites too much to want that to happen.
Just as Jonah feared, the Ninevites do repent. They “believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth” (3:5). Somehow God’s message broke through to them, moving them to repentance even as Jonah – God’s messenger – desired their destruction. The “godless Ninevites,” the “focus of evil” in their world, indeed, the “evil empire” of the time, were not beyond the pale. They were not outside the merciful care of God.
Also, as Jonah had feared, “when God saw what [the Ninevites] did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened” (3:10). The purpose of the threat of destruction was that the Ninevites might repent. It was never inevitable that they would be destroyed. The door was always open, at least a crack, should they truly repent.
The Ninevites did repent and God showed them mercy. Amazingly enough, Jonah’s response was to get ticked off. He “was greatly displeased and became angry” (4:1). This is particularly amazing since very recently Jonah himself had received God’s mercy. He had been cast off of the ship to certain death and God had miraculously rescued him and given him a second chance.
Jonah fails to see that “mercy for me” implies mercy for everyone. Jonah actually no more deserved salvation than did the Ninevites. The children of Israel no more deserved God’s mercy than did the Gentiles. Yet they seemed to think that they did. Many came to see their calling as something meant merely to benefit themselves. They forgot that their calling was so that they could be a light to the nations. In their quest for purity, they put self-survival above being agents of God’s mercy for the entire world.
Right from the start, this was a problem for Christians, too. In Romans 11:17-21 among other places, Paul reprimands Gentile Christians for their pride regarding their salvation: If you, purely by God’s mercy, have been added to the covenant, don’t take that for granted and become arrogant. Don’t think that you are better than others on the outside. God still loves them, too.
The calling of the people of God has always been that of being a light to the nations. We are not called by God merely so that we can stay within ourselves and find contentment. We are called so that we can show love for all of creation. The story of Jonah highlights our tendency to distort that call.
Jonah did not really want God to act consistently with God being “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love” (4:2). He hoped that God was actually an angry God, a God who delights in punishing God’s supposed enemies. But that kind of God would have been a projection of Jonah’s own hatreds and desires. The true God is not after some kind of eye-for-an-eye equilibrium, where every sin merits equally severe punishment. Rather, the true God desires healing, restoration of relationships, genuine peace.
The true God has compassion on the tens of thousands of Ninevites “who cannot tell their right hand from their left” (4:11). He desires that they be freed from their bondage to sin and death.
The book ends with God asking Jonah a question–one that remains an open question, unanswered for us: “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (4:11). That is, “Should the mercy I’ve given you not extend to your enemies? Should the mercy I’ve given you not extend to the bad guys?”…
Jonah is scandalized by God’s mercy. When he experiences God’s mercy extending past the boundary lines he’d placed on it, boundary lines which seemingly included only Jonah himself and his people. When God’s mercy goes beyond those boundaries, Jonah is exposed.
Jonah is exposed as being self-righteous, more concerned with his own narrow loyalties than loyalty to God’s all-embracing love. Jonah accepts God’s mercy and yet desires that others don’t receive it. He is implying that he deserves it more than they do, that something about him is more righteous than those others.
Jonah’s problem was his pride. This book tells us that the ignorant sinners mired in the midst of wickedness more easily perceived God’s mercy than the proud, religiously-aware, essentially pure prophet. Nineveh repents and Jonah does not. He’s too proud to.
For all of us, God’s question to Jonah remains God’s question to us: “Should I not be concerned for this great city?” God’s mercy demands that we who have received it as good news be changed by it, that we who are loved by God in turn love like God loves.
One test of how we measure up to Jonah is to ask what we think of when we think of God being angry. Who is God most likely to be angry at? Terrible sinners out there in the world? Maybe, but the book of Jonah is not alone in encouraging us not to be so sure.
I’ll just briefly mention three of God’s other spokesmen, who write of God’s anger. The prophet Amos proclaimed: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps” (5:21-23). Amos expresses anger toward “insiders,” pious, religiously-active people in ancient Israel who were acting unmercifully toward weak and marginal people in their society.
Much later, the Apostle Paul wrote some strong words to the Galatians: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?…Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing [the gospel] you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so much for nothing? (3:1-4). Paul is challenging the most zealous, rigorous people in the church of Galatia who were adding requirements to the free grace of the gospel of Christ.
A third example is from Jesus himself. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is those you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides!” (Mt 23:23-24). For the sake of purity and self-righteousness, the religious leaders stifled God’s grace.
Time after time we read in the Bible that what truly upsets God, much more than the sins of the pagan world, are the ways people of faith hinder the expression of God’s mercy. Amos, Paul, Jesus – like the story of Jonah – all make the point that God’s mercy is for everyone who needs it. When we who know about God withhold that mercy, desire ill for others, seek to elevate ourselves at the expense of those we look down upon we – more than anything else we might do – violate God’s will for our lives.