The story of Jonah has captured the imagination of the church from its earliest days, beginning with early Christian art. In spite of its popularity, Christians through the centuries have never agreed on the interpretation of this four-chapter narrative placed in the middle of the Bible's twelve Minor Prophets (note: the author’s translation is employed unless otherwise indicated).
As a character, Jonah seems to many readers a model of disobedience and stubbornness rather than the traditional prophetic virtues of obedience and responsiveness. Indeed, many have thought of Jonah as included to provide a negative example.
Others have tried to find something positive in the main character. One such effort is found in Hermann Melville’s 1851 classic novel Moby Dick. Father Mapple, the chaplain, preaching to a congregation of whalemen: “Shipmates, I do not place Jonah before you to be copied for his sin but I do place him before you as a model for repentance. Sin not; but if you do, take heed to repent of it like Jonah.” Unfortunately for this sermon, the narrative does not indicate that Jonah repented.
The Christian church did not originally look on Jonah as a negative figure. Motivated by Matthew 12:40-41, many of the early church writers saw Jonah as a “type” of Christ. The story of Jonah, as swallowed by a great fish and then “resurrected” after three days and nights, functioned frequently as a type of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Of course Jonah’s unsavory reputation did not entirely escape early interpreters. Origen (c. 182–251 CE) noted that Jonah was swallowed for his disobedience, whereas Jesus was “swallowed” for obedience.
Jonah’s reputation had deteriorated by the time of the Protestant Reformation. Luther reflected the opinion about Jonah as it had developed through the Middle Ages. For Luther, this was the story of the patience of God and the disobedience and obstinacy of Jonah. Many current readers arrive at the same conclusion.
As in our own day, the ancient writers did not agree on the interpretation. Jerome (347–420 CE), perhaps the ablest biblical scholar in the ancient church, scolded Jonah for some of his behavior. Be that as it may, Jerome insisted that Jonah’s actions reflected his love of and care for his people, who were threatened with violent destruction by Assyria. Jerome’s interpretation has reemerged as one legitimate way to read the narrative. Jerome’s discussion of the narrative is suggestive in another way. This story features two characters: first, Jonah, whose love for his people pushed him to insist on justice. The second figure featured in all four scenes is God. In the final scene God and Jonah finally talk with each other. God has not and will not abandon Jonah. But neither will God simply let Jonah remain as he is. God pushes Jonah to see more: both his people’s suffering and God’s grace.
Origin, Form, and Features of the Narrative
Jonah comes to us as one of several short stories in the Old Testament. Several of the short stories have been preserved as individual books, e.g., Ruth, Esther, and Daniel, along with Tobit and Judith (found in the Bibles used in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches). Other narratives, like the Joseph story (Gen 37–50), have been incorporated into longer books.
The genre “short story” asks that each reader be open to enjoy, experience, and learn from the narrative. That learning cannot be prescribed ahead of time. Its discernment and application is entrusted to the community of faith. Indeed, candid and careful listening to Jonah's story may open our eyes and ears, enabling us to hear similar voices in our time.
No proposal concerning the date of Jonah has proven convincing. Some have insisted that Jonah belongs to the Persian period after the Babylonian exile (sixth to fourth centuries BCE). They base this dating on the observation that the narrative may contain words from the era when Aramaic was the common Semitic language. The phrase the “king of Nineveh” instead of the “king of Assyria” they feel points to a later date. Further study has challenged the correctness and/or value of those observations for dating the narrative.
The closest we can come to accurate dating depends upon two references in the biblical canon. The earliest reference to “Jonah son of Amattai” appears in 2 Kings 14:25, which is dated in the eighth century BCE. The eighth century saw the Assyrian conquest and occupation of Israel and Judah except for Jerusalem. At the other extreme, the reference in Ben Sira (Sirach) to the “book of twelve” prophets indicates that Jonah was a part of the prophetic books by the second century BCE.
Therefore, as with most of the short stories, Jonah cannot be dated with much precision. In addition, we always must be cautious about ascribing a certain date to a narrative that may have circulated as an oral story before it became a written document. Ancient Israel was an oral culture. The “stories of the faith” were passed on orally from village to village and generation to generation. Literacy was largely confined to the temple and the palace.
Specific narrative elements organize the various parts of this short story. Perhaps most noticeable is the nearly identical wording found in Jonah 1:1-3 and 3:1-3a. In both of those units, the “word of the Lord” comes to Jonah instructing him to go to Nineveh (1:2; 3:2). These two speeches of God divide the narrative in half. For both part one (1:1—2:10) and part two (3:1—4:11), Jonah's response to the divine instruction determines the subsequent action in that section.
The locations of the action in the two sections of the story provide a second organizational element. Jonah's decision to go to Tarshish by ship places the subsequent action “on” the sea (1:4-16). The scene changes to in or “under” the sea when Jonah leaves the ship (1:15), and the second scene in the first half takes place “under” the sea (1:17–2:10) [Heb. 2:1-11].
Jonah is “vomited” back on land at the beginning of Part 2. Following his second commissioning, Jonah does go to Nineveh (3:3a), moving the action into the city (3:3b-10). Then Jonah leaves the city, and the final drama takes place “outside” the city (4:1-11).
In Biblical Hebrew narrative, the tension that powers the plot appears in the very beginning. Jonah 1:1-3 with its parallel in 3:1-3a establishes the tension in the story. God commissions Jonah as a messenger to Nineveh. This work is complete at the end of chapter 3. Jonah has gone to Nineveh and delivered a message. The Ninevites repented and God decided not to carry out the planned destruction. The narrative tension has been resolved.
However, uncharacteristically for most Hebrew narrative, this story has yet another scene, outside the city and beyond the main plot. While the story is over for God and the Ninevites, it is not over for Jonah. This addendum disrupts the “happy ending.” The flow of the plot isolates chapter 4, emphasizing the isolation expressed by Jonah's wish for death (4:3, 9). Those readers who have been similarly victimized by violence and oppression will doubtless feel with Jonah. Everyone is satisfied, except for one person. Jonah sits alone.
Summary and Comment
Commissioning of Jonah, 1:1-2
The narrative begins on an unexpected note: a dispute between God and Jonah. The opening words are customary in prophetic texts: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah.” Jonah receives a traditional divine commissioning: “Get up and go.” Jonah is to go to Nineveh.
Nineveh was “great,” i.e., large and important, and housed a people known by God as “evil.” The words “great” and “evil” tell us all we need to know about Nineveh for the purposes of this narrative. “Evil” (Heb. ra'ah) and “great” (Heb. gadol) reappear frequently in various forms throughout the story. Storm, fish, and anger, along with Nineveh, are described as “great.” Hence the story points to some element in every episode of the story as unusually large or intense. The repetition of the word “great” contributes to the humor, danger, and pathos of the narrative.
The word “evil” appears in every scene, except chapter 2. Sometimes the word “evil” is employed in a way we find quite unexpected. Therefore, when God intends “evil” (3:10), translations usually select a word very different from “evil” (NRSV: “calamity”; NIV: “destruction”). Jonah, as well as God, is associated with the word “evil” (4:1, 2, 6). “Evil” also appears in connection with Jonah’s rage (4:1). He does not do evil, but “great evil” seizes Jonah (NRSV: “this was very displeasing”; NIV: “greatly displeased”). Even as Nineveh, God. and Jonah are connected by the word “great,” so also they are bound together in a web of “evil.”
Jonah’s Reluctance, 1:3
Following the commissioning speech of God (1:1-2), the narrative takes an unexpected turn. Jonah says nothing. He prepares for the journey as God directs. But instead of going where he was told to go, Jonah flees!
Reluctance on the part of an individual receiving a divine commission is not at all uncommon in the Bible. Moses, Gideon, and Jeremiah all responded to God's commissioning by raising objections, usually based on their personal inadequacy (Exod 3:11; 4:10; Judg 6:15; Jer 1:6). However, they were all eventually persuaded to accept their responsibility.
Jonah said nothing but ran the other direction. The direction of Jonah's flight was “down.” Indeed this will be the direction of Jonah's movement until he ends up in the belly of a great fish.
We don’t know what Jonah was thinking. The narrator leaves Jonah’s inner thoughts to readers’ imagination. Perhaps Jonah believed he could escape God's domain. But that seems unlikely. Jonah's own confession of faith (“I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land,” 1:9) suggests that Jonah knew he couldn’t escape God’s presence. Jonah just doesn’t explain his flight, at least not yet.
Interpreters have speculated about Jonah's refusal. Generally, these speculations have been very critical of Jonah. Often he has been accused of being narrow-minded, even bigoted against Gentiles. The text gives us no reason to ascribe bigotry to Jonah’s motive for refusing to comply with God’s instructions. Nor dare we conclude, as some have, that Jonah, the Jew, objected to the conversion of Gentiles. Jonah showed no antagonism to the Gentile sailors (2:4-16). He volunteered to be thrown into the sea to save them. Unfortunately, we often ascribe a character flaw to the person whose action we judge to be unacceptable.
Drama on the Sea, 1:4-16
The sea will continue to be the location of the story until 2:10 [Heb. v. 11], when Jonah is delivered back on land. We have been told only that Jonah went on board “and headed/sailed to Tarshish” (1:3).
We don’t know the exact location of Tarshish. Many interpreters locate Tarshish on the west coast of Spain. However, the various places for which the Bible uses the name point in many different directions. All the references to Tarshish have two elements in common: getting to Tarshish always requires a sea voyage; Tarshish was a long way from Israel. For this story it is enough to know that it was not the location to which God directed Jonah.
Jonah 1:4-16 begins and ends the sailors' story. They have a problem familiar to sailors: a storm at sea. Like sailors throughout history, they assume the storm to be of divine origin. In this case they were right. They prayed earnestly in midst of the storm and gave thanks at the end (1:16). However, this simple tale of sailors on a dangerous sea functions as an episode in a different drama, one involving God and Jonah.
God hurled a “mighty” (Heb.: gadol) wind that powered a “violent” (Heb.: gadol) storm on the sea (1:4). The action of God is described with the same adjective as used elsewhere to describe a city (Nineveh, 1:3), a fish (1:17), even evil/anger (4:1). The terrified sailors responded by praying and hurling cargo overboard to lighten the ship. Quite likely, earlier readers would have sensed the humor in sailors indiscriminately hurling cargo overboard to make the ship lighter, thus less stable!
Meanwhile the object of all the divine attention lay fast asleep below the deck of a ship that “thought itself to be breaking up” (1:4)! Jonah's was not an ordinary sleep. The Hebrew word niredam describes the very deepest sleep. Some interpreters sense in this action the first indication of Jonah's desire to die, which he pursued further in his choice to be thrown overboard and then finally confirmed by his own words (4:2). That imagery became even more explicit in his prayer from the fish (Jon 2).
The astonished captain found Jonah fast asleep. He demanded that Jonah “get up and cry out” (1:6) similar to the words God had used in directing Jonah to Nineveh (1:2). The story doesn’t say whether Jonah did what the captain asked. Jonah still hasn’t said a word!
The sailors decided to “cast lots” to determine who was responsible for this calamity. Casting lots to discover the divine intention occurred throughout the ancient Near East. Casting lots involved different objects in various locations and times. We are not told what it involved in this case. All we know is that the “lot” pointed to Jonah. The sailors peppered Jonah with a barrage of questions, and he finally spoke, answering a question only partially related to what they asked: “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land” (1:9).
Perhaps Jonah realized all along that he could not run away from the One who made the sea and the land. Indeed Jonah later declared that he knew God's character before he ever left home (4:2). Be that as it may, Jonah's confession of faith recognizes that the sea would provide him no escape.
The sailors asked Jonah what they should do to calm the sea. Jonah told them to “hurl” him into the sea and predicted the sea would then become calm (1:12). The men wanted nothing to do with taking innocent blood (1:13-14). But repeatedly failing to get the ship to shore, they did what Jonah advised: “they picked up Jonah and hurled him overboard” (1:15). The sea indeed became quiet, and the episode ends with the men worshiping the One who quieted the sea.
So who is Jonah? Some consider him a rogue who thought drowning would finally enable him to escape. Maybe he was clinically depressed and wanted to commit suicide? Some go the other way suggesting he was in fact a man of faith willing to give up his life for the innocent sailors. Maybe he was a more complex person than any label will cover. The end of the story will provide more insight into his motivation if not his character.
Drama under the Sea, 1:17–2:10
This brings us to the best known and most controversial section of Jonah. The discussion about Jonah and the great fish is often reduced to either/or: either it’s an historical report or a literary drama. One side seeks to protect the historical accuracy of the Bible as the criterion for truth. The other side, insisting on the integrity of academic study, asserts that, while the historical accuracy is unlikely, this is a “truth” story. Finally, we cannot prove whether or not this is an historical record of Jonah's undersea adventure. One suspects that if we could, we would not be any closer to the truth of the story.
Scholarly debate has focused not on the fish, but on the origin of the psalm in Jonah 2:2-9. Some scholars insist that the psalm was a later addition to the narrative; others conclude it belongs to the original composition. This question too cannot be finally answered.
The poem is a song of thanksgiving in the narrative where one would expect either a lament and/or a prayer of petition. Hence many suggest that the psalm was inserted, perhaps to cast Jonah in a more favorable light. Others insist that language and themes of the psalm connect so well with the prose narrative, that we need not assume that this was a later expansion of the story. More recent emphasis on the literary character of biblical narrative has convinced many scholars to treat the psalm as an integral part of the story, without answering the question of exactly when the psalm might have been included. So far as we know, the text of both the synagogue and the church has always included this psalm.
The unit contains a prayer by Jonah (2:1-9) bracketed by narrative statements describing God's instruction to the fish (1:17; 2:10). The prayer itself follows the traditional form of a psalm of thanksgiving. After a praise introduction, the psalm of thanksgiving describes a situation of distress and danger followed by divine deliverance. In this psalm, like most thanksgiving psalms, the description of distress and deliverance uses traditional poetic language rather than referring to specific events.
Prompted by our curiosity, many readers wish for more information about the “fish” than the biblical narrative provides. The Hebrew text simply designates the animal a great (gadol) fish (dag). The Greek translation seems to have in mind a whale (Greek: katos). Most current readers picture a whale swallowing Jonah, a picture reinforced by the popular children's story, The Adventures of Pinocchio, by the Italian author Carlo Collodi. Earlier Christian artists portrayed not a whale but a mythical sea monster.
Perhaps more important than the species of the fish is the purpose of the fish. Was the fish an agent of divine punishment, sent to devour Jonah? Or was the fish an agent of divine deliverance, sent to rescue Jonah from drowning? Either is possible. On the one hand, the word “swallow” (bala') can refer to a hostile action often by God (e.g., Ps 21:9). However, the narrative does not use a hostile word to designate the sea animal, simply “fish,” rather than sea monster (e.g., leviathan). We have no idea whether or not God intended to punish Jonah. God's only expressed intention was for Jonah to go to Nineveh (1:2). For that reason, it seems likely the fish here acts as an agent of divine delivery, not punishment.
In the prayer, Jonah assumed that he has tangled directly with God. The threat of death was God’s doing (2:3). Jonah recalled his own words of pain and isolation: “Then I said, ‘I have been driven away from your sight. How will I ever look again on your sacred temple?’” (2:4). The poem likens this distress to being buried under the huge primeval sea (2:5): “the deep (tehom) surrounded me.”
The description of Jonah’s distress ends as the poem began: “my prayer came to you, to your sacred temple” (2:7). The psalm concludes with a traditional promise to fulfill one’s responsibility to God followed by an affirmation of faith: “Deliverance belongs to the Lord” (2:9 NRSV). Then at God’s direction the fish “vomited Jonah onto dry land” (2:10).
The Recommissioning of Jonah, 3:1-3a
Chapter 3 brings us back to where the drama began. We may or may not have returned to the exact geographical location. We do not know where this commissioning happened. However, in terms of the relationship between God and Jonah, we have returned to the same “spot.” Jonah’s attempt to flee from the urgency of his vocation had not succeeded.
In many respects, God's commissioning speech echoes the first (1:2 and 3:2): “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city” (NRSV). Jonah's instruction and destination remain the same. However, the reason for Jonah's trip to Nineveh has changed, or at least God's words do not repeat verbatim what was said before, as we see if we compare the two:
Cry out against it, for their wickedness has come up before me (1:2) Proclaim to it the message that I tell you (3:2)
This second word from God omits the exact content of the message. Rather than “cry out against” Nineveh, God instructs the prophet to “speak to” Nineveh the divine words. We are left to wonder what exactly God will tell Jonah to say. Perhaps the same message as before; perhaps not. We’ll hear what Jonah does say in Nineveh (3:4), but we will not know for sure if he spoke according to the word of the Lord.
One thing has not changed. We still have not heard from Jonah. All we have is the narrator's report of Jonah's action. Whether through divine coercion or because running away failed, Jonah went to Nineveh. Many speculate that Jonah chose to go to Nineveh because his attitude had changed. That seems unlikely as we will see in chapter 4. As we saw in chapter 2, we have no indication that Jonah confessed his sin or changed his attitude. He simply expressed his confidence in God as deliverer (2:9).
The Drama in the City, 3:3b-11
After the recommissioning, the narrative scene quickly moves to Nineveh. We are not told how Jonah got to Nineveh nor how long the trip took. However, we find ourselves suddenly looking at the enormous city of Nineveh. It takes three days to walk across Nineveh. This city and its vicinity will be the location of the story until the end, although the action shifts to outside the city in chapter 4.
This episode is carried along by a traditional model of the prophetic task. This model constitutes one biblical paradigm of the successful prophet. In brief, the traditional prophetic success story includes three steps: (a) an announcement by a prophet of divine judgment or disaster; (b) response of repentance by the people; and (c) forgiveness and/or restoration by God.
The narrator tells us that Jonah “began to go into the city” (3:4a NRSV). If we take the narrator's word in this regard, we won’t picture Jonah speaking to various groups and officials throughout the city. Instead, as the narrator indicates, Jonah went just one day into a “three day city.” Clearly Jonah carried out his prophetic responsibility, but only with a minimal effort. If we assume the city center to have been in the middle of Nineveh, then Jonah didn’t even go that far.
Jonah's announcement consists of five Hebrew words: “Only forty days, Nineveh [will be] overthrown” (3:4). We find here a very brief announcement of disaster. There is no statement of the reason for the impending disaster, for example, the “evil” in the city (1:2). Nor is there a call for repentance. In fact the announcement does not even identify the method or agent of this disaster. It seems fair to say that Jonah's prophetic activity represents a minimal effort by a reluctant prophet.
However, Jonah's minimal effort achieves maximum results. In fact amazing does not even sound adequate to describe the response of the people of Nineveh. After the five word announcement of disaster, the people “believed God” (3:5).
Although Jonah's announcement didn’t invite a response, the people of Nineveh publicly proclaimed a fast as a ritual of confession, repentance, and shame. The ritual included activities of humiliation, such as wearing clothes of dishonor (sackcloth) and sitting in a place of shame (e.g., ashes).
It’s hard to explain the response of the king. On the one hand, the king's behavior may appear exemplary. However, the narrator provides a ponderous picture of the king of Nineveh rising from the throne, removing his royal robes, putting on the clothes of repentance, and sitting in the ashes of shame (3:6).
Then the scene takes a comic turn. The king, after conferring with his advisors, proclaimed a ritual fast, like the one already called and carried out by the people. Yet the king outdid the people. He not only included the entire human community, but the animals as well (3:7). And he included abstinence from water as well as food! It may be that the narrative laughs a bit at the king's ponderous piety. The people had already done what was appropriate. The king's action adds little but extravagance.
Be that as it may, the king's proclamation does make explicit the purpose behind the ritual of confession and fasting. He directed everyone to “turn from their evil ways and their violence” (3:8b). First God (1:2) and now the king have described the way of life in Nineveh as “evil” (Heb. raʽah). Indeed, the stories and pictures preserved from the Assyrian Empire, and Nineveh in particular, emphasize the violence that accompanied their conquests. The proclamation concludes with the hope that God would turn back and repent (naḥam) from anger, “so that we will not die” (3:9). We are not used to thinking of God as “repenting.” In fact, most translations use other words, like “relent” or “change his mind” (see NIV, NRSV).
The hope of the people of Nineveh became God's decision. Motivated by their turning away from “evil,” God “repented” from planned “evil.” The “evil” (NRSV: “calamity”;,NIV: “destruction”) that God planned would not happen.
Obviously, we find here two different nuances for the word “evil” (raʽah). With regard to the Ninevites, “evil” refers to their violent and wicked actions. However, the same word describes God's intended action of judgment. In one sense these are two very different things, human wickedness and divine judgment. Nevertheless, they both participate in the web of evil violence and destruction that connected everyone.
The story of God's case against Nineveh is over. The tension that drove the narrative from the first sentence is resolved. For God and for Nineveh that concludes the story—but not for Jonah.
The Drama outside the City, 4:1-11
Chapter 4 brings an abrupt change. For the first time Jonah defines the agenda. God’s decision concerning Nineveh, to replace judgment with compassion, has caused “great evil” to come upon Jonah. Now Jonah inserts himself into the web of “evil” that has connected the various characters in the drama.
Nineveh’s evil that had come before God and affected God's own intentions has been resolved in (the people’s) confession and (God’s) compassion. How can Jonah not rejoice? We find it very easy to condemn a person who is angry with the resolution of a conflict. Such a quick censure of Jonah may be premature. God does not dismiss Jonah as easily as we often do. Perhaps we should really hear what the angry prophet has to say.
Apparently Jonah had already anticipated the outcome of the drama in Nineveh. Jonah understood God very well. From song and sacred liturgy Jonah had been taught that compassion, mercy, and unending love lie deep in the divine soul (4:2; cf. Exod 34:6; Num 14:18; Deut 4:31; Joel 2:13). God has seen that Israel bears the scars of Nineveh's evil. Jonah had feared all along that God would let compassion override justice: “it would be better for me to die than to live” (4:3b).
God did not take on the agenda as Jonah had voiced in his complaint. Instead, God responded to Jonah with a question: “Is your anger justified?” (4:4). We ought not to read this as a rhetorical question that presumes that answer, “No.” This question will carry the narrative to the very end. At this point Jonah did not reply.
Jonah had built a booth (4:5). Many have suggested that Jonah's booth was inadequate: a few stones and dead leaves, perhaps. However, the narrative does not describe the booth. The narrative tells us only that God's action provided relief that Jonah's booth did not. For Jonah’s booth, the narrative uses the same word that identifies the shelters built for the Festival of Booths (Lev 23:39-43; Neh 8:13-18). This autumnal harvest festival commemorated God's protection and care for Israel in the wilderness. As Jerome (347–420 CE) recognized centuries ago, Jonah's concern also involved divine care and protection for God’s people. Would God respond with justice given the atrocities of Assyria against Jonah’s (and God’s) people?
The plant transformed Jonah's “great evil” (4:1) into “great joy” (4:6). Why did this enable Jonah to move from suicidal depression to ecstasy? Often we assume that the plant satisfied Jonah's selfish concern for his own comfort. More likely Jonah experienced God's plant as a reaffirmation of the divine promise of protection. In building a sacred booth celebrating God's protection of Israel, Jonah remembered God's justice in the past and longed for it in the present: Jonah was “waiting to see what would become of the city” (4:5 NRSV).
Yet at Jonah’s moment of joy, disaster struck. The plant died leaving Jonah unprotected from sun and scorching wind (4:7-8). Jonah repeated his earlier conclusion: “It would be better for me to die than to live.” God then repeats the same question in this context: “Is your anger concerning the shrub justified?” (4:9a). Now Jonah responds: “Yes! I’m so angry I want to die!” (4:9b).
However, God intended the episode with the shrub not as vindictive, but as instructive (4:10-11). The shrub came to Jonah as a gift from God, not as something Jonah had earned. Jonah’s “compassion and sympathy” for the shrub reaffirmed “compassion and sympathy” as a legitimate basis for divine action.
God concludes with a typical argument from lesser to greater (cf. Matt 12:9-14): Jonah cared about the shrub; God cared about Nineveh. As Abraham Heschel observes, God's answer asserts the supremacy of compassion, even if that put at risk the neat coherence of God's world (Heschel: 67). Divine compassion can seem to undermine that coherence, grounded in justice and fairness. Compassion and forgiveness elicit outrage when we want justice.
Conclusion and the Anabaptist Tradition
Over the centuries, readers have heard a wide variety of messages from their study of Jonah. The interpretation of Jonah as protest literature has a long history. Readers have heard the narrative portraying Jonah as narrow minded, one whose care does not extend beyond himself and his people. The story certainly pictures God as anxious to extend forgiveness beyond the boundaries frequently established by religious, ethnic, and national communities. However, on the ship Jonah shows no signs of prejudice against the non-Israelites. There seems to be more going on in Jonah than religious or national prejudice.
Other readers have suggested that Jonah was worried about his own vocation as a prophet. Deuteronomy 18:22 defines a false prophet: “If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken” (NRSV). Nineveh’s continued existence may undermine Jonah’s prophetic credentials. However, Jonah does not complain to God about his image as a prophet. Jonah relates his anger to God’s character: “gracious and compassionate . . . , slow to anger, constant in faithful love, and ready to reverse a decision to destroy” (4:2).
Like other Christians, Anabaptist communities have struggled with the relationship between justice and compassion. This narrative inserts itself into that discussion. Are words and ritual acts of repentance enough to prompt compassion for the people who conquered Israel with terrifying violence? What about the lives of the men and women tortured and children whose lives ended in their mothers’ womb? In the interest of justice, the prophet Nahum calls on God to utterly destroy Assyria. Nahum insists that God will not show compassion to Nineveh.
Justice and fairness function as fundamental values in any community that seeks to promote a good life for everyone. And yet we recognize that justice not moderated by compassion can and does result in revenge and violence. That often results in a spiral of violence justified by all the antagonists as a demand for justice.
In a choice between exacting justice and offering compassion, Anabaptist communities have repeatedly acted out of compassion. For them this is not just a matter of personal values, but is grounded in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In that moment, God acted out of compassion to deliver, to save instead of exacting justice measure for measure. Justice matters. Yet beyond justice lies the mystery of divine compassion.
The narrative ends not with a statement, but with a question. We don’t know Jonah’s answer. God does not answer the question for Jonah or for us. Rather than abandoning the reluctant prophet to his anger and despair, God continues to invite Jonah to see the world differently, not simply reducible to the rule of crime and punishment. Even when those called and commissioned by God stumble again and again, God remains with us. While accepting us as we are, God continues to invite us to grow—in this story, urging Jonah to see both the suffering of his people and the mystery of God’s grace.
Recommended Essays in the Commentary
The Interpreting Community of Faith
Jonah and Historical Analysis
- Brown, Erica. Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet. New Milford, CT: Maggid, 2017.
- Fretheim, Terrence. The Message of Jonah: A Theological Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1977.
- Heschel, Abraham J. The Prophets, vol. 2. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.
- Limburg, James. Jonah. The Old Testament Library. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1993.
- Roop, Eugene F. Ruth, Jonah, Esther. Believers Church Bible Commentary. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2002.
- Simon, Uriel. Jonah. JPS Bible Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1999.
- Stuart, Douglas. Hosea-Jonah. Word Biblical Commentary. Waco, TX: Word, 1987.
- Trible, Phyllis. “The Book of Jonah.” New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 7. Nashville: Abingdon, 1996.
- Tucker, W. Dennis Jr. Jonah: A Handbook on the Hebrew Text. Baylor Handbook on the Hebrew Bible. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2006.
- Wolff, Hans Walter. Obadiah and Jonah. Continental Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1977.
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