Welcome to Bible Fiber where we are encountering the textures and shades of the prophetic tapestry in a year-long study of the twelve minor prophets, one prophet each month. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.
On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo included the prophet Jonah among his series of scenes from the Old Testament. In the painting, Jonah, larger than any of the other Hebrew prophets, is leaning back in an awkward way, looking up at the ceiling itself. Many art analysts have proposed that Jonah was painted as Michelangelo’s alter ego. The prophet’s hands seem poised to hold a paint palette and his body is contorted the same way an artist would have to position himself on a scaffold to look up at the masterpiece. There is something in Jonah’s unabashed self-interest that both ignites the imagination and convicts the conscious. Most readers, with the narrator’s gentle nudging, recognize some part of themselves in the prodigal prophet. As much as Jonah horrifies us, we also identify with his selfishness and narrowmindedness. Michelangelo is unique in that he had the chance and talent to portray his Jonah likeness onto one of the most famous frescoes in Rome, but we are all with him in our reading of chapter four, projecting our own weaknesses onto Jonah, the most flawed of prophets.
In this last chapter, Jonah has completed his commission. Nineveh was put on alert that she had forty days before the city’s destruction. But the unexpected happened. The king and people repented fully and wholeheartedly. The prophetic books have only two episodes of heartfelt repentance in response to God’s messengers, Joel and Jonah. The irony in Jonah is that the authentic spiritual response came from a foreign imperial power that is loathed in every other passage where it makes an appearance in the Bible. Later readers of Jonah would naturally have a bias against Nineveh, the epitome of evil in the history of Israel. But the way the Ninevites repented so humbly also put them above reproach.
Amazingly, God felt compassion for the Ninevites of Jonah’s time and spared the city. In chapter 4, as God’s anger has subsided, Jonah’s anger flares up. He regrets ever having come to Nineveh. He asks Yahweh, “Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (4:2). Jonah had rejected God’s command from the outstart not because he was afraid of the Assyrians or what they may do to him. That is what most readers would have assumed from reading the first chapter, since Jonah’s motivation goes unnamed. No, Jonah did not want to go and preach judgement against Nineveh because he knew there was the possibility that if they repented, God would cancel his judgement. Jonah did not believe the Ninevites deserved the mercy of Yahweh.
At the book’s end, Jonah, our anti-hero, is engaging with God in an almost childish pouty manner. His former revival inside the whale has lapsed and he is back to arguing with God. God asks Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah ignores the question. Jonah leaves the city and goes to the east, the opposite direction from which he entered. Apparently, he is in no hurry to return to Israel. It seems that Jonah is apparently still hopeful that Nineveh may be destroyed, and he wants the best vantage point to witness the event.
Just as God appointed the storm to wake Jonah from his spiritual and literal stupor, and the whale to save Jonah from the seafloor, he appoints a tree to grow up and give Jonah shade. The tree grew quickly overnight like Jack’s beanstalk. According to the text, Jonah is “very happy about the tree” (4:6). The next day, a weevil chews the plant’s roots, leaving it to wither. The sun-exposed prophet is upset. To further his discomfort, God sends a hot wind from the east. With his shade gone, Jonah is suffering and seems to be experiencing heatstroke.
Jonah is unique among the prophets for its rapid series of supernatural events. For this reason, bible scholars have noticed Jonah’s story more closely aligns with the prophets Elijah and Elisha than the rest of the twelve Minor Prophets. Admittedly, Jonah does not hold a candle to Elijah and Elisha, but the supernatural is a frequent part of the stories of all three. We know about the lives and ministries of Elijah and Elisha from the book of Kings. In 1 Kings 19, Elijah ran from the evil queen Jezebel who was bent on killing the true prophets. Elijah begged God, “take my life away” (19:4). Jonah used those exact words while he sat outside the city of Nineveh. Jonah’s narrator seems intentional in his call back to Elijah’s noble moment of anguish, when he was weary of fighting idolatry in the land, and Jonah’s selfish moment of anguish. The pitiable prophet shows he cares more about his lost shade tree than he does an entire nation.
The shriveling tree is an object lesson in hopes of Jonah’s achieving self-revelation. God asks Jonah a different way, a second time, about his anger: “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” (4:9). Jonah responds, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Gently, lovingly, like talking to a child, God explains to Jonah that if he cared so much for a bush that he did not plant or grow, how much more should God care for an entire nation. God made the 120,000 people of Nineveh and its animals. The Ninevites are described as a people who do “not know their right hand from their left” (4:11). This may be a reference to the Ninevites lack of knowledge of Yahweh’s laws. Destroying His own handiwork gives God pain and He is trying to convey that pain to Jonah. Once again, Jonah’s own self-interest blinds him to God’s truth. Jonah was not pained for the lost tree; he was frustrated that the tree could no longer fulfill a purpose to him. The book abruptly ends with God’s question still hanging in the air. We are left to wonder if Jonah ever opened his eyes to the expansiveness of God’s love.
Structure of Jonah
The structure of Jonah is impressive, neatly broken into four tight narrative portions that alternatively parallel each other in obvious ways, chapter one paralleling chapter three and chapter two paralleling chapter 4. In chapter one and three, Jonah engages with pagans, first the sailors and then the people of Nineveh. In chapter two and four, Jonah engages with God alone. In chapters one and three, God rescues pagans from the destruction near at hand. In chapters two and four, God rescues Jonah, first by appointing the whale and then by appointing the shade tree. When God rescued Jonah from drowning, he praised God for his infinite mercy and compassion (2:1-9). But in this last chapter, with Nineveh’s rescue, Jonah sees God’s loving kindness and mercy negatively. The prophet does not want others to receive the same salvation that he received.
Jonah’s selfishness brings Jesus’s parable of the unmerciful servant to mind. In the parable, a king forgave his servant of an enormous amount of debt but that same servant went out and demanded a fellow servant to repay him in full or be thrown in prison (Matt. 18:23-25). Showing mercy to others as we have been shown mercy is a principle first rooted in the Hebrew scriptures and expounded in the New Testament in the teachings of Jesus. Like Jonah, we have all undeservedly been recipients of God’s mercy and compassion. It is not up to us to withhold it from others.
Although Jonah’s actions as a prophet are reprehensible, as is his short sightedness, a little historical background is important to show Jonah might not have been quite as selfish as he seems. Jonah’s fears that the hated Ninevites would be saved may connect to his understanding of the other prophets who were his near contemporaries. The prophet Hosea, for example, had predicted that one day Assyria would overrun Israel (9:3, 6). Perhaps Jonah had hoped that if God destroyed Assyria beforehand, Israel could be spared. Perhaps it was the rescue of the Kingdom of Israel that Jonah had in mind.
During Jonah’s day, Israel was flourishing under Jeroboam II. That flourishing was a direct result of Assyria’s weakening. With Assyria undergoing famine, civil unrest, weak leadership, and military defeat, Israel took advantage of the Assyrian retreat to take back her northern borders. Remember Jonah was the nationalist prophet who had told Jeroboam II that his territory would expand (2 Kgs. 14:25-28). Jonah may have rightly estimated that if Nineveh repented and Assyria resurged, it would be at Israel’s expense. Indeed, Assyria attacked Israel in 712 BCE, not long after Jonah’s visit to Nineveh. The empire’s slash-and-burn policy left the Northern Kingdom a smoking ruin. The ten tribes of Israel were deported and lost to history.
God withheld judgement of Nineveh for a time. Their repentant response to Jonah’s reluctant message bought them decades, deferring their punishment but not canceling it. Just as Jonah’s revival did not last long after the fish swallowing, Nineveh’s humble spirit quickly dissolved. When their recognition of Yahweh’s call faded and stood in opposition to God, destruction was inevitable. In 612 BCE, Nineveh was overthrown by an alliance of Medes and Babylonians. Nahum had prophesied of Nineveh’s destruction, picking up Jonah’s original oracle. Zephaniah also predicted Nineveh’s utter desolation “dry as the desert” (2:13).
When Jonah complained to God that he was bound to forgive Nineveh because he was merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, he was quoting a common creedal statement with roots in Exodus 34:6. On Mount Sinai, Yahweh passed in front of Moses describing Himself with all these exact qualities.
Jonah is putting the creed before Yahweh as a complaint and not as a praise, a fact that makes the reader wince. In Jonah’s limited scope, he has only ever known these attributes of God as descriptors of God’s covenant relationship to Israel. Why should Yahweh extend the same measure of compassion to Israel’s most despised enemy? Until Jonah, the other Minor Prophets have delivered oracles against other nations. Jonah’s theme challenges the reader. What is God’s relationship to the nations if even the harshest of Israel’s enemies can also be objects of God’s grace? After Amos’s Oracles Against the Nations and Obadiah’s oracle against the Edomites, bible critics might accuse the prophets of merely delivering nationalist propaganda against Israel’s enemies. But the book of Jonah is for another nation. Israel and Judah never even come up in the exchanges between God and Jonah.
The challenge of Jonah’s themes would have continued to test the hearts of readers in Israel and Judah for generations. How could their God, the one who stretched out his arm and delivered them from slavery in Egypt, treat another nation so mercifully? Jonah had expected Yahweh’s lovingkindness to be reserved for his covenant people and not have to be shared.
Just as Jonah did not want God’s mercy to extend to the Ninevites, there were those in the early Jesus movement who did not want the gospel going out to the uncircumcised gentiles. The book of Acts has preserved the tenuous moment in Christian history when the same spirit of Jonah was present with the disciples. The message of John 3:16 and God’s love for the world is rooted in this story of a reluctant prophet and his resistance to an expansive God. Jonah is the preface to what ultimately led to the Great Commission. Jonah learned the hard way that it is not up to man to decide how and when God extends his grace.
“The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” Psalms 145:9
Thank you for listening and please continue to participate in this Bible Reading Challenge. My only measure of success for Bible Fiber is if people, even a few, are reading parts of the Bible that they had previously neglected and seeing them with fresh eyes and hearing the scripture with new ears. Bible Fiber is available on YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Join us next week for a deep dive into the prophet Micah.