6.12 Jonah -- Jonah an Exception
What are we to make of this strange book? A prophet who disobeys, a fish that swallows a man, God's mercy extended to foreigners, and a prophet who laments his success. What racial message is there in this?
It is unfortunate that the only deeds we know of Jonah are his running away from God and his hissy fit under the shade plant. And the only prophecy of his that was recorded is the one against Nineveh. These few incidents have indelibly characterized him as a sourpuss, at least as far as Gentiles are concerned. Yet during his prophetic ministry in Israel, he must have had other words from God to speak. Would we all like to be remembered only for a few of our more notorious outbursts?
The point is that, in many ways, Jonah the book was an exception and does not stand in the broad tradition of either Israelite history or prophecy. Now exceptions are very important in that they refute cliches and show us the freedom of God to perpetually surprise us. This is true of the following exceptional people, among others, covered earlier: the unknown daughter of Pharaoh who raised Moses, Rahab of Jericho, Ruth the Moabitess, Naaman the Aramean, and so on. What makes all of these people exceptions in Bible history is that most of the other Egyptians, Canaanites, Moabites, etc. were rejected by God and judged severely, yet these people not only received mercy but contributed in some degree to God's work on earth. We can add Jonah the angry prophet to the list of exceptions:
a. As we noted above, his message to Nineveh as a foreign nation is not unprecedented -- prophets often spoke words about nations surrounding Israel. But that he would actually be sent 500 miles outside of the boundaries God had set for His people is unheard of.
b. Jonah was the most successful prophet or preacher in history: he had a 100% success rate. The sailors on the boat offered sacrifices and made vows to God, and all of Nineveh repented. Yet he himself was miserable.
c. Assyria's instant repentance was an exception, and it did not last. Assyria did not become a righteous nation, nor worshippers of the God of Israel. They did not show kindness or favor to Israel or Judah in their invasion, which occurred shortly after the timeframe of Jonah. The God who showed mercy to "120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left" had no hesitation about later killing 185,000 of their countrymen (2 Kings 19:35). One hundred years after Jonah, Nahum delivered a blistering condemnation of Nineveh and declaration of its annihilation.
d. Jonah was a precursor of Paul the Apostle, who was explicitly sent to the Gentiles. Paul, like Jonah, ran from his calling, not to the sea, but to Damascus, where he likewise had a decisive encounter with God. Like Paul, Jonah's message has a redemptive import, even if it is not explicit, as Jonah realized:
"I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity" (Jon 4:2).
This verse is a variation of God's self-revelation to Moses on Mt Sinai (Ex 34:6-7), but the Exodus version appends: "Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished..."
But if Jonah in some ways prefigured Paul, it is instructive that Paul never mentioned Jonah or his message. You would think that with Paul's desire to legitimize his Gospel to the Gentiles, he would make use of such a prime Old Testament example of God's care for non-Israelites. Paul must not have considered Jonah's message or mission central to God's purpose.
e. Jesus was the only New Testament authority to refer to Jonah, and that was mainly to mystify his hearers by telling them that the only sign he would perform for them was the "sign of Jonah" (Mat 12:39). By this he meant that he would rise after three days. But he also said that at the Last Judgment the Ninevites, who repented at the preaching of Jonah, would judge Jesus' contemporaries, who did not repent at the words of one greater than Jonah (Mat 12:38-42, Lk 11:29-32). This was truly a damning rebuke to his audience -- it was to exalt a generation of Gentiles, utter pagans, over his hearers, who included Pharisees and teachers of the Law. This saying is consistent with his marvelling at the faith of a Roman soldier, or at the compassion of a Samaritan. Jesus intended by these statements to offend his listeners. He turned conventional racial and religious stereotypes on their heads, knowing that his words would upset the religious community.
f. Jonah's racism did not taint his proclamation. But, on the other hand, he was not converted by the word that he gave others. We see a separation between the human vessel, with all its faults, and the anointed spokesman of God. Jonah was not "holy," he was hateful -- but still he was a prophet. We have seen this before: Samson was both a wild man and a judge of Israel. Elijah gave into his own fears and ran away from Jezebel. This means there is hope for us -- fallen people, frail people, who can yet accomplish God's work despite ourselves.
g. Finally, the oddity of this book in the context of historical Jewish teaching is shown by the reaction of Jonah himself. To paraphrase him, "Surely, God cannot be this merciful to His enemies. I prefer to die rather than witness His forgiveness to the unclean and undeserving."
This attitude represents one branch of the tree of Judaism -- the idea that being chosen by God is an end in itself, that all the rest of creation is destined to serve the chosen people, and those who do not serve will be destroyed. This attitude, the "Jonah mentality," is what Jesus faced when He extended His message and ministry to outcasts, Samaritans, lepers, and Romans. It circumscribes the extent of the mercy of God.
The message of God through Jonah was not one of universalism, however. It was uncompromising:
"Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned" (Jon 3:4).
Mercy was not even offered, nor could it be earned. Yet when Nineveh did repent, God did relent. This shows us that God does not delight in punishment, but responds to those who (even ignorantly) seek Him.
The book closes with God saying, in regard to Nineveh,
"Should I not be concerned about that great city?" (Jon 4:11)
And the prophet's response would have been a resounding "NO!" In contrast to the man himself, the prophetic message of Jonah overflows national boundaries. Israel did not have a monopoly on the favor of God, though it did have pre-eminence. Sometimes they tended to forget that the blessing was meant to be shared.