The book of Jonah tells an epic story of a grand deliverance of Ninevah from soon destruction because of widespread (almost comically large) repentance all brought about by a seemingly unwilling prophet. The book of Jonah typically falls into two categories of interpretation: either God’s overwhelming grace in his pursuit of Jonah or the narrator’s attempt at making Jonah (and by extension, Jews) xenophobes and nationalists who wanted to see salvation stay in Jerusalem and go no further. I do not plan to write a detailed argument here, as many works have been written in light of recent scholarship of Jonah (and Ezra-Nehemiah, discussed below) that will give a much more in-depth argument for what I try to detail here. This post will argue that Jonah is actually a form of theodicy, wherein the prophet actually challenges the character of Yhwh himself (to use the Biblical authors’ language) as being too(!!) merciful while never actually carrying out divine justice and repaying for wrong-doing.
Against Jonah the Xenophobe
This section will not feature too much information or a wide array of the arguments against a xenophobic Jonah, but a few will be brought up to argue against a typical interpretation.
Jonah, in 1:9, when asked which God he worshipped, answers “I am a Hebrew, I worship Yhwh, the God of the world, the maker of the sea and dry land.” While this may fly under most radars, the title Jonah supplies to Yhwh is important. Genesis, as we have it in the current canon, was probably not composed until after the exile (586 BCE) or at the latest, under Ezra’s reforms. Most Jews before the exile refer to Yhwh as the “Elohim of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” or some variation. That Jonah broadens the scope of Yhwhistic Godship is striking – not only is Yhwh God of the world, but Jonah is careful to note that he believes that Yhwh is creator of everything (taking “sea and dry land” as an idiom for everything, [cf. Genesis 1:1]). Jonah knows, as the prophecies of Deutero-Isaiah declare, that Yhwh is God of all – the earth is his cosmic temple the earth is his cosmic temple – and he is the sovereign hand guiding the events surrounding their troubles right now.
A second point to notice is that Jonah is the first prophet to actually go into the city that he prophecies against. While other prophets have messages of doom for other nations, they are never given outside of the northern or southern kingdoms. Yes, Jonah did try and run away from delivering this message, but I believe that the reason for this was different than a hatred for Gentiles. This running away was actually because Jonah “knew” that Yhwh was a “compassionate and merciful Elohim” (4:2, cf. Divine Attributes Formula of Ex 34:6-7) and would spare the Ninevites had they repented!
A point usually used to argue that the narrator stood against the xenophobia of Jonah is the piety of the sailors and the Ninevites himself. Centuries of interpretation that painted Ezra-Nehemiah as xenophobic reformers have helped this interpretation flourish; recent scholarship on the books seem to point more toward a religious reform more than an ethno-centric reform. The narrator seems to use these Gentiles to show that piety can be exemplified by people outside of the Jewish culture and Jonah should have no reason to hide his saving message from them. These conclusions might draw too much from the text that was never explicitly given. We never hear again of the sailors after Jonah is thrown overboard; whether or not their fear of Yhwh was driven by near-death or by actual conversion is hard to tell. They did perform a sacrifice, but that does not mean a true-conversion to monotheistic Judaism. The repentance of the Ninevites, as a I will show later, also did not seal their fate as Jewish proselytes who would forever escape judgment. It is striking that the king seems to demand the repentance of his people a verse after they already performed ceremonial repentance. Why would the author carefully show all that the Ninevites had done in repentance, but forget to end the book there? There is yet another chapter beyond; we cannot say that the story ends at repentance.
Ninevah and Divine Justice
Why would the chapter continue past chapter 3 if the point of the book was to show repentance? Most would say that the book continues so that Yhwh could teach Jonah a lesson – you cared so much for this plant which you didn’t create, shouldn’t I care more about a city I did create? I would push back on this interpretation. It is an easy conclusion to turn to, for sure, but I think that it ignores the context of the other minor prophets. The plant, the scorching heat and the worm all share one thing in common in their symbolism: they are signs of judgment. Ninevah has repented now, but it will not be permanent and it will not stay free from judgment. Why else would Nahum, a book so close to Jonah in the canon, openly condemn Ninevah for their sin? Why would the author of Tobit use Ninevah as a backdrop to his fictive account? The destruction of Ninevah was burned into Jewish thought – it was Yhwh Elohim’s great demonstration of his judgment and his punishment. He was merciful, up to a point.
Just as Jonah 2:1-10 is the divine play of the Psalms (107:23-30, 139:9), 4:6-11 is the divine play of judgment. The use of trees to stand for kingdoms is not uncommon in the Hebrew Bible. (see Ezekiel 31) The plant, just like Assyria and Ninevah, is under the sovereign plan of Yhwh, whether to rise or to fall. Yhwh can raise the plant, and Yhwh can destroy the plant. This is true of Assyria, Lebanon and Egypt – it is most certainly true for Ninevah. Just as Jonah enjoys the shade of the plant, so too do the people enjoy the shade of the giant trees of the kingdoms of the earth. They are not to stand. The plant dies and Jonah loses the shade. Not only from the sun, but a divine hot wind blows Jonah and causes a huge discomfort. A hot wind is a divine judgment: a foreign army or a warrior God arriving on the storm winds (Jer 4:11-12, Nahum 1:3, Hosea 13:15). Just as the worm eats the plant, a worm is a divine judgment against people and the consumer of human flesh (Deut 28:39, Isaiah 14:11, 66:24). Nothing that happens to Jonah escapes the symbolic imagery of judgment. The message is clear to Jonah: just because Yhwh is merciful and compassionate does not mean that he denies divine justice.
So if Jonah isn’t a xenophobe, if nation-wide repentance isn’t the point of the book, what is? I believe that Jonah is a question of divine justice. Jonah has great anger against Yhwh and would rather die than continue (4:3) because he believes that Yhwh is ALWAYS good and always compassionate and will never ever carry out judgment, and he would rather die than continue in a world where Yhwh is not who he says he is (Ex 34:6-7). Jonah demands that Yhwh judge them – if he won’t even judge the Ninevites who do not know their left from their right (4:10-11), who will he judge?
Before we get into Yhwh’s answer, we must ask why this is a concern, especially for Jonah. That the narrator links this Jonah to Jonah ben Amittai is important; this link allows us to connect the story of Jonah to the small events of II Kings 14:23-27. This small story is significant in illuminating Jonah. In a time of struggle (monarchial struggles, uncertain lineages for kingships, blatant sin, etc) Yhwh, instead of committing justice and wiping out the country, he blesses the country and adds to their wealth and to their land. Yhwh here, too, seems to act in a way that only shows his mercy and compassion. For Jonah, Yhwh has never acted in a way that would demonstrate his justice. The Assyrians were oppressing the Jews, so wasn’t Yhwh unfaithful in not judging them? He seemed quick to judge the Jews, but he let Gentiles go scott free? (see Ex 32-34) This seemed like an act of unfaithfulness (or, a lack of hesed) on Yhwh’s part.
Ultimately, Yhwh responds. No commentary is needed, because I will present a different interpretation than found in most Bibles, consistent with Hebrew grammar and sytax:
10 And the LORD said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night.
11 And I will not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle.”
Ninevah, at first what seemed like a sign of Yhwh’s unfaithfulness, is turned into a sign for Yhwh’s faithfulness. This is the point of the book. Yhwh will be faithful to his people. His people’s enemies will be conquered, he will remain faithful to his people. In Jesus, God is ultimately faithful to us because in Jesus all of God’s promises are “Yes” or “Amen”. We need not Ninevah to see that now, but it helps us.