Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

The Reluctant Prophet – Jonah’s Flight From The Lord

Posted by foryourfaith on August 18, 2011


The Book of Jonah, consisting of four brief chapters that total just 48 verses, is one of the shortest books of the Bible. Nevertheless, its influence has been far out of proportion to its size because the deceptively simple story raises timeless literary and theological questions.

Although Jonah is included among the so-called Minor Prophets in the Hebrew Bible, the book is unique. First, whereas the other prophetic works are anthologies of prophecies with only minimal admixtures of narrative, Jonah is a story about a prophet, containing only one line of actual prophecy. Second, while other Hebrew prophets on occasion utter oracles concerning Gentile nations, Jonah is the only one whose entire mission is directed to non-Israelites; there is no mention of Israel in the book. In this respect Jonah bears less resemblance to biblical prophecy than it does to the wisdom books, which also tend to deal with issues of universal concern, outside the strictly Israelite context.

“Arise, go at once to Nineveh, that great city,” God tells Johan, son of Amittai, “and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, the great power in the eighth century BC. To the Israelites, Nineveh was a byword for evil. Famous for their ruthless cruelty in war, the Assyrians would, in 722 BC, conquer Jonah’s own homeland – the Kingdom of Israel – and exile its inhabitants. But Johan refused to heed God’s command; rather than prophesy to Nineveh, he ran away. Jonah boarded a ship at the port city of Joppa, and headed out into the Mediterranean, “away from the service of the LORD.”

But one cannot escape from a God who rules the entire world. “The LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up.” After prayers to the gods worshiped by the ship’s crew failed to calm the storm, it was decided that some sinner on board was responsible for the calamity. When a drawing of lots identified Johan as the culprit, he explained that he was fleeing from the God of heaven and earth, and that the only way to stop the storm was to throw him overboard. The sailors reluctantly did so, and “the sea ceased from its raging.” So awed were the sailors that they “offered sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.”

Meanwhile, God sent “a great fish” to swallow Jonah, “and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” From inside the fish, Jonah uttered a prayer to God – a prayer that has puzzled countless generations. Instead of repenting his refusal to obey God’s command, instead of begging for forgiveness and deliverance, he praises God for having saved him: “For thou didst cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood was around about me; all thy waves and thy billows passed over me. . . . Yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit, O LORD my God.”

Many modern critical scholars explain the difficulty by theorizing that the prayer originated independently and was later inserted into the text despite its incongruity. Traditional commentators, however, cite other biblical examples of prophets in prayer whose faith enables them to envision salvation even before it happens, and suggest that this may be the case with Jonah as well. If so, there is no need to assume any interpolation into the original text.

However we understand Jonah’s prayer, God answers it. The fish cast him onto dry land, a long walk from Nineveh. God repeated his command to prophesy to the city, and this time Jonah follows orders. Arriving at Nineveh, he announced God’s message – the only words of actual prophecy in the book – “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4)

Almost unbelievably to the reader, if not to Jonah, these words had an immediate and drastic impact on the Ninevites. “They proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth from the greatest of them to the least of them.” The king ‘sat in ashes” and broadened the scope of the public cast to include even the animals. “Let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence which is in his hands,” ordered the king. “Who knows, God may yet repent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we perish not.”

Even though the Ninevites did not renounce idol worship, their repentance had the desired effect: “God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them, and did not do it.” The salvation of Nineveh put Jonah into a state of despair. He prayed: “Is this not what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish.” Jonah was so upset that he asked God to take his life.

Instead, God taught him a lesson. Jonah was staying just outside of the city, shielded from the heat of the sun by a a plant that god had caused to grow over him. “Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant.” The next day, though, God “appointed a worm which attacked the plant, so that it withered.” Later, “The sun beat so that he was faint; and he asked that he might die. . . . “ God confronted his prophet one final time: “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. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”

Who was Jonah, son of Amittai, and when was the book attributed to him produced? Linquistic evidence, and some traces of Persian influence, have led scholars to conclude that it was probably written down in its present form some time in the fourth century BC. But elsewhere, the Bible mentions a prophet by the same name who proclaimed in the mid-eighth century BC that the Israelite King Jeroboam II would expand the territorial boundaries of his nation.

The central difficulty the book presents is twofold: Why was Jonah so dead set against God’s forgiveness of Nineveh that he first disobeyed a divine command, and later wanted to end his life? And what lesson are we supposed to draw from the book, which satirizes Jonah’s point of view?

Traditional Jewish commentaries, surely influenced by the reference to Jonah in the Book of Kings as a nationalist prophet, explain that he was motivated by loyalty to Israel. According to this line of discourse, Nineveh’s repentance would constitute a serious rebuke to the Israelites, who persisted in sin despite the constant admonitions of the prophets. Jonah, then, did not disobey God out of spirit of rebellion, but rather out of an admirable, if misguided, love for his people.

Early Christian interpreters took a similar approach, but added a new twist. Jonah was like the Jewish contemporaries of Jesus who hoped to maintain a monopoly on God’s word by refusing to accept the salvation of all mankind preached by Christ. God’s rebuke of Jonah, then, is a refutation of Jewish spiritual exclusivism.

The idea that tension between Jewish exclusivism and universalism is the key to this book has survived, in secular form, into modern times. Some writers perceive the book as a Jewish protest against the inward-looking tendencies of their own leadership under Persian rule. Jonah is depicted, like the historical personalities Ezra and Nehemiah, as eager to isolate the Jews from neighboring peoples. But God, in rebuking Jonah, teaches the opposite.

Another interpretation sees the book as an analysis of prophecy. Jonah thinks prophecy is an oracle: a true prophet is never wrong, and unfulfilled prophecies are ipso facto false. God, however, is not willing to be bound by any mechanistic scheme. The Book of Jonah teaches that prophecies will come true assuming that present conditions continue. A shift in the situation – repentance from sin, in this case – can avert what has been foretold. Thus humans can use their God-given free will to modify fate.

Another modern interpretation stresses the theological issue of human responsibility for actions. Jonah is convinced that, if the Ninevites are guilty of sin, they should be punished. Why should evil people escape their just deserts by a belated resort to sackcloth and fasting?

God’s response, however, shows that, just as Jonah sorrowed over the loss of the plant that God sent to shade him, so too the demands of strict justice sometimes yield to divine love of his creation. Repentance can save. In the words of the late Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, “It would be easier if God’s anger became effective automatically: once wickedness had reached its full measure, punishment would destroy it. Yet, beyond justice and anger lies the mystery of compassion.”

However one chooses to interpret this enigmatic story, its spiritual legacy profoundly influences Judaism and Christianity today. For Jews, who hear the entire book read in the synagogue each year on the Day of Atonement, it provides a model of man’s ability to repent and God’s willingness to forgive. For Christians, the deliverance of Jonah from the belly of the fish prefigures the resurrection of Jesus, and the grace shown to Nineveh foreshadows the salvation of the nations.


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