Studies in the Story of Jonah—Lesson 3
By Reta Halteman Finger
My favorite college course was a semester-long study of poetry under a gifted professor when I was a sophomore. My worn textbook still sits on my bookshelf, and snatches of its lyrical poems often run through my head. As we come to chapter three of this fantastical and hilarious story of Jonah, the prophet who got everything wrong, my mind flitted back to Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven”:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind;
And in the mist of tears I hid from Him, and under running laughter.…
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me”…
The poet’s flight from the relentless Hound (who might have been female!) goes on for several pages, just as YHWH hounds his bumbling prophet into the depths of the sea and back. By the time “the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time” (3:1), he was again lying down, this time on the muddy seashore, bedraggled, stinking, and coughing up seawater. Again Jonah hears the same words he heard from the captain when lying down in the hold of the ship: “Get up!” No more fooling around.
“Go to Nineveh and proclaim the message that I tell you!” God commands (3:2).
Having disobeyed once to dire consequences, Jonah figures he has no choice; so off he trots, eastward over the desert until he arrives in Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire (now in Iraq). In 3:3 we see both contrast and repetition: instead of a raging sea, Jonah finds a huge urban center. The city is so large it takes three days to walk across it, paralleling the three days Jonah had spent inside the fish (1:17).
After a day’s walk into the heart of the city, Jonah begins his proclamation: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” We don’t know where Jonah got that time limit, since YHWH is never that specific in the text. But it certainly was effective. No need for a publicity campaign, TV, or social media. Immediately “the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth” (3:4-5). When news reaches the king, he instantly repents and decrees that every person and animal, all herds and flocks, must eat and drink nothing, cover themselves with sackcloth, and stop being violent! (3:6-8).
This is the funniest part of the whole story. Imagine sheep, goats, and chickens covered in sackcloth and going without food or water! Imagine blood-thirsty Ninevites renouncing conquest and violence! As James Ackerman rather dryly comments, “No prophet within the biblical tradition has ever had such success. Jonah flees his divine commission, and the entire crew ends up worshiping YHWH (Ch 1:1-16). He speaks five words in Nineveh, and the whole city instantly turns away from its ‘evil’” (“Jonah,” The Literary Guide to the Bible, p 240). The most superstar, megachurch preacher today cannot dream of such an achievement.
Nineveh’s king is presumably the brutal leader of the Assyrian armies. Unimaginably, he has suddenly recognized Israel’s God as supreme over the Assyrian gods. He believes Jonah’s threats of destruction and seems to understand that Israel’s God can be persuaded with an extravagant show of repentance. “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish” (3:9).
Sure enough, it works! “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that God had said he would bring upon them; and God did not do it” (3:10, NRSV).
Wouldn’t this be a nice, positive climax for our theological adventure story? Through great hardships and wrong turns rivaling Bilbo’s adventures in Tolkien’s The Hobbit, our hero succeeds in converting Nineveh, the heart of the evil Assyrian Empire, and turning the people (and animals!) away from violence. Israelites need no longer fear being attacked and carried into exile with fishhooks through their noses (see Amos 4:2). Everyone could live happily ever after!
A pleasant ending, but not very realistic, you might object. We’d at least need a final paragraph where God and Jonah clap each other on the back and relax after a job well done. But most of us know that isn’t the end of Jonah’s story. The last chapter turns out to be more human and realistic than the first three. The really tough theological question is not resolved, and the narrative itself ends ambiguously.
Read ahead if you want, and we’ll wrestle with Jonah’s final frustration in the next lesson.
Questions for reflection and discussion:
1. Skim through the short book of Nahum among the Minor Prophets. Does it give you any clues as to whether or not Nineveh did repent through Jonah’s preaching?
2. In what genre or category would you place the story of Jonah?
3. Jonah 3:10 says that the mind of God was changed about the impending calamity. Would we affirm this mind-changing characteristic about God today?