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The final chapter of Jonah is a haunting reminder of human selfishness: Jonah responds to God's mercy extended to the Ninevites with anger (4.1). Jonah does not want the Assyrians spared! He next confesses, "I knew from the beginning that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishment" (4.2). What's wrong with Jonah? The answer is quite simple: in chapter one, Jonah has been instructed to "cry out against Nineveh," (1.1), and as a prophet, he is now dangerously threatened that he may "lose face." When the king of Nineveh has seen his people repent, he has "covered him with sackcloth and sat in ashes" (3.6). Jonah, quite humanly even if unforgivably, indulges himself in bigotry: he does not want to see God spare the Assyrians; he becomes angry: the Lord asks him, "Is it right for you to be angry?" (4.4). God follows the pouting Jonah out of Nineveh, first mercifully protecting him and then justly allowing the sun to "beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die" (4.8). Jonah is happy about the bush God sends to protect him but angry about the worm which causes the bush to wither. How characteristic of the human being: thanks when life is going well; bitterness when the worm gnaws at its core! God reminds Jonah that the bush had been provided for him; he had neither to labor for it nor cultivate its growth. God then asks Jonah the question, "Should I not be concerned about Nineveh?" 4.11). The answer is, of course, that God is concerned about Nineveh and, indeed, about all people "who do not know their right from their left" (4.11). What a powerful metaphor of human life unanchored in the sea of time, tossed about and swallowed up until "the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head at the root of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever" (3.6). Yet, even as life ebbs away, prayers come before God, are heard, and life is rescued from the pit. Time and time again, Jonahs are mercifully "spewed upon the dry land" and given a second chance.
In the long run, one asks, is Jonah fact or fiction? History, allegory, or romance? Jonah provides a moral lesson for the reader: God relents when Nineveh repents. How wicked is Nineveh? Its barbarities were incredible: pyramids of human heads marked the conqueror; boys and girls were burned alive; men were impaled flayed, blinded, deprived of their hands and feet, of their ears and noses: the Assyrians evidenced a mania for blood. But even here, God relented, sparing mercifully a people who would later sack the northern kingdom of Israel. One might well ask: would a human being write the history of God in such a fashion? God spares a kingdom which will destroy his own chosen people? The answer is quite clear: God used the Assyrians as his own rod of anger; even under brutal defeat, the children of Israel did not repent; God took His chosen destiny to the second-born Gentiles. Nineveh
Jonah is ultimately a record of Divine compassion. In the end of the book , Jonah learns that God's purpose is much more extensive, much more inclusive than Israel: the message is simply, God's love for His people Israel does not mean a lessened love for other people; rather, the heart of God reveals itself to be one of showing tender mercies to all of creation.
Jonah is often acknowledged to be part of the minor prophets but also to be quite different in nature; all too often, this difference leads to Jonah's importance in the canon being overlooked. Jonah is characterized as being a missionary rather than a prophet. This difference is the very heart of Jonah. In the Hebrew Yahweh, justice and mercy work together in the history of human beings; as a missionary of mercy, Jonah's very essence is revealed in his name symbolism linking him with the dove; Jonah, though, is evidencing human rather than God-likeness when he is angry that God withholds judgment once the Ninevites repent.
How serious the omission of Jonah is can be demonstrated in analyses of the eighth-century prophets; together, Amos, Micah, Hosea, and Isaiah look about them, see wrongdoing, and social injustice; the prophet then denounces wrongdoing, telling sinners that unless they repent, they will be destroyed. Within this people, the prophet holds out hope that if the people repent, God will relent and restore a remnant of his people to a good life in their homeland. Jonah had no such message to preach; after all, he was a prophet during the relatively prosperous times of Jeroboam II. The prophetic message, even when taken to the Ninevites, would have included denouncement of wrongdoing; that, of course, is the job of another Galilean prophet, Nahum. The entire book of Nahum is a poem extolling the downfall of Nineveh with the reason given being that God was exacting judgment upon an unscrupulous, defiant nation (NRSV notes). Nahum is silent relative to this same divine justice for Israel itself. Recall Nahum 1. 1-3:
2: God is jealous, and the LORD revengeth; the LORD revengeth, and is furious; the LORD will take vengeance on his adversaries, and he reserveth wrath for his enemies.
Once again, God is viewed as a "Shatterer," and the Ninevites are warned by Nahum to guard the ramparts (2.1).
Jonah certainly did cry out Nineveh's fate: "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown" (3.5). Jonah behaves, though, like a selfish and petulant child when the Ninevites do exactly the unexpected: they hear from Jonah that if they repent, God may relent. With their own Assyrian defenses weakened internally and with the Medes and Babylonians pressing in, the Ninevites had good reason to reconsider their ways. Jonah's message was timely, and they responded.
In the final analysis, Jonah offers a foreshadowing of the history of the people of God, a vivid picture of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ; Jonah resists extending God's mercy and is angry when God performs as he expected by relenting and saving the Ninevites; Jesus, on the other hand, embraced and continues to embrace humankind in a non-exclusionary, egalitarian mercy. The NRSV says Jonah was both disobedient and bigoted in not wanting God to redeem the Assyrians; divine love, however, extends beyond Jonah and the covenant he represented.
Jonah's importance in the Bible canon is affirmed by Christ, who acknowledges Jonah by name: consider Matthew: 12.38-42:
38: Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee.
Jesus points out that Nineveh will condemn the present generation: why? they repented, and the present generation, the Hebrew people themselves, are not doing so. Jesus tells them one greater than Jonah is among them. Jesus has referred to this generation as an "evil and adulterous" generation. The Old Testament formula cannot be missed: Jesus is speaking of Israel's turning away from God. Jesus has earlier uttered "something greater than the temple is ... I desire mercy and not sacrifice" (12. 6, 7). Even as the Pharisees are conspiring how to destroy Jesus, he speaks of the destiny he has come to fulfill:
17: That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying,
In the Gospels, as Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem, he instructs his disciples; "he explained everything in private to his disciples" (Mark 4.33). His disciples, however, miss much of what Jesus has to say. Twice, both including a storm narrative on the waters, the faith of the disciples to trust God to achieve His purpose, even through apparent destruction, is tested:
34: But without a parable spake he not unto them: and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples.
Can it be anything but part of the universal outreach of mercy which brings the disciples from the storm to the other side of the sea and the country of the Gerasenses? Who are these people? This was a land largely populated by Gentiles; the Romans had a huge legion in Gerasene.
The next storm comes as the disciples makes their way across the lake to Bethsaida:
47: And when even was come, the ship was in the midst of the sea, and he alone on the land.
Clearly, the disciples often lack faith and miss much of what God's mercy come among them means. The Oxford Companion describes a general pattern by which that mercy evolves. Jesus is sure of his role in the kingdom of God and rebukes Peter severely when, after he has been told that the Son of Man must suffer, be rejected, killed, and rise again, Peter rebukes Jesus:
8. 33: But when he had turned about and looked on his disciples, he rebuked Peter, saying, Get thee behind me, Satan: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but the things that be of men.
Not understanding the workings of God leads to one of the world's oldest paradoxes: But the more profound paradox of a God believed to be merciful and forgiving on the one hand and ultimately just on the other remains unresolved. (Oxford Companion).
While some view the New Covenant as largely about God's mercy and the Old Covenant about God's justice, this simplistic thinking misses the entire complexity of God's mercy and justice evolving hand in hand with each other in human affairs. Just as a simple obedience-disobedience formula missed the complexity of God's system of rewards and punishment, the mercy-justice polarity is equally inadequate.
Jonah's anger and questioning of God is as old as Cain and Abel: recall the story:
And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering:
Much like Jonah, Cain is angry that God has extended mercy to Abel; while several conjectures have been made about the preference of one sacrifice to another (blood versus grain offering, motive), the issue of mercy and justice is not anymore resolved here than it is with Jonah: the answer seems to be that God will show mercy to whom He will. The reader may want to review a search of merciful in the Old Testament and then again in the New Testament.