The Sign of Jonah
The Book of Jonah is a story full of irony, a characteristic that marks both the person of the prophet and his career. Commanded by the Lord to preach repentance to the Ninevites, he proceeds in the opposite direction, boarding a ship at the port of Joppa, headed to Tarshish (Cadiz) at the other end of the Mediterranean Sea. While some biblical prophets showed themselves reluctant to comply with their call, Jonah seems to be the only one whose reluctance was inspired by the fear of being successful! It is an important feature of this story that Jonah did not want the Ninevites to be converted; he wanted them justly punished, not spared. The original account of Jonah’s call does not tell us this fact; we learn it only at the end of the book: “Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness. One who relents from doing harm” (4:2).
Then, in his flight, Jonah discovers another paradox of the Lord’s mercy, its capacity for bringing good out of evil. Thus, the prophet’s very infidelity to God’s call is turned into the means by which the pagan sailors come to know and worship the true God (1:16). Thus, Jonah’s prophetic ministry, precisely because of his attempted disobedience to it, is enhanced by the conversion of two sets of people.
Next, because of Jonah’s disobedience, God shifts to what may be called “Plan W” in his project to save the Ninevites. A great whale or sea monster swallows the prophet, but then, in the belly of this beast, Jonah proceeds to sing a hymn of praise for God’s salvation (2:9). This too is paradoxical, because the salvation celebrated in this book is manifold. It is God’s twofold liberation of Jonah, both the deliverance from his own infidelity by the sending of the whale and his coming rescue from the whale itself; it is the Lord’s care for the pagan sailors; and, finally, it is the mercy shown to the Ninevites.
The three days spent by Jonah in the whale’s belly comprise half of his active ministry; his next three days are spent walking through Nineveh (3:3). After those six days, of course, it is time for the Sabbath rest, and Jonah plans to spend his Sabbath reclining under the shade of a vine. Like murderous Cain going to the land of Nod (cf. Gen. 4:16), he proceeds to the east of the city (Jonah 4:5).
Jonah reflects on what has happened. Complying with the literal sense of the Lord’s command, he had simply announced the city’s destruction, with not a word about repentance or the faintest ray of hope. Indeed, his entire prophetic message took only half a verse of the story’s text (3:4).
Alas, Jonah saw, his half-verse of apparently unfulfilled prophecy bore more immediate fruit than any other preaching recorded in the Bible! It was enough to make the vindictive prophet wish for death (4:3,8). This detail, reminiscent of the identical wish of Elijah (1 Kings 19:4), is ironical by reason of the sharp contrast between the two men. The final chapter portrays our poor vindictive prophet lamenting the loss of his sheltering vine, feeling the sun and hot wind beating on his head, and arguing with the God who endeavors to bring him to repentance. Will Jonah too repent, as did the Ninevites, and be converted? It is most significant that the Book of Jonah ends with this question put to the prophet himself.
Moreover, the very presence of Jonah within the biblical canon is itself a point of paradox. As we have seen, the burden of the story is that God spared sinful Nineveh because its citizens repented at Jonah’s preaching. Yet the rabbinical authorities who placed this book into the canon were well aware that Nineveh, spared for its repentance in Jonah’s century, was finally punished for its sins during the century of Jeremiah and Nahum. They had to realize that Jonah’s desire for Nineveh’s destruction, while it certainly casts no credit on the prophet in the book that bears his name, was somehow vindicated by subsequent history. Indeed, in the Book of Nahum we seem to find raised to canonical dignity those identical sentiments for which Jonah, in his book, was divinely reprimanded. It is a sort of canonical irony that Jonah and Nahum stand only a few pages from one another in the Sacred Text.
Finally, there is the sharper irony in Our Lord’s appeal to Jonah as a type even of himself: “For as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so also the Son of Man will be to this generation. . . . The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here” (Luke 11:30,32).
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