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Jonah 1-4

Here is Boadt’s introduction to Jonah….

Jonah is found among the prophetic books, but it is totally unlike any other prophetic book. It contains no oracles at all, except the report of Jonah’s words to Neneveh in Jonah 3:5. It is the story about a prophet, and right from the beginning we are warned to take this prophet with a grain of salt. The author has a great sense of literary style, full of abrupt changes of direction in thought, humorous touches, and unexpected twists in the plot. Verse 3 in chapter 1 must have made Israelites of the post-exilic period roar with laughter. The word of the Lord had come very solemnly to Jonah to go preach to Neneveh but instead “he rose to flee to Tarshish”—i.e. in the exact opposite direction! We are next treated to a scene of great comedy despite the danger that it describes about the ship in peril. Jonah seems to be asleep in the midst of a huge storm, while the sailors implore their gods in vain. When they accuse him of the evil he agrees to be a human sacrifice to calm the angry Yahweh. He is swallowed by a great fish and in its belly sings a grand hymn of thanksgiving to Yahweh. Since it took him three days before God released him, one wonders whether he repeated the hymn many times over.

The point to be made, of course, is that the author of the Book of Jonah knew that his audience would enjoy the story and not be forced to choose whether it could actually have happened or not, or whether the fish was a whale or a shark. Only in modern times have Christians forgotten the ability of the Bible to tell stories to make its points, and tried instead to explain everything “scientifically.” Jonah is a rousing tale of a prophet gone off the deep end, so to speak. The author makes some important points about prophecy and the nature of God without ever losing his sense of humor while creating his outrageous tale and its several separate plots.

Its major literary style is that of irony. Jonah does everything a good prophet should not, from fleeing to refusing to speak to complaining that God does not fulfill all the threats of doom that he made Jonah preach. But it is also set up in a number of clever panels, so that the prayer in chapter 2 parallels exactly the dialogue found in chapter 4, although one is praise, the other complaint. The prophet takes action in chapters 1 and 3, but in one he refuses to act and in the other he does perform what God commands. The whole four chapters make a marvelous series of reverses….

Even within single chapters, the literary style is very cleverly arranged to move in one direction and then go in reverse….

Several other interesting incidents stand out in the story of Jonah’s mission to Neneveh. The fact that Ninevah was three days across in Jonah 3:3 has led to all kinds of guesses as to how large the city would have been, or whether the author might have meant a three-day walk around its edge since the ruins of the ancient city certainly were not large enough to take more than a few hours to cross. Also note that God saves Jonah from death despite his sin, yet Jonah will not let the Ninevites be saved from death even though they repent. The author also makes the very sharp point in the final verses that Jonah cared more for a leafy plant than for 120,000 human beings.

The hero of the story is himself a kind of ironic note. Jonah ben Amittai is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25 as a prophet who predicts that King Jeroboam II will be able to expand his kingdom to take over the pagan nations. Here Jonah is summoned to preach the opposite—that God will bless these pagan nations. The book really addresses two major questions: (1) What is the relation of Israel and her God to other nations? (2) What is the meaning of divine justice? Jonah becomes a perfect character for the discussion of whether God can in fact use a prophet to bring good news to pagan nations. Certainly, the lesson is clear: God’s mercy is more powerful than his judgments, and his plan will not be thwarted even by the negative “righteousness” of his prophet. Along the way the author makes use of several major prophetic stories from earlier books of the Bible. The prayer of Jonah in the belly of the fish resembles the prayer of King Hezekiah during his illness in Isaiah 38:10-20. Jonah’s stay under the leafy plant is built on a similar incident from the life of Elijah—only Elijah proved obedient (1 Kgs 19). Nineveh finds faith as a divine gift as Abraham did in Genesis 15:6. Above all, Jonah echoes expressions taken from Jeremiah, such as his use of “man and beast” to stand for everything that lives in the land (Jon 3:7-8), found in Jeremiah 7:20, 27:5, etc.

The reasons for reminding the reader of the entire history of prophecy from the beginning until the post-exilic days becomes clear in the final verses of the book. Does not God have greater pity and compassion on people, even pagans, than Jonah demands he have about a mere shrub? The book forcefully reminds Israel that prophecy had not simply been aimed at condemning all their enemies and making them feel important. Instead of claiming that their special place in God’s covenant made them separate and better, they must recognize that God chose them to be witnesses to all peoples that God also loves them.

The message of course is more than just this one point. The story of Jonah has several lessons that work on many levels as we read it:

(1)           it presents the universal love of God even for Gentiles;
(2)           it shows God’s control over all of nature and all peoples;
(3)           it ridicules some of the narrow nationalism in Judah;
(4)           it is a satire on the actions of many prophets;
(5)           it affirms that God is not merely “just” in his actions;
(6)           in fact, God acts in strange and sometimes humorous ways;
(7)           and we cannot figure God out according to our desires.

In short, Jonah is both entertainment and lesson, aimed at the community of Israel in the period after the exile. Nineveh is clearly a city from the distant past with a vague geography which has become a symbol for the author of the great capacity for both evil and good in all peoples. Second Isaiah had said that Israel must be a servant who would be a “light to the nations” (Is 42:6) in revealing Yahweh as the God of salvation. Unfortunately, in the eyes of the author of Jonah, the Jews had forgotten that their witness was above all to a God of forgiveness. Perhaps, too, there is a pointed message to the community around Jerusalem, the great city of God—if even Ninevah can turn to God in sackcloth and ashes, how much the more should Israel put on sackcloth and ashes and beg forgiveness!

Jonah brings us to the close of life in Judah under the Persians. It reminds us that the spirit of Israel had not died or been frozen by Ezra’s reforms and the growing sense of stability centered on the priesthood, the temple and the book of the law. Post-exilic Judaism kept alive its sense of covenant and election as a gift of Yahweh to be shared with the world.

I wonder: have you ever tried to run away from God and God’s call upon your life like Jonah tried to do? If so, how did that work for you? Do you view God as the creator and lover of all people, or does God play favorites? How might we be better communicators of God’s love in our time and in our particular places among the people whom God has placed us?

Above all, I believe the book of Jonah teaches us that God gives second chances. In fact, God gives us as many chances as we need to get right with him and with others. Are you accepting your "second chance" from God today? Are you giving a "second chance" to others, to yourself?


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