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Jonah 4:1-11

December 15, 2014

Jonah tells the people of Nineveh they will shortly be destroyed for their evil ways; the people of Nineveh make a great show of remorse; and God has a change of heart and decides not to destroy them after all. Jonah is furious.

Before we jump to the conventional conclusion that Jonah is just an unmerciful, silly bigot, we need to take his point of view with utter seriousness–because it’s pretty much our point of view.

The city of Nineveh is the capital of the most warlike, brutal empire the world had yet seen. They are the Nazis or Stalinists of the ancient world. Their victims would surely have pleaded with God to somehow stop them. For Nineveh to be destroyed would have been an act of justice, possibly ushering in an era of greater stability and peace. To an ancient Jew reading this story, the prospect of Nineveh’s destruction would have been an answer to prayer.

The notion that the people of Nineveh should be let off the hook simply because they put on sackcloth and say they are sorry would seem to be ludicrous. Do we let mass murders go free simply because they say they are sorry? Do we say to them: “Ok, no trial, no judgment”? Then why should the people of Nineveh receive a reprieve?

How long will Nineveh remain remorseful? How deep is this repentance? Not very. The ancient hearers of this story know something we may not be aware of: the Assyrian Empire will soon go to war against the northern kingdom of Israel and utterly destroy it. Israel will be no more. If only God had destroyed Nineveh as Jonah had pronounced God would! Israel would not have been subsequently destroyed!

This is the deep spiritual dilemma hidden in this story. There is more to the story than what the story says, and that “more” is tragic.

So Jonah’s response of anger at God is fully understandable. Indeed, if we are honest with ourselves, almost all of us would share that same anger. God’s mercy toward Nineveh is undeserved, immoral, naïve, and ultimately leads to a later tragedy–the destruction of Israel. And this is why Jonah ran away from this mission to begin with–because he knew God would be merciful if the people of Nineveh repented. Jonah throws God’s character back into God’s face: “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” The very characteristics that the Bible celebrates about God, become an indictment of God.

Jonah is so disgusted with grace and mercy he would rather die than continue to live in such an unfair universe. This is the flip side of reality. Usually we are distraught with a universe of unfair suffering. But unfairness works both ways; we are also infuriated when others–who don’t deserve it–receive unfair mercy and goodness.

Twice God asks Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry?” This is the central question of the story. Is it right for us to be angry when someone else, who has done evil, receives mercy? Jonah’s answer is: of course! He sits in the desert, outside the city, hoping God will have another change of heart and destroy Nineveh after all.

But God does not. Instead God gives Jonah shade. And God takes away the shade. Then God does some reflecting with Jonah: You pity the death of a mere plant; so should not I, God, have pity on so many people?

God describes Nineveh as having more than 120,000 people who do not know their right hand from their left. This probably means they do not know right from wrong. This could either be a reference to the people as a whole–they are all morally ignorant–or it could be a reference to the many children in the city who are not yet old enough to know right from wrong. And then God adds one more group for consideration: how about all those animals?

I’m not sure whether this last line is meant to be a serious moral argument or a bit of a joke. I think it may be both. It’s a bit of humor making an entirely valid and serious point: even the animals should receive pity. Indeed, should a city of violent adults be destroyed if that means also the destruction of children and innocent animals? Or should the city be destroyed if the people are too stupid to know right from wrong?

The motivation for God not destroying Nineveh has shifted somewhat in this last exchange. God decides not to destroy Nineveh, not because they have repented, but because God pities them. Regardless of whether their repentance is deep or shallow, regardless of whether they are innocent, morally stupid, or culpable evil doers, God pities them, because God pities all humanity, indeed God pities all living things.

This story is wanting to teach us pity–even toward our enemies. When we learn a capacity to pity, then we are like God, and the world will have hope.

The hearers of this story knew one more fact: by the time this story was composed, not only had Israel been destroyed, but so had Nineveh. Ultimately, empires rise and fall. The way of violence is not sustainable; what one sows, one will reap. So there is a sort of balance or justice. Nevertheless, the story wants us, in our own time, to practice pity.

A few centuries later Jesus told his disciples they must forgive when someone wrongs them–even if that person wrongs them seven times in a day and each time says, “I repent” (Luke 17:4). If someone wrongs us seven times in the same day, and each time says, “I repent,” we have good reason to suspect that their repentance is pretty shallow! But the fact is, repentance for all of us is usually pretty shallow. Our regret may be sincere, but our destructive behavior does not change very readily. This is why God is merciful, and why we need to be merciful with one another.

[This weekly Bible study blog will resume on Monday, January 5, 2015.]


From → Jonah

  1. Hi Ryan,

    I happened across your Jonah sermons today and read them all. I’ve been occasionally journaling about Jonah and his relationship with God since Jan Richardson wrote about Jonah’s blessing in January here: … . As you stated, Jonah is too often thought of as a children’s story.

    Surely compassion (pity) and hope are two sides of one coin. It starts with knowing God’s compassion for me and asks me to extend it to others, including enemies.

    Peace be with you,
    Kathleen Murray Friesen

    • Thanks for your thoughts–and for the link! I agree with the connection you make between pity/compassion and hope. Peace be with you as well.

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