Sermons since the New Year: 22 January 2012

22 January 2012 – Jonah: A Tale of Two Readings – The Book of Jonah


I imagine the story of Jonah is well-known and well-worn for most of you.  Those who have been attending church for some time have likely heard a few sermons or Sunday school lessons about it.  Some of you may even know a children’s song or two about Jonah and the whale.  Even outside the Church the story is well-known.  For example, a “Jonah,” in seafaring terms, is a person on a ship who is thought to be the cause of anything from bad weather to accidents and who must be removed from the ship for the problems to stop.  In this and other ways, the story of Jonah has become ubiquitous and you would be hard-pressed to find someone who has not heard of Jonah being swallowed by a whale, which has, unfortunately, become the focal point of the story.

Just before we moved here, Peyton and I were helping the minister of music at our last church with a music camp for children, during which there was a short devotional time.  The day Peyton led the devotion the story was about Jonah, and guess what the kids wanted to talk about?  The whale.  They were so excited about that part of the story, and many of them kept raising their hands to ask questions about whales or to tell the group something they knew about whales.  In fact, it was a struggle to get the kids to focus on something other than the whale, such as the point of the story, which is not the whale, by the way.

What’s interesting is that it is not just children who fixate on the whale or big fish, adults do it too.  While children focus on the presence of a gigantic fish in the story, adults focus on whether the whale is a fact of history or a metaphor of literature.

Those who approach the whale from a historical perspective ask one set of questions.  Was the “big fish” actually a whale?  If so, what kind?  If not, is there another sea creature big enough to swallow a person whole?  If so, what is it?  If there is such a creature, could its digestive system actually allow a person to live there for three days and come out “no worse for the wear”?

Those who approach the whale from a literary perspective ask another set of questions.  Is the “big fish” a metaphor for any vessel or means of salvation?  Or is the “big fish” that swallows up a Hebrew prophet a metaphor for the Assyrian Empire that swallowed up the Northern Kingdoms of Israel in 722 BCE, because, in cuneiform, a symbol-based writing system used by the Assyrians, the symbol for Nineveh—the capital city of the Assyrian Empire—was a fish within a house?

This is all just “food for thought,” because whatever one decides about the “big fish,” there has been too much discussion about this one part of the story, which has caused the popular memory of Jonah to be an amusing tale about a man swallowed by a whale, rather than a story with a powerful, transformative message.

So, what is the message of Jonah?  What is the story trying to teach us?

There are two primary interpretations of Jonah prominent among scholars that I want to share with you this morning, which means that Jonah is “a tale of two readings.”

Both readings focus on the prophet’s reticence to proclaim a message of critique upon the Assyrian Empire whose capital city was Nineveh.  However, each reading interprets this resistance in a unique way.

The first of these readings is, perhaps, the more familiar interpretation.  In chapter one, Jonah is sent to Ninevah to cry out against the city because its wickedness has come to the attention of YHWH (1.2).  Jonah went at once, but he went in the opposite direction of Ninevah (1.3).  This reading says that Jonah disobeyed because he knew how dangerous it would be to walk into the capital city of Assyria and voice a message of critique.  After all, Jonah would have been well aware that Assyria was an empire built by war and conquest, a nation infamous for its inhumane treatment of enemies.  According to one historian:

The Assyrians were preeminently a nation of warriors…The exigencies of war determined the whole character of the Assyrian system…[The nation] was a great military machine…New and improved armaments and techniques of fighting gave to the Assyrian soldiers unparalleled advantages…[But] as much as anything else the Assyrians depended upon frightfulness as a means of overcoming their enemies. 


Upon soldiers captured in battle, and sometimes non-combatents as well, they inflicted unspeakable cruelties—skinning them alive, impaling them on stakes, cutting off [appendages] and then exhibiting the mutilated victims in cages for the benefit of cities that had not yet surrendered.  [And then, to emphasize the point, this historian notes,] Accounts of their cruelties are not taken from atrocity stories circulated by their [victims]; they come from the records of the Assyrians themselves.[1]

It’s no surprise that Jonah fled this commission.  After all, who would want to walk into the capital city of an empire built by such practices and proclaim a message of critique and condemnation?  Jonah fled because he didn’t want to end up mutilated in a cage as a visual aid to deter other dissenters, and who can blame him?

We jump ahead to chapter three, just after Jonah has emerged from the belly of the great fish, and he receives his commission once more.  This time he obeys by going to Nineveh and crying out, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (3.4b).

In the Bible, forty days is often used to designate a lengthy or indefinite time period rather than a literal forty-days.[2]  Taking 40 days in this manner, this interpretation sees Jonah’s act of “obedience” as half-hearted, at best.  Therefore, Jonah’s message was something like: “You’ll need to change your ways at some point, but there’s no rush.  Nothing bad is going to happen anytime soon, but just try to keep In mind that these practices will catch up with you eventually.”  It’s as if Jonah does his duty, but in such a way that he hopes to give the Assyrians a false sense of security so that they don’t change their ways, because Jonah wants to see them punished.

To Jonah’s surprise, though, the entire city repents—immediately turning from the evil and violence that Jonah had denounced (3.6-9).  To Jonah’s dismay, God repents—immediately turning from the plan to overthrow Nineveh.  Then, to the reader’s surprise and dismay, rather than collaborate this transformation, Jonah criticizes God with statements that are always doxological for the Hebrew people—you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love; always ready to relent from punishment (4.1-2).  In a moment of dark irony, that which is always cause for doxology (praise) becomes, on Jonah’s lips, an angry critique of God.

The story concludes with a brief, but weighty dialogue between Jonah and God, in which Jonah learns that God is not the exclusive deity of anyone.  God’s love and compassion cannot be contained, because God’s concern for the good, the well-being, the life of everyone and everything crosses all boundaries.  I imagine this is a familiar interpretation and it contains an important lesson we must continually remember since the human proclivity is to try to limit God’s love to those whom we like and of whom we approve.

The second reading is likely less familiar.  It suggests that the story represents a radical shift in the prophetic tradition of the Hebrews, a transition from prophets who proclaimed God’s imminent, unavoidable judgment to prophets who proclaimed God’s limitless, everlasting compassion.  In this perspective, Jonah’s resistance to his commission and anger at God’s repentance is not caused by God’s compassion for the Assyrians.  Rather, Jonah flees his commission and is angry when his proclamation doesn’t occur, because he knew that God would not follow through with the judgment Jonah was sent to proclaim, which ruined his reputation by making him a false prophet.  The logic of this reading hinges on verse 2 of chapter 4: O LORD, the reason I fled was because I knew you are a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, ready to relent from punishing.  This verse is doxology on Jonah’s lips in this reading, but it is doxology that questions the validity of the judgment message Jonah was sent to proclaim.

One scholar who adheres to this reading explains it this way: “[Jonah] makes a claim no other judgment prophet made; namely, that he knew from the first that God could not be trusted to follow through on a threat to destroy….Jonah claims he knew all along that the character of [God] is such that [God] is far more inclined to be gracious than to judge and that no message of judgment can thus be counted on.”[3]

In short, this reading says that any theology of God that does not exalt God’s unbounded love is not a proper understanding of God.  Therefore, any prophet who proclaims a message of inevitable, unending punishment inflicted by God ought to be considered a false prophet, because the defining quality and characteristic of God is grace, mercy, compassion and steadfast love.  In other words, neither then nor now nor ever should the so-called “hell-fire and brimstone” preachers be trusted, because “no message of judgment can be counted on.”[4]

Jonah is a tale of two readings, so which one is correct?  I would suggest to you that both are correct, because both exalt the unbounded, unbridled and unending love of God.  Therefore, we should accept and learn from both readings.

From the first reading, we can learn to surrender our prejudices, because God’s love and compassion cannot and will not be limited by the arbitrary boundaries we erect.

From the second reading, we can learn that proclamations of God’s profligate love and ceaseless compassion can always be trusted, while proclamations of God’s imminent judgment and inevitable punishment cannot be counted on.

And from the union of both readings, we can learn to shape our lives according to the ubiquitous doxology of the Hebrews found in Jonah 4.2, and we can choose to join in praising the LORD who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  AMEN.

[1]                   Edward McNall Burns, Robert E. Lerner and Standish Meacham, Western Civilization: Volume I, 10th edition, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1984), 55, 56.

[2]                   R.W.L. Moberly, “Preaching for a Response?  Jonah’s Message to the Ninevites Reconsidered,” Vetus Testamentum LIII, 2, (Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2003), footnote 11.

[3]                   Donald E. Gowan, The Theology of the Prophetic Books, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 140.

[4]                   Gowan, 140.


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