4 Aug 2010

Jonah #6: God’s Heart & His Struggle with Israel and Us (Fugitive Reports to Duty)

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Grace, Hebrew Bible, Jesus, Jonah, Ministry, Mission, Preaching

Jonah 3: The Fugitive Reports for Duty

Deliverance belongs to the LORD!” (Jonah 2.9, NRSV)

The Text

“Then the word of Yahweh came to Jonah a second time, saying:

Rise and go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I am now giving to you!”

Then Jonah rose up and went to Nineveh, according to Yahweh’s word.At that time Nineveh was a great city to God – a three days journey was required. And Jonah set about to enter the city, walking a day’s journey. Then he proclaimed:

“Forty more days, and Nineveh shall be destroyed/Overturned/Changed.”

But the people of Nineveh believed in god. They proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth, everyone from the most important to the least. For the word had reached the king of Nineveh. He stepped down from his throne, threw off his regal garments, donned sackcloth and sat down in the dust. Then he had these words proclaimed in Nineveh:

“This is an edict of the king and his nobles: Men and beast, cattle and sheep shall refrain from eating. They shall not graze, they shall not drink; rather they shall don sackcloth, men and beasts, and shall cry to god almighty. And they shall turn about, each and everyone, away from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows whether the deity/god will once more regret (his decision), and turn from his burning anger, so that we will not perish.”

And God saw their deeds, how they turned away from their evil ways. Then the God regretted the evil he had said he would do to them. And he did not do it! (My Translation)

Ruminations on the Story

The book of Jonah is an exquisite work of literary art. The two halves of the book are like mirror images that balance each other out. Also being one of the last books of the Hebrew Bible to be written the author seems almost to be meditating upon Israel’s identity and task in the world. As our minstrel looks back over the history of Israel’s literature one question that comes to mind is how faithful has Israel been as a herald of Yahweh’s grace and kingship. Israel was elected to be a “light” to the nations (Isa. 49.1-7; See Gen 12.1-3). Israel is to be be a “kingdom of priests” on behalf of the world. In some sense Israel herself is God’s Messiah for the benefit of the all humanity.

The author of Jonah could look at his own history as we still do in the church … and see how we have failed in our calling. We have been narrow, sticklers of orthodoxy, but most often, far from the heartbeat of Yahweh. As Moses declared to Israel at the head of her history “You have been rebellious against the LORD as long as he has known you” (Deut 9.24, NRSV. See the entire chapter).

Jonah 3 opens just as chapter 1 does. Jonah is commissioned a second time to go to Nineveh. It is apparent that after being vomited out on the ground that Jonah did not immediately rush to Mesopotamia. Yahweh has to remind him that he still has not done what he was told to do. Perhaps Jonah thought God would forget about this, in his mind, unpleasant task.

We learn that Jonah does obey the Lord but it is clear, as the story goes, he is not at all pleased at all. In verse 3 we learn an important detail. The NIV renders the text as “Nineveh was a very important city“. Nineveh is thus an enormous city. The text, ‘ir- gedola le’lohim, though likely means “a great city to/for God.” The JPS puts this rendering in its footnote, I am inclined to keep it in the text. The commentators suggest this is the correct rendering as well (Sasson in Anchor Bible and Limburg in OT Library) Nineveh, part of God’s creation, is “great” to God.  Sadly, it is not to Jonah. How often are the values of God and the values of his People not the same!

So Jonah heads off to this city valued by God and proclaims a brief message of doom. We are told in v.1 that Yahweh will give Jonah a message. When Jonah actually cries out, however, there is no messenger formula (i.e. “thus says the Lord“). We are not sure – we are left hanging by the author! –  if Jonah preaches the word of Yahweh or the word of Jonah! We know that God is concerned over the wickedness of the city (1.2) but we are never told just what his message would be.

I mentioned in a previous contribution that a number of words in Jonah appear to carry more than one intended meaning … poly-valence. We are intended to embrace the possibilities rather than choose between them. Here in Jonah’s “speech” we have one of those words: “overturn” or “overthrow.” The term is nehpaket. It occurs several times in the Sodom narratives (Gen 19.21, 25, 29) which are echoed several times in the Story of Jonah. Yet in spite of that the word is intentionally ambiguous. It does not mean, necessarily, being nuked or annihilated. It can carry the idea of change or and even repentance. The same word in fact occurs, significantly, in Hosea 11.8 in one of the most poignant pictures of Yahweh in the entire Bible. It is the image of Yahweh “wrestling” with himself over whether or not to punish Israel! (a point not to be lost on the Hebrew reader in the fourth century BC):

My heart(Yahweh) is changed/overthrown within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger

What meaning does the author intend? Both! Jonah thinks he is preaching doom but Yahweh subverts his word, ironically, and makes it true in a way that Jonah could never imagine or even desired!. Nineveh was in fact overthrown! The pagans did change. They were “overturned.” The prophecy is true … just in a radically different form than Jonah imagined! Does that say anything to us today??

Jonah preached in his anger and did not (as far as what the author tells us) even mention the name of the deity in whose name he cried. The Ninevehites are polytheists. No wonder the king says “WHO KNOWS?? Perhaps the deity {nameless god} will have compassion” … this “who knows” echoes the words of other pagans in the story … the sailors in 1.6 (and as we saw before the words of King David – the author knows this and the readers know this but the King does not). The contrast between the pagans and Jonah could not be set in stronger relief. They don’t even know the name of the deity and they turn in faith and embrace sackcloth and ashes.

Here is another interesting tidbit. The LXX reads in Jonah 3.3 “after/in THREE days Nineveh will be overthrown.” The Old Latin version carries this reading as well. As far as I know there are no Hebrew mss with this reading yet all the LXX do. So before the time of Christ there was a tradition of three days … perhaps the LXX is trying to balance out the three with the days in the fish … Either way the Gospel Evangelists often used the LXX rather than the Hebrew to tell their story of Jesus. We will come back to this in another post. But for now …

After the Lord sovereignly sees that Jonah’s words are ironically fulfilled, then he who is renowned for his compassion, lavish in his grace, and his reckless abandon in forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin … does just that!! He “turns” from the “evil” he would bring upon them.

In Jonah we face again the heart of God. We also see, sadly, how often – and badly – God’s People are out of tune with the One they call Father. We are reminded once again of the words of Moses:

It is not because of my righteousness … not because of your integrity … but because the LORD swore an oath to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Understand then that it is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land … for you are a stiff-necked people” (Deuteronomy 9.4-6)

One wonders how far we have come in the centuries. We still are incredibly self-righteous. We are often filled with every emotional response to the pagan world but love! We like Jonah have dumped invective on the world perhaps more to see the “justice” of God rain down. But do we realize that the world, like Nineveh, is great to God??

Do we, as God’s People, know our messianic identity. That we are placed as a light, a beacon, that shines in the night … pointing not to ourselves but to the Deity who would rather have Nineveh love him than cower in fear before him. That is the God of the Hebrew Bible Jonah sang about but did not imitate.

Bobby Valentine

9 Responses to “Jonah #6: God’s Heart & His Struggle with Israel and Us (Fugitive Reports to Duty)”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Another good post.

    Plan to use some of your thoughts on Jonah over the next two Sundays in class.


  2. reborn1995 Says:


    The preacher at my congregation (Mayfair CoC in OKC) is preaching through Jonah on Sunday mornings. Something that really stood out to me was the comparison he made between the Assyrians and WWII-Nazi-Germany. The Assyrians committed brutality and atrocities as a way of life. God’s solution? Send in a missionary! i wonder how WWII would’ve gone down if we’d have flooded Germany with missionaries rather than bombs. Our gut reaction seems to be to over power and destroy. On the other hand, God seems bent on restoration and reclamation. Also, if you consider that the Jews were victims of Assyrian atrocities, Jonah’s prejudice isn’t at all surprising. And yet God still loved and cared for the people who had been utterly wicked to Jonah’s people. i think there are certainly modern or near modern analogies there too.


  3. Kerry Says:

    So long as God’s people reinterpret the goals of God (redemption, peace, justice, etc…) through the eyes of self-serving goals along with the utilitarian ethic necessary to carry out those self-serving goals, God’s people will look like Johah/Israel rather than mirroring the image of God.

    Grace and peace,

    K. Rex Butts

  4. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Guy I plan on doing a post on “why” Jonah may have felt like he did. Yes the Assyrians being compared to the Nazis is probably not a bad one. The author could not have chosen (nor God) a more scandalous “target” for the fugitive prophet.

  5. Keith Says:

    Hey Bobby. Lori really enjoyed seeing every one at PV this past weekend. She also gave me a summary of your lesson…man, we miss your teaching brother.

    In this post you said, “When Jonah actually cries out, however, there is no messenger formula.” What is this “messenger formula”?

  6. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Keith it was great to see Lori yesterday too. Got a big hug!! Sure do miss you guys.

    Glad you still check in on my blog from time to time. The “messenger formula” or “messenger speech” occurs all through the prophets. It is the signal that the prophet is not speaking his or her own word but the word of Yahweh. This is usually couched in such lingo as “Hear the word of the Lord” or “Thus says the Lord” … Such talk is glaringly absent from Jonah.

  7. Keith Says:

    Bobby, thanks for the clarification. That makes sense.

    I was reading from a Children’s Bible to my kids a few nights ago and read the story of Jonah. It ended by saying Jonah came around, did what God asked and was happy about it. lol I told Kyle and Katie that wasn’t quite right. We talked about Jesus teaching us to “love our enemies” and I asked them if they thought Jonah loved his enemies? They recognized that he did not and that was his problem. Children’s Bibles are fun and can be good, but go off-track from time to time. (Kind of like this comment which is on quite a tangent at this point.)
    Have a great week!

  8. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Keith we Christians are often guilty of taking the “edges” off of the biblical narrative because its nakedness is to much for us. But the Veggie Tales movie on Jonah actually captures quite well the ending of Jonah. Little Jonah is walking away … and the scene ends. Quite insightful.

  9. Keith Says:

    Excellent. I’ve watched part of that Veggie Tales but not the whole thing.

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