Exegetical Exercise – Jonah 3

picture of prophet Jonah preaching in Nineveh
Jonah looking uncharacteristically enthusiastic

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, May 21 is Jonah 3 – the aftermath of Jonah’s escapade with the big fish. This is the text:

(1) The word of YHWH came to Jonah a second time, saying: (2) “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” (3) So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of YHWH. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. (4) Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (5) And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

(6) When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. (7) Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh. “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. (8) Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. (9) Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

(10) When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Here are my notes on the text:

The word of YHWH comes to Jonah a second time; the message is different from the one in ch. 1 (cf. “cry out against it, for their wickedness has come up before me” Jonah 1:2) Does the message in ch. 1 allow Jonah more latitude than the message in ch. 3? More room for extemporization? If so, does this have to do with Jonah’s demonstrated untrustworthiness? So, now there are more controls on the text to be delivered? Or maybe it’s just variation for the sake of variety.

The Hebrew translated as “Nineveh was an exceedingly large city” reads literally “a large city to/before God” (Elohim) – all versions seem to translate it “exceeding” or “exceedingly” so presumably this is an idiom, like we might say “a godawful big city.” Even so, in this case, there may be a little bit of a play on words, because it is an important city to God, since God is sending a prophet to warn it. Textual support for this reading coming up in ch. 4.

The contrast between the size of Nineveh – “three days’ walk across” – and Jonah’s effort – one day’s walk into the city – suggests Jonah gives less than his full effort. His message is terse and stark. It does not explicitly mention God or YHWH. The people [men] of Nineveh are recorded as “believing God” which implies they understand it to be from God anyway.

There is a lot of proclaiming/crying [kra] – YHWH tells Jonah to do it, Jonah does it, the people of Nineveh does it, and then the king of Nineveh does what God told Jonah to do: gets up, and proclaims a message of turning to Nineveh: fast, put on sack, turn from evil and the violence in your hands – literally, the violence in your palms, or the hollows of your hands, which might suggest either that you slap people, or that you take up weapons that you hold in your hands against people, or maybe even that you grab things away from people – anyway, it’s specifically the part of the hand that one holds things with.

The king includes all the working domestic animals – flocks and herds – in the fasting and sack-cloth-wearing. (Now this makes me think of Veggie Tales with the little sack-covered bleating sheep running through the frame every so often.) Full equality – no one involved to be left out of the crying mightily to God.

The name of God changes during the chapter. YHWH communicates with Jonah (vv 1-3). God (Elohim) is addressed by the Ninevites, and responds to them (vv 5-10).

“Who knows” says the king. Compare King David fasting for the life of his first child with Bathsheba, who dies (2 Samuel 12:22); and Mordecai encouraging Esther to see the king of Persia (Esther 4:12-17) – in that case, Esther is the one who calls for a fast and prayer, and the plan succeeds. Both of those other stories are probably most often interpreted, less as stories in which God’s behavior is … tbd, as ones in which God was always going to do what God ends up doing. Maybe we think God’s support of Esther’s behavior is supported by the fast and prayer, but … this is at least a little bit open to interpretation. So … is the Nineveh story a third kind of case, in which God’s positive response is contingent on the response of the Ninevites? And might have been negative had the Ninevites disbelieved God and gone on with their evil and violence? The most straightforward reading of the text seems to support that conclusion. “When God saw what they did, how they turned …” (3:10)

The king’s hopeful coda to the proclamation and God’s decision are parallel; the king says “God may relent and change his mind (a); he may turn from his fierce anger (b), so that we do not perish (c).” Then God “changed his mind (a’), about the calamity (b’) … and did not do it (c’)” So God speaks (via Jonah), the people respond – unreservedly, God responds proportionately to the popular response – unreservedly.

Divine action in Jonah 3: the word of YHWH comes (to Jonah); then God sees (their repentance), changes his mind, and “does not do it. Further food for thought on Jesus’ comment about “the sign of the prophet Jonah”?

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