Exegetical Exercise – Jonah 4

pen and ink drawing by Rembrandt of the Prophet Jonah
The Prophet Jonah before the walls of Nineveh – maybe enjoying the shade of the bush?

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, May 28 is the fourth and final chapter of the book of Jonah. My notes on the text include:

“Anger” or “angry” shows up five times in the chapter’s 11 verses; almost all the anger is Jonah’s, although God is mentioned as “slow to anger.” Jonah’s anger is in response to God’s decision not to “do” the calamity that God had planned for Nineveh after the events of chapter 3.

The names of God seem once again significant. Jonah communicates with “YHWH” – prays to YHWH, and is answered by YHWH. YHWH God, and God, take action and also communicate with Jonah. Both YHWH and God ask Jonah “Is it right for you to be angry …?” Finally, YHWH God lectures Jonah on the relative importance of the “bush” that Jonah is angry about in v. 8ff, and Nineveh, a great city with 120,000 people “and also many animals.” (v. 11)

Creation shows up again; YHWH God “appoints a bush” to participate in an elaborate object lesson for Jonah; God “appoints a worm” to eat the bush, and then prepares a wind to make Jonah’s life fairly miserable. All these agents cooperate without hesitation.

In v. 5, Jonah goes out of the city and sets up an observation post (a “booth”, a sukkah, such as one would have during the festival of Succoth) on the east side of the city. This seems likely to be significant, since the direction is mentioned. On the other hand, what is the significance? East is farther away from Israel, closer to … what? Why would Jonah go farther away from Israel? Is he afraid the Ninevites will mount more raids on Israel, and so doesn’t want to be in the path? Is there another reason? It’s curious.

Jonah quotes Psalm 145:8 (well, maybe) on God’s qualities (“gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love”), although God’s readiness to relent from punishing might fly in the face of the opening oracles of Amos, in which YHWH says revoking punishment is not going to happen, so there is a possible site of ambiguity … which YHWH does Jonah really “know”?

Jonah seems oblivious to the clear inference that Jonah is benefiting from God’s merciful and gracious behavior, too. Whether it’s that he doesn’t recognize it, or thinks he deserves it more, or maybe is entitled to it because of his prior relationship with YHWH, … again, indeterminate.

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