Studying Jonah 3

We are studying Jonah 3 for Sunday, May 30. This is the dramatic peak of the story, when Jonah finally goes to Nineveh, and the Ninevites repent, and God doesn’t destroy that great city. We studied the entire book of Jonah several years ago; those notes are still online:

Here are a few additional notes on Jonah 3. [Some questions on the text are here.]
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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: One of the first issues commentators on any Biblical text address is “genre.” This makes sense. Knowing the genre of a text helps us understand how to read it – that is, what background assumptions to make about the text and the way it is speaking. We have to make some, or we wouldn’t be able to read the text at all.

The way commentators on the book of Jonah talk about genre reminds me of an old joke: the children of the church had assembled for the children’s message, and the new pastor began with a few questions. “Have you ever seen a little animal, that jumps through the branches of trees, with a bushy tail?” And one of the children says, “Pastor, I know the right answer is Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel.”

There are commentators who read the book of Jonah like they know the right answer is “this is a true story, because it’s in the Bible.” Others go with “it sure sounds like some kind of fiction.” [Examples of the first include the authors of the NIV Study Bible, and the white knights of inerrancy. Examples of the second include commentators at Oxford and at Biblical Interpretation.]

I take the second group more seriously, frankly. It is not obvious to me that second group must be less “faithful,” either. If we believe “God is the ultimate author of scripture,” we presumably also believe it is up to the author what kind of book they are the author of. Otherwise, it would be like saying As You Like It has to be a tragedy, because Shakespeare wrote it, and Shakespeare writes tragedies. Imagine what we would miss in As You Like It if we did that.

Most of these “it sure sounds like fiction” commentators read the book as a post-exilic composition, from some time in the 5th or 4th century BCE, mainly based on linguistic clues. The story, however, is set in an earlier time – well before the actual destruction of the actual city of Nineveh in the late 7th century (612 BCE). “Jonah son of Amittai” is mentioned briefly in 2 Kings 14:25, a prophet in the 8th century (before the fall of Samaria to the Assyrians in 722 BCE).

Just imagine if all the historical prophets had been as wildly successful as the prophet Jonah of the book of Jonah finally turns out to be. Just imagine.

Our text for Sunday is chapter 3 of the book. Jonah has already tried to flee from God’s call, been pursued by a storm and swallowed by a giant fish, prayed the prayer in chapter two, and been spit up on shore. We join the story with the word of YHWH confronting Jonah a second time.

Jesus refers to this event when he refuses to give some scribes and Pharisees asking for a sign anything other than “the sign of Jonah,” in Matthew 12:38-42. This is taken by the commentators who read Jonah as history as confirmation of that historicity. I question the logic, though. Saying “you all are going to get coal in your stockings if you keep acting like that” is not evidence that the speaker believes in Santa Claus. It’s evidence that they know the story, and what it means, and assume the listeners do, too.

The story of Jonah and the big fish is familiar to anyone who has been through Sunday school or had a book of Bible stories. But it is also liturgically important in Judaism and Christianity both. The text of the entire book of Jonah is the afternoon reading on Yom Kippur, so it’s read annually, on the highest of high holy days, when the audience is meant to be thinking of the imperative of turning around and turning towards God. It is a great example of that. For Christians, the text of Jonah three also shows up regularly in the lectionary as a reading for the third Sunday of Epiphany (B), paired with Jesus’s calling the disciples Peter and Andrew, James and John – make of that what we will.
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CLOSER READING: The word “great” (gadol) recurs; the city is great, “exceedingly great,” and when everyone in Nineveh repents, the great as well as the small do it. The phrase “exceedingly” can also mean “of/to/before God.” The ambiguity underscores the point that even Nineveh, the immense expanse of Israel’s evil and violent enemies, belongs to God.

The size of Nineveh – “three days” – is probably less an estimate of miles than it is a figure of speech indicating its enormous greatness. (Here’s a detailed discussion of that point.)

Jonah’s proclamation is open to ambiguity as well. He holds out no hope, and doesn’t actually call for the Ninevites to turn around, but the Ninevites respond that way anyway! They make a GREAT prophetic audience.

The animals are included!! This is the best. In v8, literally, human beings and animals “shall cover themselves.” They are evidently intelligent animals, as well as evil and violent ones.

“Who knows?” in v9 is a pregnant phrase. David says it when he fasts over his first [doomed] child with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:22); Mordecai says it to Esther (Esther 4:14); and Qohelet says it a lot – for instance Ecclesiastes 3:21, which seems fitting, considering the repentance of the animals.

Verse 10 is a beautiful use of the repetition of evil and of the verb to do: “When God saw what they did, that they turned from their evil ways, God felt pity about the evil that he said he would do to them, and he did not do it.”

God is great that way.
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picture of prophet Jonah preaching in Nineveh

Images: Jonah preaches to the city of Nineveh, Andrea Vaccaro, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; Jonah preaches to the Ninevites, Hult, Adolf, 1869-1943;Augustana synod. [from old catalog], No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

2 responses to “Studying Jonah 3”

  1. Jonah is my favorite tale. A few weeks ago I dared to connect the warning to Climate Change.

    If you get through this, you will find a link to my 20 minute cantata on Jonah. This is built from the accents in the Hebrew text – It shows just how amazing this story is – with the te’amim designed to support a full cantata – (including a nod to Gershwin).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bob, thank you for this reflection and for the link! I was fascinated by your cantata – here’s hoping many will listen and support.


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