Jonah – A Good-Fun Read (iv)

We left Jonah swimming in a pool of fish vomit on a beach. Once again he was told to go to the Assyrian capital city, Nineveh, “and preach his message of doom”. This time he went ! The comedy continues when the size of the city is greatly exaggerated. Archeologists tell us it was just 3 miles across. Unless my arithmetic is wrong (very possible) to take 3 days “to walk through” it, would require walking at the exhausting speed of 73 yards per hour. Jonah, it seems, could only maintain that pace “for a day”, but then he’d just spent 3 days in the belly of a big fish!

Once he stopped, Jonah delivered the shortest-ever sermon to achieve the greatest-ever result. Even Billy Graham’s jaw would have dropped! Not only was a universal fast declared, but it was to include all the animals in the city, who were to be covered in “sackcloth” in addition to all the people. To cap it all, the “king of Nineveh” himself “also dressed in sackcloth; he left his royal palace and sat in dust”. Assyrian kings included the likes of Ashurbanipal, Esarhaddon, Sargon, Sennacherib and Shalmaneser – names that would have struck terror into the hearts of all surrounding peoples. So, whichever it was, it would’ve been a huge scalp for Jonah to dangle from his evangelistic belt. Except, of course, that it wasn’t – unless you’re a humourless, credulous literalist.       

In the story, God is suitably impressed, and “he had pity and did not destroy them as he had planned.” We’d now expect Jonah to be utterly astounded and delightfully cock-a-hoop but, on the contrary, he “was really upset and angry.” He hated these cruelly conquering Assyrians and their brutal treatment of his own people, and here they were being far too easily let off the hook. Well at least Jonah can seize the chance to rationalise and ‘excuse’ his initial disobeying of God. He claims it was because he knew this would happen, rather than because he feared for his life if he went into such an intimidating city to “preach his message of doom”. We can each make up our own minds about that.

God asks Jonah, “What right do you have to be angry?”, but he’s in no mood to think, let alone talk, about that. He stomps off to find a place where he can sit and sulk. His mood isn’t helped by a burning sun and an inadequate shelter that he tries to cobble together. God helps him out with a vine that grows a lot faster than 73 yards per hour. In an instant, it supplies Jonah with some decent shade and that, at least, makes him “very happy”. Next morning, however, God “sent a worm to chew on the vine”, which it did so voraciously and successfully, that the “vine dried up” as fast as it had grown and, once again, “the sun beat down on Jonah’s head … and he shouted, “I wish I were dead!’”

God’s question to Jonah is why he’s so self-centredly upset about the destruction of a vine not even planted by himself, and by his own relatively moderate and temporary discomfort, and yet so fiercely unconcerned about the far greater and terminal destruction of so many men, women, children and animals. There’s no reply. Jonah’s not going to be a ‘convert’, even if all the citizens, and the king of Nineveh, are. So why is this book to be found in the Hebrew Bible? Is it just a bit of fun or, underneath the humour, does it have some questions to ask of us, and some lessons to teach?

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