The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Prophet and Loss

The Ninevites repent, but Jonah does not, what is the point of this story?

by Russell Rathbun

 Old Testament Reading: Jonah 3:1-5, 10

For Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012: Epiphany 3

Jonah is a good prophet. 

It is not like he gets the word of the Lord wrong—he gets it right, he knows what is going on. The Lord wants him to tell the Ninevites to repent and he knows they will and that God will be gracious and merciful to them.

Old School?

Jonah doesn’t want this to happen. He hates the Ninevites. He doesn’t want to see them saved, loved, brought in by God.  He wants them to burn—to die painful deaths. He is a good prophet, but he is old school.

Jonah likes the idea of prophesying to the king about how the Lord wants to kill Israel’s enemies and take their land. He doesn’t want to hear about God loving his enemies. And these weren’t just any enemies—this was Assyria


Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrians, Israel’s traditional enemy and eventual conqueror. With a population of 120,000 people, some classical accounts say it was the largest city in the world in its day.

The text says that its pagan sinfulness was legendary, as was its cruelty: “It was the people which scorched its enemies alive to decorate its walls and pyramids with their skin.” Jonah did not want to see these evil oppressors and cruel tyrants repent, so he fled.

Opposite Direction

In fact, Jonah fled about 750 miles in the precise opposite direction.

Nineveh was east of Palestine whereas Tarshish was west, probably in southern Spain. The Lord catches him with the legendary Big Fish and Jonah gives in. He delivers the Lord’s message and the despicable Nineveh repents, which is kind of unbelievable.

This miraculous turn around, however, does not touch Jonah. His heart is not changed. He feels none of the mercy the Lord feels. The end of the story has him throwing a temper tantrum, after which the book closes with a question the Lord asks: “Why shouldn’t the Lord care for Nineveh?”

This question goes unanswered.

The Hardest Question

Is that ending question a literary device, implying that the reader should answer the question? Or is this only part of the story and the rest is lost to history?

It is hard to tell what one is supposed to get from the text. The Ninevites repent, but Jonah does not, what is the point of this story?



Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. Maybe the point of the story is to say as long as we are obedient, even if we lack passion for what God wants us to do, God’s purposes will prevail. From the standpoint of being an Israelite living in Assyrian captivity. Having the Assyrians repent of killing me and mine would be a great thing, which makes it even more baffling as to why Jonah doesn’t show more passion for what God is calling him to do.

    I enjoy your blog!


  2. Part of the challenge of Jonah for me is the historical reality that the ancient Israelites will be conquered by the Assyrians not too many years after the setting of the Jonah story. Taking that into consideration, Jonah was right & God was wrong (in that repentance was temporary and/or without genuine intent).

    This makes me wonder whether the story is intended to teach that God is a God who lives in the present. The future is not predetermined. Anything can and will happen when God is so intent on showing love & mercy, and giving second chances.

  3. Richard Pemberton says:

    So let’s think about Rev. Russell’s hardest question for the Jonah text in the context of Mark’s Gospel. While the “good news” proclaimed in Mark is much more obviously good news for the poor and marginalized than for the powerful and rich, the opposite is true in Jonah. Here in the heart of empire, we like to think of ourselves as akin to the Hebrew people and the Jews in Palestine, but in reality, we’re the Assyrians (or the Romans). So the concluding question in Jonah (“why shouldn’t the Lord care for Nineveh”)is really good news for the empire. Many people living under the boot of empire are (not surprisingly) Jonah-like prophets, keenly aware of the empire’s injustices and (again, not surprisingly) hoping for some well-deserved comeuppance. But God goes in another direction. Of course, Nineveh repented, and that wouldn’t be such a bad idea for us modern-day Assyrians either.

  4. I appreciate the thoughtful and thought-provoking responses here.

    But I’m going in a different direction. (Toward my own Tarshish, perhaps?)

    I think “the Ninevites repent and Jonah does not” is most likely the point of the story. I love Jonah. I’ve been able to say that ever since I read a compelling analysis of it by John Holbert. With Holbert (and others), I think the story of Jonah makes most sense as satire.

    Jonah must be the most effective terrible prophet ever. It really is quite a funny story. His name means “dove, son of faithfulness.” He’s supposed to be the faithful mouth of God. But it’s the pagan sailors that act honorably and offer prayers & vows to God. Then all the Ninevites – including the animals! – put on sackcloth and repent. All in response to Jonah’s tepid, insincere declarations. In other words, I think their repentance is supposed to be unbelievable.

    Perhaps Jonah was written as counter-point to the nationalistic extremists (Ezra? Nehemiah?) who couldn’t stand the idea of God being with or for any other people; those who would limit or prevent the prophetic word of God.

    Perhaps today it is a reminder to those of us who preach that God cares even for those we see as our worst enemies. After all, isn’t Nineveh in modern-day Iraq?

    So I guess the hardest question for me is: who are my Ninevites?

  5. KM says:

    Appreciates the foregoing comments.

    As I read: Sometimes, the people we write off — for “good reasons,” because of our experience, because of their track record, because of their rhetoric, because of their consistency and habits — have alternate potentials we cannot see because our vision is limited to the visible and our knowledge confined to the past.

    Sometimes, our seers and prophets show that their vision is also limited and they’re in no position to help us see a broader picture, even when they begrudgingly do what they’re called to do for a larger flock than they’d prefer.

    And even when all of that seems true, God does not narrow Godself so as to agree with us. God remains God of the Whole, not just of the Part.

    My realm of work in this world is broad, much broader than some people in my networks are comfortable with. Be that as it may, I’m going to keep working until I’m called to stop. In the meantime I will self-check so I don’t get mad at the thought that some other folks might get the same mercy in life that I’ve already received. Because Jonah’s recalcitrance feels to me like just about the purest form of jackassery, and I think I’ll take it as a cautionary tale.

  6. JoeMcLarson says:

    I think Steve’s comment above is on the right track, but I’d take it further: maybe the point of the story is that whether or not we are obedient, and whether or not we have passion for what God wants us to do, God’s purposes will prevail.


  1. [...] Below that are the notes I used along with the two slides I showed. Rev. Russell Rathburn’s The Hardest Question posts and John C. Holbert’s reflections on Jonah helped shape my thoughts. (Along with [...]

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