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