Commentary: Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Jonah is, at one and the same time, a peculiar prophet and an unusual prophetic book. We hear about this individual in the "former prophets" (2 Kg 14:25). This prophet was apparently remembered for having spoken about the boundaries that the northern kingdom would develop during the reign of Jeroboam II (786-746 BCE). In this regard, Jonah was a rare individual, since no other "minor" prophet is mentioned in the Books of Kings. As for the latter issue, the book of Jonah comprises a short story, not the typical collection of prophetic utterances, vision reports, et al.
The book of Jonah also provides an unusual perspective. Unlike the Jonah in Kings, this Jonah has been charged exclusively with speaking to non-Israelites. To be sure, Jeremiah had been called as a prophet "over nations and over kingdoms." But along with Jonah, only Nahum, which on literary grounds is more typical prophetic literature, is so focused on non-Israelites. And Nahum, like Jonah, is concerned with Nineveh. For some Israelites, Nineveh had captured a significant portion of prophetic rhetoric directed against foreign nations.
Jonah's Initial Response
The book of Jonah is made up of two major acts, each of which may be divided into constituent scenes. Since the lesson occurs at the beginning of the second act, we must be clear about what has happened before the curtain rises in chapter 3.
Initially, Jonah was charged with the task of going to Nineveh and "crying out against it." Like other prophets (Jer 1:6), Jonah objected. But unlike other prophets who uttered their objections, Jonah simply headed in the direction opposite from Nineveh. Why he acted in this way, we are not told (and we only find out in 4:2). In apparent response to his flight, God hurled a storm toward the sea. After negotiations with the sailors on shipboard, Jonah allowed himself to be cast into the sea, whereupon he was rescued by "a large fish." After thanking God for rescuing him, Jonah found himself back on dry land. With that backdrop, the second act can begin.
The Second Time Around
"The word of the Lord" came again to Jonah. The discerning reader will observe that the word in this second encounter (3:3) is not identical to that presented in 1:2. Earlier, Jonah had been called to cry out against the city; now he is charged with the task of proclaiming a message that "I tell you." The content of God's word toward Nineveh was not at this point revealed to Jonah.
One characteristic feature of the book of Jonah is its use of satire. The description of Nineveh in v. 3 provides a classic instance of this technique. If one may calculate that a human could walk ten miles in a day, then a three day walk would equal thirty miles, far larger than the scale of any ancient city (and Nineveh has been excavated). The author seems to be saying that despite Nineveh's legendary size, Jonah was able to proceed far into it before proclaiming his incendiary message.
If we may assume that Jonah does proclaim the word which God had promised to tell him, that divine word was one of judgment. More particularly, Jonah uttered one half of a typical prophetic oracle of judgment. Such oracles normally included a reason for that which would happen (cf. Nahum 3:4) and then a pronouncement of th second of these elements—"forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!"
As prophetic oracles go, this one was terribly brief, not the sort of speech someone would expect to effect a change in behavior. But Jonah's words—or perhaps better, God's message—had a remarkable effect. Everyone in the city (surely a case of hyperbole) put on sackcloth, and the people "believed God."
From Jonah's perspective, his words of judgment had precisely the opposite effect from that which he had expected. Nineveh had been engaged in "evil ways." On the basis of God's initial message to him, Jonah had anticipated that judgment would ensue. Yet, in radically dialectical fashion, the word of judgment had become an occasion for mercy. The threat that Nineveh experienced enabled a human response of remarkable repentance (3:6-9). And when God observed this change, the deity "changed his mind."
One hundred twenty thousand persons must have shouted for joy. But Jonah was "very displeased" (4:1). This prophet held deep convictions about a world in which God's justice should be evident. Jonah was willing to live and to die (1:12; 4:8,9) according to his perception of this world. And yet, God's world was bigger than Jonah's world. The divine perspective did call for obedience and justice. Nonetheless, there was also a place in this world for human contrition and divine forgiveness.
We do well to observe why it was that the deity responded to Nineveh in this way. The deity did not offer a judgment based upon human feelings. Rather the text specifies that "God saw what they did." Actual behavior, rather than some more subjective response became the basis upon which a decision for mercy was made. And this should not surprise us because Jonah's behavior, not his interior feelings, enabled this city to be saved. This individual was a true prophet, in spite of himself.
David L. Peterson