Commentary: Jonah 3:1-5, 10
The book of Jonah makes the case for universalism through a striking story that contrasts God's universal love with an Israelite prophet's narrow minded exclusivism. The universalism portrayed here does not guarantee that all people will come to God but that any people may come to God. The story promises equal opportunity in reaching God but not necessarily an equal outcome, for forgiveness depends on repentance.
Although the point of the story outweighs its historical connections, such connections do exist. A prophet named Jonah son of Amittai lived in a town of Zebulun called Gathhepher, probably about three miles from the later town of Nazareth. Jonah's prophecy that Israel's northern border would again reach the entrance to Harnath—as it had in Solomon's time—found fulfillment during the reign of Jeroboam 11 in the first half of the eighth century BC (2 Kgs 14:25).
The familiar story of the book that bears the prophet's name describes Jonah's call to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh, capital of Assyria, and his attempt to escape the assignment by sailing to Tarshish (1:13). Hounded by a storm from Yahweh and swallowed by a "large fish" (1:417 NRSV), Jonah prays a prayer of repentance "from the belly of the fish" (2:19), leading Yahweh to cause the fish to spit "Jonah out upon the dry land" (2:10).
As the lesson begins, Yahweh speaks to Jonah again in language similar to his original call. (3:12, cf. 1:12) This time Jonah complies (v 3), though with a poor attitude, as the reader will soon discover (ch. 4).
The Hebrew text describes Jonah's destination as "a city great to God, a journey of three days" (v. 3). A city of three days' journey in diameter might seem too large, but the language might refer to the diameter of greater Nineveh,1 or perhaps to Nineveh's circumference instead (v. 4 suggests that the text refers to Nineveh's diameter).
When Jonah reaches the center of the metropolis, he proclaims Yahweh's message that the city has only forty days to live (v. 4). The message describes the city's doom without holding out any hope that God will change his mind, still, the Ninevites respond with a wholehearted turning away from their sins (v. 5). By fasting and wearing sackcloth, well known signs of repentance in the Old Testament, the pagan people of Nineveh demonstrate, in good ancient near eastern style, their determination to abandon their sins and turn to God.
Verses 69, not part of the lesson, shows how thoroughly the people of Nineveh display their repentance. Not only the people repent, but also their king (v. 6). Not only do people fast, but they make their animals fast as well (v. 7). Not only do they abstain from food, but they deny themselves water also (v. 7). This dramatic showing of contrition expresses the hope that "God may relent and change his mind…so that we do not perish" (v 9).
Indeed God's mind does change (v. 10). Although Jonah's message seemed to offer nothing but doom, the people's dramatic and heartfelt repentance moves God to change plans and leave Nineveh untouched by his anger.
The changing of God's mind creates more difficulties for present day Christians than it ever did for the Israelites. Perhaps we should think of the prophets' predictions, especially the predictions of doom, as conditional proclamations, threats or warnings rather than pronouncements of an unchangeable future. We may think of God as unchangeable and "impassible," i.e. untouched by emotion, but Israel did not. To insist that the Old Testament pictures of an emotional Yahweh who sometimes has changes of mind reflect the naive personification of an actually impassible deity risks letting the theological tail wag the exegetical dog.
The book of Jonah focuses on God's mercy, available to both the chosen people and the gentiles, and on the curious lack of mercy shown by the chosen once they forget that God chose them because of their need and not because of their virtue. The present passage teaches that God will accept heartfelt repentance, no matter who offers it, while the subsequent narrative (ch. 4) lampoons the notion that a righteous God ought to take advice from a self-righteous member of the chosen people and punish outsiders even when they repent. It almost appears that Jonah takes God's word to the Ninevites as a personal promise to him that God will destroy his (Jonah's) enemies, rather than a merciful threat that will eventually save Nineveh.
This Old Testament lesson has a slight connection to the corresponding gospel lesson in that Jesus appeared at first as a preacher of repentance, much like John the Baptist (Mt 3:12) and Jonah. Later in the gospel story we see the stronger connection between Jonah and Jesus, when Jesus connects himself with Jonah through a typological interpretation of Jonah's stay in the belly of the fish (Mt 12:3941, par Luke 11:29-30, 32).
Carl B. Bridges
1. Roland E. Murphy, "The Book of Jonah," in The Interpreter `s OneVolume Commentary on The Bible, ed. Charles M. Laymon (Nashville: Abingdon, 1971), pp. 480482.