Jonah: The Key to Understanding Jewish Prophecy

I think that most of us who are familiar with the story of Jonah in the Bible think about him trapped in the belly of a whale. The most common moral of the book is that we can’t run from God. That’s how I grew up with it at least. Over the last few years, I’ve realized that the heart of the story is actually the conclusion. In a way, the last chapter of Jonah is the key to understanding all the rest of the prophets.

The story most of us are familiar with is that Jonah was called by God to go to Nineveh to prophesy their destruction. He didn’t like that idea so he tried to flee on a ship in the opposite direction. Insistent on His plans, God sent a storm that resulted in Jonah getting tossed off the ship, swallowed by a whale and then spit out on the shore near Nineveh.

Having had a sort of conversion moment in the belly of the whale, Jonah did what God had asked this time and went around the city proclaiming God’s judgment. In response, the people of Nineveh believed in God and repented. Seeing their faith and repentance, God withdrew his anger and didn’t destroy the city. You would think this would be the conclusion but it isn’t.

After Nineveh is saved, Jonah huffs off and shouts at God: “Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people. Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen” (Jonah 4:2-3).

I’ve always been amused that Jonah tries to insult God with His good qualities. You’d think he’d be happy that God is compassionate, slow to be angry and filled with unfailing love. No, he’s pissed. Maybe because he feels like God made him look like a fool because his prophesy didn’t come true. Maybe because he didn’t like God having compassion on people of than the Israelites. The writer doesn’t really give us any clues but he’s sure is a petulant child about it.

God simply replies, “Is it right for you to be angry about this?” Jonah doesn’t even respond, he just melodramatically leaves the city and goes on a hillside where he can stare at it, hoping God will change his mind and destroy it.

Instead God makes a plant grow that shelters Jonah from the sun and heat. After he’s become fond of the plant God makes it wither and die. Again, Jonah goes on a melodramatic tirade complaining about the plant this time. Yet again, he wishes he would die.

God responds, “You feel sorry about the plant, though you did nothing to put it there. It came quickly and died quickly. But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?”

That’s where the story ends with that question from God.

Maybe this part of the story doesn’t seem significant to you but it gives insight into all of the books of Jewish prophesy. As Walter Kaufman, a Jewish scholar, says:

“Hebrew prophecy was not meant to come true.

The Hebrew prophets foretold disasters that would come to pass unless those who heard them returned from their evil ways. Jeremiah did not gloat when Jerusalem was destroyed; he was grieved of his failure.

Jonah, of course, felt aggrieved when his prophecy forestalled its own fulfillment; but this only provides the occasion for the moral of the story. He is told, and we are told, that this sort of failure is a triumph.”

The prophecy Kaufman is referring to are the prophets messages of destruction, not Messianic prophecies. His quote echoes what I was taught in my Old Testament class in college, that the purpose of God’s prophecies are to draw His people back to Himself.

Recently, when I was re-reading the book of Jeremiah I kept thinking about this. Those prophecies are agonizing to read. The disasters he foretells are heartbreaking. It could be easy to think that Jonah is wrong. That God isn’t compassionate, slow to anger or full of unfailing love. That God desires vengeance, not peace.

But if you read the books of the Kings, God’s anger is justified. The books of the Kings are not only filled with lots of idolatry, they are soaking in blood. Murder, not just war, is rampant. Child sacrifice is prevalent (God takes this very seriously, repeatedly he says in Jeremiah, “they have filled this place with the blood of innocent children!… I have never commanded such a horrible deed; it never even crossed my mind to command such a thing!”)*. In Jeremiah and Isaiah, God makes it very clear that this is why He is angry:

When you lift up your hands in prayer, I will not look.
Though you offer many prayers, I will not listen,
for your hands are covered with the blood of innocent victims.
Wash yourselves and be clean!
Get your sins out of my sight.
Give up your evil ways.
Learn to do good.
Seek justice.
Help the oppressed.
Defend the cause of orphans.
Fight for the rights of widows.

(Isaiah 1: 15-17)

God becomes harsh because He is forced to become harsh. He removes His hand of protection and gives them over to the nations they’ve been flirting with because He cannot let them continue to murder bearing His name (Don’t we Christians wish that the Crusaders had not murdered in God’s name? That the Lord’s Resistance Army in Africa was not murdering in God’s name? That people who commit hate crimes against the LGBT community and minorities would not do it in God’s name? If we are offended by this, how much more is God?).

Jonah is our reminder that God desires is not punishment or vengeance, but repentance and peace. That He never wanted His prophecies to come true. That as much as He thirst for justice, He desires to show mercy and love.



*Endnote: If you would argue that God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, you would be forgetting that God did not let him kill Isaac. God gave that task to Abraham to powerfully test his faith because he was going to establish him and his wife as the parents of a nation and grandparents of a savior. It is an event that also foreshadows the cross, God’s sacrifice of his only son for the world. He never commands anyone to actual sacrifice a child but instead is very much against it.

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