The following meditation was written by Nathanael Hood,
a senior student at Princeton Theological Seminary
“God said to Jonah, ‘Is your anger about the shrub a good thing?’ Jonah said, ‘Yes, my anger is good—even to the point of death!’ But the Lord said, ‘You “pitied” the shrub, for which you didn’t work and which you didn’t raise; it grew in a night and perished in a night. Yet for my part, can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’”
Jonah 4: 9-11 (Common English Bible)
The Book of Jonah is one of the most unusual in the Bible. Tucked away among the Minor Prophets at the tail end of the Hebrew Bible, it’s radically different from its neighbors. Unlike the other prophetic books, Jonah primarily tells the story of what its prophet did, not necessarily what its prophet said. And what a story! A reluctant, cowardly prophet! A man eaten by a giant fish somehow surviving in its belly for three days! Desperate eleventh-hour appeals to God and dramatic reversals of fortune! The unanimous repentance before God of an entire pagan city! Field animals donning mourning clothes alongside their masters! Even its spatial dimensions stretch beyond credulity: the doomed city of Nineveh is described as requiring three days to cross on foot. For reference, according to Google Maps, it only takes eight hours to traverse New York City from the bottom of Brooklyn to the tip of the Bronx. The Book of Jonah is an outlandish, dramatic tale that scratches the very human itch for the strange and fantastic. Is it any wonder it’s a favorite of storytellers, scribes, and Sunday school teachers?
However, the Book of Jonah also bears a more unfortunate distinction: it’s one of the most abridged, misunderstood stories in the Bible. We Christians have a nasty habit of neglecting the last chapter of the book, which brings the rest of the story into sharp, uncomfortable focus. After Jonah begrudgingly obeys God’s command to preach repentance to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, he becomes infuriated when God honors the city dwellers’ repentance and doesn’t destroy them. An incensed Jonah rages against the Almighty’s mercy and reveals his true character: he didn’t flee from God’s command to travel to Nineveh because he feared the Assyrians; he fled because he knew God would spare them if they repented! It was his hatred of Nineveh that spurred him to Tarshish.
When God challenges Jonah for questioning God’s mercy, Jonah responds like an indignant toddler, storming to the outskirts of the city. Once there, he builds a hut, sits down, and faces the city, almost like he’s trying to will God to change God’s mind and smite Nineveh with the sheer force of his will. Like a patient parent, God causes a tree to grow over him so he might sit in the shade. But after a day of Jonah not getting the hint, God smites the tree with a terrible worm. When Jonah yells at God for destroying his shade, God challenges him once again, asking if his anger is justified. Once more, like a child stamping its foot, Jonah whines and wishes he might die. To which God responds with a simple question: why are you more upset about the life of a tree than the lives of thousands of people and animals in Nineveh?
Contrary to how the Book of Jonah is commonly understood, it’s not a story celebrating the faithfulness and power of God to save God’s faithful. It’s not a story meant to complement Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the furnace or Daniel in the lion’s den. The book generously mixes satire, humor, and folklore to challenge its reader to self-examine their obedience to God’s command of loving their neighbor. If Jonah truly loved the Lord his God, he would have rejoiced at the salvation of the Assyrians, the hated enemies of the Jews who sacked their cities and murdered their people. But it offers a second, just as potent challenge to its reader: what kind of God do we truly want to believe in? Jonah’s idealized God of vengeance and wrath, slayer of the weak and repentant? Or the Bible’s revealed God of mercy and justice, forgiver of sins, and bringer of salvation? May we choose better than this spiteful prophet.