THE BOOK OF JONAH 4

A study by Reverend Christopher Cooke

Ruins of Nineveh today

Chapter 4

Jonah 4:1-5: Jonah’s Anger.

Why is Jonah so angry?
Is it because his prophetic message now seems incorrect?
Is it because the people of Nineveh have been spared?
Or is there a justification to Jonah’s complaint?

“And Jonah is angry! Without hesitation this time, he prays to Yahweh a complaint. Here at last is the stated reason for fleeing in the first place. It was not that he feared the Ninevites’ evil (or so he claims) but that he feared that Yahweh would not pay them the evil that was their due”. David Gunn.
“Jonah had a strongly-based covenant theology, to which was added the blinkers of too narrow an election theology. He knew that God loved Israel and extended his mercy to his chosen people; he felt, in the very marrow of his bones, that this special love of God to Israel should not be extended to gentiles, above all to evil gentiles such as the inhabitants of Nineveh… The wrath of Jonah is thus an all-too-common human phenomenon. Having tasted the divine love, he could not bear to think of it being extended to others”. Peter Craigie.
“Yet is Jonah’s frustration at God’s change of mind totally unwarranted? Yahweh may be a God of hesed (steadfast love), but Jonah may well ask, How long will it be before these repenting Ninevites forsake their true hesed (loyalty)? Are we really to believe that the overnight conversion of the whole of evil Nineveh – including the animals – is not a farce? Perhaps Jonah sees only ‘skin-deep’ repentance”. David Gunn.

Is Jonah to be condemned or understood?
Do Christians often think like Jonah?

Jonah 4:6-11: God’s Great Love.

Do you feel sympathy for Jonah?

“The lesson that God is trying to teach Jonah, and us, is that we view the world the wrong way round. We should be grateful and praise God for the good that happens, and simply accept the rest. Good things are not our right, they are a gift and should be treated as such… It is not very surprising that Jonah did not understand God’s parable of the bush that withered. He had sunk so far into himself that he could not begin to understand the point that God was trying to make. In fact, he shows quite clearly that he has learnt nothing at all from the experience”. Paula Gooder.
“By now, the caricature of Israel in the person of Jonah has become so grotesque that the story might seem to have gone too far. But such is not the case. In the final question (verse 11), towards which the whole book moves, the narrator’s purpose is driven home with considerable force. ‘Should I not pity Nineveh?’ In the tradition of the audience to whom the story was first told, everything suggested the answer ‘No!’ An evil gentile city should not experience the divine pity… It was a frightening thought, for if the Lord of Israel was also the God of Nineveh, wherein lay the special status of the chosen people?” Peter Craigie.
Jonah’s “newfound pity is misplaced. Yahweh presses the moral: if a single plant – God-given and truly ephemeral – is to be pitied in its withering, how much more a great city of 120,000 people (and their cattle) in its destruction? The addition of cattle underlines the point. If Jonah can pity one plant, can he not do the same for all those cattle, whatever his problem with the people?” David Gunn.

What in our lives today is like Jonah’s bush – not ours by right but nice to have?

Can we only fully grasp the message of the Book of Jonah if we eradicate the prophet Jonah from within each of us?

“The story reaches its end, yet it is a curiously unfinished end. Does Jonah understand and accept Yahweh’s disturbing action and unsettling hesed? Does Yahweh forgive Jonah for his ‘evil’? Does the city of Nineveh retain its newfound hesed to God?” David Gunn.

Do we understand and accept God’s disturbing action and unsettling loyal love in this book?

Should God’s love not extend to the millions of people in the world today? And even the animals?

Commentary By Rev Christopher

Jonah 4:1-5: Jonah’s Anger.

Why is Jonah so angry?
Is it because his prophetic message now seems incorrect?
Is it because the people of Nineveh have been spared?
Or is there a justification to Jonah’s complaint?

God repents of the evil he was planning to do to Nineveh. David Gunn and Paula Gooder translate the Hebrew as continuing: “That was evil to Jonah, exceedingly evil!” Jonah goes on to pray that God will take his life because he sees no point in living. These words might echo the words of Elijah in 1 Kings but there is a lack of grandeur and more self-pity. This is, not least, because Elijah’s life was really threatened by Queen Jezebel and the prophets of Baal.

“And Jonah is angry! Without hesitation this time, he prays to Yahweh a complaint. Here at last is the stated reason for fleeing in the first place. It was not that he feared the Ninevites’ evil (or so he claims) but that he feared that Yahweh would not pay them the evil that was their due”. David Gunn.

Jonah cites what many of us find so attractive about God i.e. God’s hesed [loyalty, loving kindness]. Jonah uses words from Exodus chapter 34 again. For Jonah it is a serious problem that Yahweh is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in hesed, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” Jonah uses the words as an indictment against God rather than a good thing! Moses, in contrast to Jonah, seizes on this characteristic of God to seek to spare the rebellious Israelites. Jonah has been much criticized here by commentators on two main fronts.

  1. For some, he is only interested in preserving his reputation as a prophet since according to Deuteronomy chapter 18, the criterion for a true prophecy is fulfilment.
  2. Others claim that Jonah exhibits a ‘narrow’ post-Exilic religion which denies that Gentiles (non-Jews) merit God’s gracious mercy. Jonah represents nationalism as opposed to God’s universalism.

Peter Craigie thinks the first accusation levelled against Jonah is improbable. There is more in the second accusation.

“Jonah had a strongly-based covenant theology, to which was added the blinkers of too narrow an election theology. He knew that God loved Israel and extended his mercy to his chosen people; he felt, in the very marrow of his bones, that this special love of God to Israel should not be extended to gentiles, above all to evil gentiles such as the inhabitants of Nineveh… The wrath of Jonah is thus an all-too-common human phenomenon. Having tasted the divine love, he could not bear to think of it being extended to others”. Peter Craigie.
“Yet is Jonah’s frustration at God’s change of mind totally unwarranted? Yahweh may be a God of hesed (steadfast love), but Jonah may well ask, How long will it be before these repenting Ninevites forsake their true hesed (loyalty)? Are we really to believe that the overnight conversion of the whole of evil Nineveh – including the animals – is not a farce? Perhaps Jonah sees only ‘skin-deep’ repentance”. David Gunn.

Is Jonah to be condemned or understood?

The Lord God responds with a question: “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah’s pique is rather like a teenager’s tantrum, according to Paula Gooder. He makes himself a booth so he can look over Nineveh. Perhaps, the Ninevites will soon revert to their true colours. Perhaps, God will then listen to Jonah’s arguments.

Do Christians often think like Jonah?

Jonah 4:6-11: God’s Great Love.

Do you feel sympathy for Jonah?

The booth probably did not give much shade. David Gunn suggests this was a substitute templePaula Gooder notes that the area around Nineveh was notoriously short of timber, so the booth was probably made out of bricks and earth – not a very cool shelter. Jonah would therefore have been very grateful for the shade of a bush and very sorry for himself when it died. Peter Craigie thinks the word probably refers to the quick growing castor-oil plant. But then again, no-one had told him to sit in the heat of the sun and watch. This was Jonah’s choice. The worm, Peter Craigie thinks, was wood-worm or vine-weevil or some such beetle. If that was not bad enough, the scirocco began to blow – the warm air from the mountains of Iran.

“The lesson that God is trying to teach Jonah, and us, is that we view the world the wrong way round. We should be grateful and praise God for the good that happens, and simply accept the rest. Good things are not our right, they are a gift and should be treated as such… It is not very surprising that Jonah did not understand God’s parable of the bush that withered. He had sunk so far into himself that he could not begin to understand the point that God was trying to make. In fact, he shows quite clearly that he has learnt nothing at all from the experience”. Paula Gooder.

Once again Jonah declares he would rather die. But the saving of thousands of Ninevites hardly compares to a bush that died. It is the immaturity of Jonah that really strikes us.

Jonah trusts in good order and he has pity on the plant that had given him shade. His response to the death of the bush is undercutting his position and God asks Jonah a tricky question.

“By now, the caricature of Israel in the person of Jonah has become so grotesque that the story might seem to have gone too far. But such is not the case. In the final question (verse 11), towards which the whole book moves, the narrator’s purpose is driven home with considerable force. ‘Should I not pity Nineveh?’ In the tradition of the audience to whom the story was first told, everything suggested the answer ‘No!’ An evil gentile city should not experience the divine pity… It was a frightening thought, for if the Lord of Israel was also the God of Nineveh, wherein lay the special status of the chosen people?” Peter Craigie.
Jonah’s “newfound pity is misplaced. Yahweh presses the moral: if a single plant – God-given and truly ephemeral – is to be pitied in its withering, how much more a great city of 120,000 people (and their cattle) in its destruction? The addition of cattle underlines the point. If Jonah can pity one plant, can he not do the same for all those cattle, whatever his problem with the people?” David Gunn.

What in our lives today is like Jonah’s bush – not ours by right but nice to have?

Can we only fully grasp the message of the Book of Jonah if we eradicate the prophet Jonah from within each of us?

“The story reaches its end, yet it is a curiously unfinished end. Does Jonah understand and accept Yahweh’s disturbing action and unsettling hesed? Does Yahweh forgive Jonah for his ‘evil’? Does the city of Nineveh retain its newfound hesed to God?” David Gunn.

Do we understand and accept God’s disturbing action and unsettling loyal love in this book?

Should God’s love not extend to the millions of people in the world today? And even the animals?

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