The Ninevites and the Al Qaeda:
Contemporary Lessons of the Book of Jonah
May 2, 2011
In the biblical book of Jonah, a man who is the victim of a violent crime is asked by God to offer the hand of peace and salvation to the very people who committed the crime against him. Jonah is understandably unwilling. The Ninevites are criminals in Jonah’s experience. If they convert to the religion of YHWH, they will be Ninevites all the same. And, Jonah fears, God will show them mercy, forgiveness that Jonah does not believe they deserve, salvation to which he does not wish to be a party.
It is very much the same quandary that presents itself to Christians this week following the death of Osama bin Laden. Here is a man who has committed a heinous crime against the United States. We as a country and a culture have hunted him down and sought our own retribution in kind. What remains are his people, Al Qaeda, our sworn enemies. And we as Christians are called by God to love our enemies, to hold out the hand of peace and salvation to the very people who committed the crime against us. But even if we reach out to them in compassion as bearers of God’s love, they will be Al Qaeda all the same. Jonah hoped for the destruction of the Ninevites, he feared that God would let them live. Can we, as emissaries of a God of love, find it in ourselves to pray that God’s will be done to our enemies, even if it means that Al Qaeda goes unpunished?
The book of Jonah offers us an opportunity to examine our internal conflict in the context of Scripture. Jonah is a character in very much the same situation. He struggles with setting aside his own opinions and fulfilling the call of the Lord. Scholarly criticism frequently interprets Jonah as a character as representing the people of Israel, God’s people. They tend to interpret the story as instructional, though they disagree as to what the lesson may be. In any case, for generations, Jonah has been held up as an instructional narrative. This work attempts to explore how Jonah as a literary character speaks to us today, as the people of God in light of current events.
The Book of Jonah
The book of Jonah is to some degree an unknown quantity. There is relatively little in the text to suggest a firm date of authorship beyond a very general “late exilic or post exilic period.” There is some debate over the composition of the text: it may be a composite of various pre-existing elements and it certainly embodies a long standing folkloric tradition (Limburg, 1993). The ambiguity of the intended audience at once confounds some scholars, and delights others, as it opens the door to broader and more radial hermeneutical application. It is this aspect of the Jonah story which I will exploit in this examination.
While the story’s historical context is uncertain, its setting is solid: the Jonah mentioned in the books is evidently the same Jonah as appears in 2 Kings 14:25 and is there identified as a prophet. As is common to biblical narrative, Jonah’s name may hold some clues as to what we are to think of him. Jonah, the Hebrew word for “dove” might hold the same connotation to its contemporary audience as it would to modern ears: he is an emissary of peace, an extended olive branch following an act of violence (See Genesis 8:6-12). Further, the dove as an image would very likely have communicated to the text’s intended audience that Jonah was meant to represent the people of Israel. “Ben Amittai” translates to “son of the faithful one”(Trible 1998) perhaps indicating that he comes from a tradition of piety. For our purposes, it bears repeating: Jonah ben Amittai is a messenger of peace, a symbol of Israel and of a long tradition of faithfulness to YHWH.
According to 2 Kings, Jonah of Amittai lived during the reign of Jeroboam, II (785-744BCE). Accepting that date, Jonah had very good reason to resist any contact with the people of Nineveh:
During the reign of King Menahem ben-Gadi, shortly after Jeroboam II's reign and before the conquest of 722 B.C.E. the King of Assyria imposed his rule over the land, making Menahem a vassal ruler who paid allegiance and taxes to Assyria. Assuming that political events do not happen in a vacuum, we can assume that during Jonah's lifetime, the Assyrians were already seen as a grave threat to the Northern Kingdom. We can then further assume that in those days Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria could stand for an arch-enemy poised for the destruction of Israel.
Nineveh’s reputation in other books of the Bible is no more flattering:
Woe to the bloody city,
All full of lies and booty… (Nahum 3:1)
It is to this horrible place, to these reprehensible people, that Jonah ben Amittai is sent on an errand of the Lord.
Also important to our application is the idea that Jonah might be considered a parable (Trible 1998, 469). A parable is a literary device which uses hyperbolic or exaggerated characters, events or language in the context of a narrative. It frequently incorporates irony to enable the audience to perceive the absurdity and incorporate the lesson or objective of the story. As rule, parables are used in biblical narrative in order to communicate moral or ethical guidance and/or social correction (for example, 2 Samuel 12, in which Nathan relates the parable of the rich man and the lamb as a corrective to King David). If we look at the story of Jonah as a parable, as a satire of traditional prophetic literature (Trible 1998, 474), then we must ask ourselves with whom we are meant to identify in the text. As Jonah seems to have been intended to personify Israel, that is the “us” in this text, we are, inescapably, meant to identify with Jonah (Trible 1998, 467).
Looking at Jonah
Having established his narrative and literary context, let us take a closer look at Jonah as a character.
Jonah is not a prophet. The text begins with a word from God (1:1). As a rule, prophets who are told by the Almighty to jump, ask “how high?” Jonah runs the other way: “Go at once to Nineveh…But Jonah set out to flee” (Jonah 1:2-3). Much has been made of the fact that Jonah’s behavior is unconventional for a biblical prophet. However, in the book of Jonah, there is no mention of Jonah as a prophet, it is only in reference to 2 Kings and where commentators have perceived the Jonah story to be midrash on 2 Kings, that his role as a prophet is explicit (Trible 1998, 472). As a matter of fact, Jonah bears very little resemblance to a traditional biblical prophet. Biblical prophets tend to speak to Israelites (the exception is Elijah who prophecies to foreigners) (Trible 1998, 481), their prophecies are more specific about what kind if sinning is happening and what consequences lie ahead if we proceed down that road and as a rule prophets are pleased at the success of their prophecy, whereas Jonah is decidedly not (4:5). Thus, while Jonah ben Amittai may be a prophet in 2 Kings, in the book of Jonah he is not acting like one.
It is the overwhelming irony of the story of Jonah that, despite his departure from the prophetic type and his utter lack effort, he manages to convert everyone he comes in contact with. By the time he departs the ship, the sailors are converted: “Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows” (1:16). With one phrase uttered on the outskirts of town, every Ninevite down to his donkey is converted (3:9).
Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’(Jonah 3:6-9)
Jonah is insincere. Jonah is confronted with a task he does not wish to perform, so he runs away, he flees the “presence of the Lord” (1:3). Now, he knows this is an exercise in futility. He describes God as sovereign over all Creation (1:9), but that doesn’t stop him. He hires a ship with a pagan crew and goes the opposite way from Nineveh (1:4). If Jonah were a stereotypical prophet, he might get onto the pagan ship and start shouting the praises of the Lord, but instead the sailors on the ship are the first to mention YHWH and must call on the prophet to speak to the god for whom he theoretically is the mouth piece:
The captain came and said to him, ‘What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.’ (1:6)
But alas, Jonah is no more inclined toward typical prophetic behavior now that he’s had a storm thrown at him.
The message with which Jonah is charged is significant, as well. “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2, 3:2). We are not told in this verse exactly what Jonah is to say. It is not altogether clear that YHWH has the destruction of Nineveh in mind until 3:10: “God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.” Upon arriving in Nineveh, and creeping in a few feet, his prophecy is a mere 8 words long (5 in Hebrew), a half a verse in our modern translations. He doesn’t tell the Ninevites what to change, how or even to repent of evil, and he doesn’t even mention YHWH at all: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (3:4b).
It is interesting to note that Jonah is almost as averse to being proactive as he is to the commission he has been given. He is called on to perform a task for his Lord and, having flagrantly headed in the wrong direction, proceeds to take a nap. When something has to be done to end the storm and save the lives of the sailors, Jonah is picked up and thrown into the sea (1:15). It is the sailors who take action that might enable Jonah to complete his mission (1:13). Jonah asks twice for God to take his life (4:3, 8). He doesn’t take any initiative himself, he just begs for death. Even when finally driven to complete his task, Jonah fails to measure up to our expectations as a representative of God. Despite the city’s being “a three days walk across” (3:3), Jonah walks only part of the way in – a day’s walk (3:4).
Jonah is not angry at Nineveh. It is significant that the book of Jonah does not end with Nineveh complying. The story is not about Nineveh, after all. It is about Jonah, about Jonah’s relationship with God and himself. It is for this reason that the last chapter of the book, and indeed the last verses, are among the most compelling of the entire work. We learn in the fourth chapter why Jonah fled from his duty as a servant of YHWH. Jonah is not angry at Nineveh after all. He is angry at YHWH:
He prayed to the LORD and said, ‘O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. (Jonah 4:2)
These words echo a description of the attributes of God, a formula which appears in a number of places in the Hebrew Bible (Dozeman 1989). But here he turns the recitation of praise into an accusation. These divine qualities praised elsewhere in the Bible, are supremely frustrating for Jonah.
It is at this point that God asks Jonah the pivotal question of this text: “Is it right to be angry?” Initially, he asks the more general question, after he has apparently made a decision about Nineveh. The second instance, however, follows his provision and then destruction of a plant to shade Jonah. He asks specifically if it is appropriate for Jonah to be angry “about the plant.”
God’s action and question served to reinforce Jonah’s anger at divine justice. Now Jonah’s own experience with destruction as the hands of God has convinced him that God is not just.
In Chapter 1, Jonah knew YHWH created all the earth and sea and still sought to “get away from” him. Now, Jonah, knowing and loving God for the attributes he names here, is still unable to keep from resenting him for those very reasons.
Jonah was committed to a God of strict justice and was scandalized by God’s compassion for those he considered to be wicked and due for severe punishment – the justice/mercy conflict. (Magonet 1992, 941)
Jonah is not a paragon. Finally, it is critical to note that the weight of scholarship thinks of Jonah “whose values are the inverse of those of the real prophets” as a parody (Magonet 1992). Parody depends on the audience knowing what is expected in a certain context and being surprised when they find the reverse. By exaggerating certain characteristics, parody enables the audience to perceive the absurdity of a situation or character. As mentioned above, Jonah can be thought of as representing the people of Israel and his absurdities, therefore, are subject to the scrutiny of, and hopefully be modified by, the text’s intended audience. Jonah is not a paragon, then, but a parody, a character with whose foibles and flaws the reader is intended to identify… and consequently reject.
What we are not asked to do.
Let us look at Jonah, then, as a cautionary character. He has been called to offer forgiveness to his enemies; he has spoken God’s truth to them through clenched teeth and thereby become the unwilling vehicle of their salvation. Jonah is now faced with the very conflict that confronts us as Americans and Christians this week.
In the wake of our righteousness, we, like Jonah, have been given a task by God. And, we, like Jonah, are asked to do what is painful to us. We are asked to be the faces and hands of God’s peace in relationship with an enemy we have learned to despise. Jonah offers us a lens with which to examine what are and are not asked to do as we live out this calling.
We are not asked to be prophets. Nowhere in our text is Jonah called a prophet and, as pointed out above, nowhere in our text does he act like one. Neither should we. Unless we have been chosen, we are not in the business of predicting outcomes in the name of the Lord. We should not be tempted to predict dire consequences and ascribe them to the Almighty. We should not be on a mission unless we are sent on that mission.
We are not asked to be martyred. Jonah’s life was never in danger. Jonah repeatedly begged for death (2:12, 4:3, 8) but God did not permit it. Even when Jonah was tossed overboard like so much ballast, God sent a great fish for his rescue. Our own destruction is not a part of the salvation of our enemies. In this case at least, what is necessary for the healing of what is broken in creation is not self-sacrifice. It may be self-examination, it is certainly self-discipline, but it is not martyrdom.
We are not asked to convert anyone. Note that Jonah was not asked to convert anyone in Nineveh. He was asked to give them God’s message and while we don’t know exactly what that was, the words Jonah spoke were not evangelistic: ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ It was left to the Holy Spirit to do the rest and because Jonah didn’t get in the way, it all went down with amazing smoothness. From the beginning of the text of Jonah to the end, there is no indication that God wanted their fealty. He wanted them to “give up their wickedness.” God never spoke of converting them to Yahwism. It may have been in his mind, it may just have been gravy, but in any case, the conversion of the Ninevites was not part of Jonah’s prophetic call. Jonah was called to do as he was asked, God was sovereign over the rest. We would do well to remember that.
We are not asked to decide the fate of our enemies. The overarching lesson of Jonah is that God is sovereign: “Deliverance belongs to the Lord” (2:9b). We can lie down and go to sleep and God will get the work done. We can run as fast as we can in the other direction, and God will get it done. We can argue and threaten and pout and God will get the job done. And he may even use us against our will to get the job done, as he did with Jonah, but ultimately our will is not the operant force in the process.
What we are asked to do.
Just as it did to Jonah, the word of the Lord came to us. We, like Jonah, have been given a task: to “love God with all our hearts, our minds and our souls and to love our neighbors as ourselves” (Matt 7:12). That is our calling, simple but not easy, short but not sweet. Jonah was asked by God to take a message of tenderness to people he despised with all his heart and he tried to escape the calling. He fled, but he failed. God was with him in the depths of his despair and in the belly of the Great fish (2:10). There is no depth to which we can sink from which God cannot rescue us. With this confidence we are asked by God to perform one and only one task: To love God with all our hearts, with all our souls and with all our minds and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
We are asked to love God with our whole heart. Whenever we go into the world, we are emissaries of the Word. It is a kind of incidental evangelism. We are loving because we are loved by God. We are righteous because we have a righteous God. We are compassionate because we have a compassionate God. We are created in the image of God and we try to live that out daily. Even when meeting the enemy face to face. Even when speaking in public about the enemy, even when filled with rage that “burns” like the rage in Jonah (Trible 1998, 517). Even then we are the face of God to others and we must embody that evangelism responsibly.
We are asked to love God with our whole mind. We believe that man is made in God’s image. Even members of al Qaeda. We may be furious and hurt, we may need consolation and desire justice, but we cannot forget that God created all men, all men, in his image and what we do or say to our fellow man; we do or say to God and his creation.
We are asked to love God with our whole soul. We are asked to show mercy and to offer compassion. We are asked to give generously to those who have taken from us, simply because they have need. We are asked to look at the children of Al Qaeda and see only children of God.
And we are asked to love our neighbor as ourselves. We love ourselves even though we know the ugly truth about ourselves. We are sometimes cowardly (1:3), we are sometimes petty (2:8), and we are insincere (3:4) and resentful (4:2). But the book of Jonah gives us an opportunity to see those weaknesses for what they are and to address them. We get up every morning and look in the mirror at a flawed person; we forgive that person and try to begin again in a new day. That is how we love ourselves, one day at a time, one sin at a time, with chagrin, humility and faith. That is how we are asked to love our neighbor.
Even the neighbor we hate.
The book of Jonah asks many difficult questions: Why do good things happen to bad people? Is God arbitrary or unjust? And finally: Are we right to be angry at God for being compassionate to those whom we despise? It asks these questions, but it does not answer them: “the ultimate fate of its principle characters is undetermined.” This is perhaps the most telling fact of all about the book of Jonah.
I am not sorry that Osama bin Laden is dead. But I am not glad. I am not willing to call back the forces deployed to protect my children from terrorist attacks, but I do not want them to drop another bomb on a village in Iraq. I have not forgotten the people I loved and lost on September 11, 2001 and I have not forgiven their murderers. And so, though I have scoured the text and read the commentaries and searched my heart, I confess, I still have no answer to the questions put to us in the book of Jonah.
Perhaps that is why the book of Jonah ends on a question mark.