Beyond his peevishness, Jonah also has a death wish. He would rather die than fulfill his calling to save the hated Assyrians from imminent destruction.
The Assyrians were fearsome warriors who invaded the northern kingdom of Israel in the early eighth century BCE, destroying its key cities and deporting the survivors. Long after the fall of the Assyrian empire, an inspired writer drew on this distant memory to tackle the sensitive topic of God’s merciful love for one’s enemies. Although feelings of hostility toward the Assyrians had subsided over time, aware it remained a challenge to have this theme taken seriously, the author develops a novel approach to make it more palatable for the intended audience: knit it to an amusing tale.
This short story begins with Jonah receiving an unsolicited directive from God. He is to go immediately to the great city of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, and announce its demise. Jonah, however, disobeys his orders and immediately sets out in the opposite direction to flee from “the presence of the Lord.” This antic is intended to elicit a smile of amusement, for, as everyone knows, Jonah sets for himself the impossible task of escaping from the all-seeing eye of God.
Jonah’s choice of flight is a ship. Soon after it attempts to sail away, God sends a mighty storm to cause havoc aboard this vessel. Once it is determined Jonah is the cause of the gale, the polytheistic sailors seek guidance from Jonah as to how to placate his offended deity. His extreme, over-the-top solution, that he be thrown overboard should in the spirit of this comedic work be taken as a further humorous development.
Following their unsuccessful attempt to circumvent Jonah’s request, the sailors ask for forgiveness from Jonah’s God before they throw Jonah into the sea. The author then pokes fun at Jonah by having these polytheists appear more devout than he by having them offer a sacrifice and make vows to this God.
God spares Jonah from drowning by having a large fish swallow him up (there is no biblical Hebrew word for whale). For those who enjoy physical comedy, an amusing scene follows, which calls on the imagination. After swimming northward for three days, this big fish spews a stinking, disheveled Jonah onto shore as close to Assyria as it could swim. Saturated with remnants of partially digested fish, Jonah is now clearly in a state of ritual impurity. Yet, given the urgency of his mission, it appears God does not allow poor Jonah a chance to wash up before issuing him a second call to get a move on to Nineveh. This time Jonah follows orders — to a degree.
Jonah arrives at the exceedingly large city but, ever the reluctant prophet, he stops well short of its centre to proclaim, apparently once, his message of doom: “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!”
Shortly thereafter, Jonah’s worst fears are realized. The Assyrians heed his message! From the king all the way down to their livestock, mass repentance follows and to a ludicrous, unprecedented degree. Can cows repent? They do here. Moreover, not only does the king don sackcloth, he also vacates his throne to sit in ashes! Further humorous embellishment can be seen in the unheard-of practice of having the Assyrians and livestock alike forgo even the consumption of water as part of their fast.
Utterly disillusioned, Jonah’s death wish surfaces again, this time in a prayer in which he asks God to take his life. The essence of his prayer consists of an ancient credal statement (4:2b) cast as a complaint that God stayed true to his gracious, merciful nature and spared those Assyrians. In the context of the humour utilized in this story, the author hopes we will be amused by the audacity Jonah shows when castigating God for God’s praiseworthy attributes.
In the closing verse of this tale, God says to Jonah and by extension to the reader, “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh … in which there are more than 120 thousand persons … and also many animals?”
Given the sensitivity of this subject matter, the reader is gently invited into the story by means of this rhetorical question and indirectly asked to follow God’s example and forgive, even love their enemies, whomever they might be, although it may be difficult as can be seen in the uneasy, tug-of-war relationship that exists between God and Jonah.
Aware this message would be a hard sell, the author utilizes elements of comedy to win and keep the audience’s attention long enough to raise the climatic question that closes this teaching story. That this work made it into the Hebrew Bible testifies to the success of the writer’s approach.