The Message Of Jonah
By Jonathan Mitchell

In both Matthew and Luke (the only times Jonah is referenced in the NT), Jesus speaks of the "sign of Jonah." A sign is usually a symbolic message, and it points to something. In Matt. 12:39-41 Jesus used this story to refer to His burial and resurrection (and by implication the salvation that this would bring about the saving of the ship in the Jonah episode) and to impending judgment.

Turning to the story of Jonah we find that Jonah did not want to accept the prophetic assignment that Yahweh was giving him, and tried to escape out of the county to avoid bringing God's proclamation to Nineveh. It is interesting to note that he was leaving the territory in order to "flee to Tarshish from the presence of Yahweh." In 1:3 this statement is made twice. His call was to go east, but he went west. He apparently felt that by leaving Israel he could get away from Yahweh's "presence." This was a period where God was viewed as being localized: present with His people, living with them in first a tent and then a temple. So Jonah thought that a geographic change would get him away from his service to God.

But this story also represents a feeling in Israel (embodied in Jonah) that wanted destruction for its enemies (Nineveh, in this case), not salvation or mercy. As we follow the narrative, we see the message that God's sovereignty overrules Jonah's "free will." You can run but you cannot hide. So Jonah cries out to Yahweh (whom he considers to still be residing within the temple 2:7) for deliverance from what he considered to be the realm of death (2:2, "sheol"), from his doomed fate (2:5-6a) to the abyss (LXX) where the earth's bars closed around him.

According to His plan, God delivered Jonah (a figure of Israel) restoring him (and figuratively Israel) to the purpose of being a light unto the nations, even if doing so begrudgingly. Jonah gives the short message to Nineveh that within forty days (a figurative number of testing and trial that echoes Israel's forty years in the wilderness) Nineveh would be "overthrown" (or: changed about the Heb. "hpk" can also mean "to change in nature or in appearance, or to turn").

The story now presents this Gentile city-state as having great faith, because with this one announcement received as the negative meaning of "hpk" the people (including the king) believed Israel's prophet and took measures to show that everyone was repenting and turning from their worthless and evil ways and from violence. They had hope in Yahweh's mercy. And Yahweh responded in kind. We can observe that Jonah did not preach about God's mercy, nor suggest that God might change His mind. Yet they apparently did not have a theology that kept God from changing His mind. John Berquist points out, "Ironically, they turn out to be right about this; they may know more about correct theology than Israel itself did" (Judaism in Persia's Shadow, Fortress Press, 1995, p 226). He continues,

"The theological message of the book is clear: God wishes to save the world, and those who would work with God must be willing to work on behalf of the entire world.... God chooses to save such foolish persons with outrageously bad theology. The salvation of the story comes without a temple, without a sermon, without even hearing the name Yahweh. The Ninevites do not worship properly, do not pray to Yahweh, and do strange things with their animals. The strategy for salvation as presented in this story is so radically universalistic that the only operative factor is God's choice to save" (ibid).

But Jonah was not happy about this. And in Christian orthodox tradition, the thought of God showing mercy and saving after His judgment has been pronounced is not usually an accepted position about the salvation of humanity. Perhaps what we see is that God's message to Nineveh contained the positive meaning of "hpk": to change in nature, to turn. In this story,

"God uses this as a lesson to teach Jonah about care for creation [the cattle, 4:11]; how much more should God care for Nineveh?.... Jonah, then, faces another choice: whether to participate in this universalism or not. His choice to resist God results in his own misery on the fringes of human society.... The proper relationship with God requires participation in an international web of order; those who desire Jerusalem's [or, Christianity's] ascendancy violate God's desire" (ibid p 225, 226; brackets mine).

This is the sign, the message, of Jonah. God is working in every society and in every culture, not just in Christianity. The work of the cross demonstrated God's love for all, as we read in 1 John 2:2.

"And He Himself exists continually being a cleansing, sheltering cover around our mistakes and errors, sheltering us from their effects so that we can be in peaceful and rightwised relationships (or: being the act by which our sins and failures are cleansed and made ineffective, effecting conciliation [to us]), yet not only around those pertaining to us (or: having their source in us), but further, even around the whole ordered System (secular realm and dominating world of culture, economy, religion and government; or: universe; or: aggregate of mankind)!"


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