3:10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.Jonah 3:10-4:11
4:1 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2 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. 3 And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 And the LORD said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” 5 Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. 6 The LORD God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” 9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10 Then the LORD said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
When I learned about the Book of Jonah as a child, I was taught three things: 1) that this was a fun fable about the power of God…and whales, 2) that Jonah was a stubborn, petulant figure disobeying God’s direct orders in a childish tantrum…and whales, and finally 3) that God was so powerful and God could make an entire city repent their evil ways immediately upon hearing Jonah’s reluctantly delivered message. I was given the Sunday School equivalent of a pat on the head, and was told to sing a song about a happy whale, a cranky Jonah, and an endlessly patient God who treated Jonah with the kind of gentle-but-firm approach I was told I should treat “nonbelievers.” Like Jonah, I was told that I had the responsibility to spread the message of God to those who still reject God. In this scenario, those who were reluctant about evangelizing the message of Christ were akin to Jonah, while the “unchurched” world was Nineveh, struggling with a spiritual hunger for Christ – they just didn’t know it yet.
Dear me, how we have butchered and abused this text, strangling it so completely that we seem incapable of truly hearing the depths of Jonah’s fury, trauma, and pain. And thus, we miss the entire point of the text.
Jonah is oppressed people everywhere, while Nineveh is the oppressor. For much of the world, the United States is Nineveh. Jonah is Black people, Indigenous people, LGBTQ+ people, all of those whom white supremacy has held under its boot for four centuries. The vast majority of people who were taught the fairy tale Jonah I was taught have missed the point: we are Nineveh, and Jonah has every right to be incensed about our seemingly “cheap” salvation. Yet, the God who rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt, the God who lives amongst the most oppressed and the poorest, this God – this is the same God who demanded that Jonah travel into the very belly of the beast (both figuratively in terms of traveling to the heart of the Assyrian Empire, and, well, literally) to reconcile Nineveh back to full relationship with God. This should be grabbing your attention, because the first question should be: why?
In some fairness to the diligent folks who taught me the version of Jonah described above, the book is a fable, at least in the sense that history does not record a mass repentance event for the Assyrian Empire. Instead, the author of the book of Jonah uses the construct of the reluctant prophet preaching to his enemies in order to grant the imaginative space necessary to speak some challenging truths. Like fables generally, though, while some of their messages are universal to the human condition, one cannot understand their core ideas without a common language and context. In this case, the key lies in the historical significance of using Nineveh as the city to which Jonah is sent. The evil of Nineveh was quite accurate; it was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, one of several empires to rise and fall along the shores of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
As these empires shared geographical proximity, they also shared similar governance practices: both the Babylonian and Assyrian empires would conquer through a form of geographical migration, where they would invade an area and uproot the heart of their society, forcing them to move to another region of the empire. The absolute confusion and terror this engendered would ensure that the people were never able to rise against their oppressors due to ignorance (having no knowledge about the place in which they were forced to live and work), starvation (“uprooting” was meant literally: they lost their carefully tended fields, which often took generations to cultivate), and cultural trauma (as many national gods were literally tied to the land itself, many people were faced with being literally, physically distanced from their gods, forcing them to turn to the gods of the empire for comfort and succor). In this way, these empires would cut the heart out of a people, in effect killing their entire sense of “peoplehood.” I think that it is fair to say that this form of cultural genocide was, and still is, entirely and irrefutably “evil,” whether it be against Uighurs or the American Indian tribes pushed across the North American continent in a process eerily similar to that of the Assyrian Empire.
Jonah would have been entirely aware of this context when God sent him to seek out Nineveh’s repentance and potential salvation. While the historical dating of Jonah’s composition is somewhat hazy, it’s highly likely that the audience for whom the author of Jonah was writing was either about to encounter Assyria’s attempt at cultural genocide, or had already been violated by it, and was seeking to come to terms with what it meant.
It’s no wonder that Jonah had very little desire to obey God’s request, while his desire to escape to the absolute end of the known world is perfectly understandable. Jonah is unique amongst Biblical prophets for delivering prophecies outside of the territory of his own country, directly to people other than his own people. God was demanding that Jonah walk into the center of the capital city of the empire that almost destroyed his people, or was about to, and to walk around the city declaring the wrath of a god whom they considered not just inferior to their own, but whom their gods actually conquered. Not only would the mission be suicidal, the Ninevites would consider it anywhere from laughable to heretical. In the world present in the historical record, Jonah would have been immediately imprisoned, or even killed on the spot, the moment he opened his mouth inside the city’s walls. The sheer impossibility of the task would have been obvious to the original audience of this text, and the emotional resonance of having your God offer salvation to the empire that sought to cut off God from God’s people would not have been lost.
As a result, Jonah is not the silly figure we’ve made him into. He was justified in his anger, and any reading of the text that diminishes that truth misses the point of the text. Note, as well: at no point in this entire story is Jonah ever in any real danger. God keeps Jonah entirely safe. God just simply won’t allow Jonah to escape his role in Nineveh’s salvation.
I’m left with the discomfiting truth that as a citizen of the United States of America who was born during the Twentieth Century, who lives on Lenni Lenape land and who reaps every privilege accorded my white skin, I will forever be Nineveh. I will never truly be able to feel Jonah’s fury: I can only seek to understand it.
So, how can I, a Ninevite, make sense of the stupefying miracle of the mass and immediate repentance of my people? In reality, I can’t, because to repent on such an immediate level, and to such a thoroughgoing extent, seems so impossible as to be beyond even the most fantastical of imaginative leaps. Now, my people have repented of great evils in the past, and sometimes at seemingly dizzying speed. As a queer kid raised in the 1980s and 90s, the speed with which LGBTQ+ people have achieved rights and status in my country has left me gasping for air. My daughter thinks that I am telling fairy tales when I describe what life was like for me when I was her age. Yet, as we know, acceptance of LGBTQ+ people isn’t universal in all areas of the US. This past summer, it seemed as if the country finally experienced a sea change in its recognition that Black lives do, in fact, matter. Yet, again, this recognition is far from universal and is still considered controversial in many circles. Our repentance is still incomplete.
Jonah has every reason to be sceptical of Nineveh’s repentance and is right to be so. From his perspective, the reconciliation Nineveh receives from God is cheap. As Miguel A. De La Torre recognises in Liberating Jonah: Forming an Ethics of Reconciliation, the way “reconciliation” is often taught in white American Christian settings has rendered it suspect, as it tends the centre the concerns and perspectives of the privileged (p. 6). It often ignores the necessary, but painful, work of recalibrating the balance of power and privilege that would accompany any “true” reconciliation. This work is complicated, and it requires a complete reassessment of the foundational aspects of a society. As John Paul Lederach first explicated in his now classic work, Building Peace, reconciliation must involve a delicate balance between four elements – Truth, Mercy, Justice, and Peace – which must all be present and must all go down to the very core of a society (p. 28). For example, any reconciliation that is absent the presence of complete justice – a justice which not only recognises the existence of injustices, but which completely reimagines those structural aspects that created and sustained the situation of injustice – is not only a cheap reconciliation, but also a false one.
From Jonah’s perspective, all that Nineveh had done in 3:9 was wear uncomfortable hairshirts for a day, in a performance of repentance, which God had the audacity to repay with complete forgiveness in 3:10. Jonah’s absolute rage in 4:1-3 makes complete sense, as is his request to be relieved of his life by God: for in a world where God can simply ignore the injustice of genocide, everything that Jonah believes in and stands for is forfeit. Jonah proceeds to leave the city in disgust and build a shelter high above the city where he can watch them quickly return to the old, evil ways (4:5).
Yet, this is where the true message of the book emerges, for God simply asks Jonah twice if he is right to be angry: once when the power of Jonah’s fury dashes upon the rocks of God’s seeming implacability in 4:4, and in 4:9 after Jonah’s fury has changed into a pitiable lament. Both times Jonah pleads for God to ease his pain by simply ending his life, and both times God asks Jonah if he is right to be angry. God doesn’t address the actual request – for death – but instead addresses Jonah’s unspoken demand: “how is it justice for Nineveh, this evil place who almost destroyed your own people, to be reconciled to you?” God, and the author of the book of Jonah, then lays out the breathtaking intent of this entire saga with Jonah: that God is the God of all, and as such cares deeply about all living things, from the bush (4:10) all the way to the entire city of Nineveh (4:11). The implication is that God would not stop at just Nineveh, but extend that care to all life, everywhere.
This expansive, universalist vision is breathtaking in its scope and dizzying in its implications. Yet, this point is essential: it only occurs after Nineveh shows true repentance. The God present in the book of Jonah is a God who never gives up hope on anyone, even those who have perpetrated the worst evils. Also, the God present here is a God who demands that we repent thoroughly, completely, and without reservation. This is not a cheap reconciliation, but a very costly one indeed.
I’m left wondering what true repentance would look like for my people – the Ninevites of our current moment. Will any reconciliation we receive from God be incomplete until the time we Ninevites finally show a complete repentance of the genocides that built the foundation of white supremacy upon which the structures of our society rest? I must accept that the answer is very likely yes, and Jonah would be completely justified in dismissing our repentance as simply a nifty performance.