The book of Jonah is funny—not just peculiar-funny (there’s a whale), but humorous-funny (there’s whale vomit). Every time I read it, a new layer of humor or irony emerges. I can’t help but admire the narrator’s skill—this is a story that can be easily taught to four-year-olds, and yet it delights and baffles Biblical scholars.
Jonah 2, today’s reading, is a perfect example of how the playfulness of the narrative makes it a story that resists either easy interpretation or an overly serious reading. Children are taught that this chapter is Jonah’s sincere prayer of repentance, a prayer that God listens to and honors. Indeed, this prayer sounds a lot like many of the other psalms in the Bible. But hold on a minute—“Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them. But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you” (vv. 8–9). Only one person at this point in the story has turned away from God’s love, and that’s Jonah. Even the pagan sailors have “converted”. But Jonah insists on painting himself as the character we encounter over and over in the Psalms: the innocent victim in need of divine deliverance.
Yet, from the perspective of an Israelite reader, there’s something terribly, terribly wrong with what I’ve just said. No one was as guilty as the Ninevites. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, and the Assyrians were brutal war criminals even by today’s standards. The Israelites had suffered this violence firsthand. But rather than punishing Assyria, God seems to have allowed the nation to prosper. It would be an interesting exercise to read Jonah and substitute “Nazis” or “ISIS” for each instance of “Ninevites.” Perhaps from that perspective Jonah is relatively innocent. At least he has only hurt himself.
So, when an Israelite audience would have read or heard of the repentance of Nineveh in Jonah 3, they might reasonably have balked. Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis imagines the Israelites saying, “They savage us, and then they say they’re sorry—and you just cave, overlooking centuries of atrocities in exchange for one fancy fast. Do you have any standards at all, God?”1 Think of the women who were raped, the young men who were killed, the families which were deported as Assyria sought to break down national identity in the conquered lands—sure, maybe eventually the Assyrians could be forgiven, but shouldn’t they be punished first? How would they learn their lesson if they weren’t punished?
And yet, here again the interpretation turns back on itself. Couldn’t something similar be said of Jonah? We could say, “He whined like a petulant child and ran away from God. Then he says he is sorry—and God just caves, overlooking blatant selfishness and ethnocentrism in exchange for one fancy psalm? Don’t you have any standards at all, God?” You can imagine a humble Israelite priest asking why he has served obediently his whole life without recognition, while Jonah, the worst prophet ever, goes down in history as a prefiguration of Christ (Matt. 12:40, today’s New Testament reading).
And yet we’ve all been guilty of the “one fancy psalm” approach to faith, the “do this one thing for me, and I promise I’ll start behaving” approach, the “this time I really mean it” approach. The good news comes in the New Testament reading—just as God brought life out of death by rescuing Jonah from the belly of the whale on the third day, God brought life out of death when Christ was raised on the third day. And all of this was done without regard to the question of who-sinned-worse-than-whom or who-is-sorrier-than-whom—we know this because there’s really no way to compare Jonah to Christ without a significant measure of grace!
This is indeed the good news. Most of us are either Jonahs or Ninevites—self-righteous prophets or notorious sinners. But the readings from today promise that the Jonahs and the Ninevites can both receive forgiveness; not because God doesn’t have standards, but because he does. The sins of the Jonahs and Ninevites don’t go unpunished. Rather, Christ bears the punishment: “‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross…” (1 Pet. 2:24). God’s “standard” (justice) and his forgiveness (mercy) aren’t mutually exclusive; rather, they are both worked out in the person of Jesus Christ. This is what it means to be delivered from the belly of the whale. Praise be to God.
Ellen F. Davis, Preaching the Luminous Word: Biblical Sermons and Homiletical Essays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 237. ↩