Wednesday of the First week after Epiphany: Jonah 3-4.
I used to chuckle at the incongruous anticlimax of YHWH’s answer to Jonah in 4:11: “And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left — and much livestock?” Livestock, Lord? Especially in light of 1 Corinthians 9:9b (“Is it oxen God is concerned about?”).
But it is not actually out of place. To understand why the book ends this way, we need to grasp both the theology of the book of Jonah, and the meaning of the Ninevites’ actions.
Jonah is quite concerned with the whole creation. As we saw earlier, everything from gourds to worms to whales is subservient to God’s will. Jonah is a book concerned with the love of God for the creation. It is, effectively, a counter to Jewish nationalistic exclusivity. Jonah may be a “Hebrew” (1:9), but it is clear that the covenant is for the sake of the world, not just Israel. The servant of the covenant is sent, in spite of himself, to preach creational monotheism to the Gentiles.
Second, we must remember that the Assyrians’ fasting and donning of sackcloth includes “man and beast.” Daube explains this action as a plea of ignorance: the Ninevites are declaring by their action that they are no wiser than the brutes.
3:9 says “Who can tell if God will turn and relent and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?” This is an instance of a Hebrew formula (“who knows whether…”) which introduces a positive possibility. We see it again in Esther 4:14, “Who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” Implied: You probably have. It is unfortunate that our English equivalent is usually used to preface a possibility that is deprecated as unlikely. This causes us to misunderstand Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:16. Many Christians suppose that by “How do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband?”, Paul is suggesting that it is unlikely. On that basis, they then read the entire surrounding argument as recommending the abandonment or divorce of an unbeliever, neglecting the second “but” of 7:15. Paul’s actual burden is to urge newly converted spouses of unbelievers to stay in the marriage in hopes of winning their husbands or wives for the Lord. The Greek would be better translated, “How do you know that you may not save your husband?” That would give the proper, idiomatic sense of a real and hoped-for possibility to be acted upon, rather than deprecating its likelihood and discouraging all effort.
Back to Jonah: God does “relent” and “turns” from his intended vengeance, in response to the Ninevites’ “turning from their wicked way.” (3:10) This makes an interesting contrast to Balaam’s characterization of YHWH in Numbers 23:19, answering it almost word for word:
God is not.. a son of man that He should repent / And God relented (נחם, same verb)
Has He said, and will He not do? / from the evil that He had said He would bring…
Or has He spoken, and will He not perform? / and He did not do it.”
There is also a direct echo of Exodus 34:6 in Jonah 4:2. Both passages list the attributes of YHWH: “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness (חסד).” But where Exodus 34 touts these qualities in praise of YHWH, Jonah lists them as a complaint. It is nearly blasphemous. So deep is his hatred of the Assyrians that he would rather serve a less merciful God, so long as the cruel Ninevites get what they deserve.
Indeed, he would rather die than be the instrument of YHWH’s mercy to the hated city. But as Daube notes, Jonah stops short of attempting actual suicide.
Jonah’s name means “dove” in Hebrew. It is interesting to think of connections with that bird in the Noah story.