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Jonah – The Unforgiving?

Seth - September 3, 2006

I discovered today that I never truly got the story of “Jonah and the Whale.”
Oh, I knew most of the particulars: the prophet Jonah is called to preach repentence to the wicked city of Nineveh, he doesn’t want to and runs for it, big storm stops him, he has himself thrown in the sea to stay God’s anger, swallowed by a fish for three days, upon being spit out, he goes and preaches to Nineveh and the city repents and is spared.

So far so good.

But then there’s that odd bit in Jonah Chapter 4…

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry.

I always assumed (when I thought about this story at all) he was just angry because he’d been dragged out here, made a prediction, and it didn’t come true. But then we get this verse:

And he prayed unto the Lord and said, I pray thee, O Lord, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.

Therefore now, O Lord, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.

For some reason, today, reading this in Sunday School, something didn’t fit. I always assumed that Jonah refused to go to Nineveh because he was afraid of the Ninevites (some historical evidence indicates that they had a rather fearsome reputation), or he was just plain lazy. But that doesn’t fit verse 2 at all. And there is something more than mere pettiness in Jonah’s bitter prayer. Then it hit me.

Jonah didn’t flee from his call to Nineveh out of fear or slothfulness. He fled in anger.

Jonah had seen the wickedness of the Ninevites and he knew of God’s forgiving nature. Jonah didn’t want the people of Nineveh warned, because he didn’t want them to be forgiven. He wanted them dead, just like they deserved.

He’s basically telling God: “Look, I knew from the beginning that this would happen! I knew you’re a softy at heart and that you’d let these evil people off scott-free. Frankly, I’d rather die than look at this wretched forgiven city another minute.”

Then God’s quite fitting answer:

Doest thou well to be angry?

This is followed by the Lord providing a plant to shade Jonah and then withering it the next day. When Jonah complains, God explains:

Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death.

Then said the Lord, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night:

And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?

It’s a beautiful story.

What makes it even more interesting is that Jonah’s period in the belly of the fish for three days is supposed to represent Christ’s three days in the tomb. But after the rebirth and forgiveness of Jonah, we find him on a hilltop overlooking Nineveh demanding, not Christian mercy and forgiveness, but ruthless justice, and perhaps even vengeance.

Now, perhaps this was glaringly obvious to many of you. But it just drove home to me that you can learn something new about the scriptures every day.

Happy reading.


  1. “Now, perhaps this was glaringly obvious to many of you.”

    That’s not important. Anyone who thinks they are going to read some new-for-the-world insight into the Old Testament today is probably deluded. The book has been around for centuries and has been studied by brilliant people who devote their entire lives to it. You might as well try to invent a new way to crack an egg.

    The point and value of scripture is to bring something new to the reader. You’ve understood a valuable lesson and articulated some very good thoughts and you should be happy for that.

    Comment by BrianJ — September 3, 2006 @ 1:25 pm

  2. I think it also shows why it’s nice that we’re studying the Old Testament this year. It’s not a book that our people are all that well-versed in. When I mentioned this take on the story in class today, most of the class seemed surprised at the idea.

    Like me, I think many of them had simply never taken the time to dissect what Jonah is really saying here.

    Comment by Seth R. — September 3, 2006 @ 3:23 pm

  3. And the reason the book of Jonah exists is so we can all grapple with the idea that we tend to have those same feelings that Jonah did, in some fashion toward someone. It is a common lot of the natural man. I love the last line: “and also much cattle.” It always makes me smile. I suppose the Lord is teaching us that all life is precious to him.

    Comment by Hal H. — September 5, 2006 @ 9:46 am

  4. I’ve always loved the bit about the pumpkin at the end. That must have been one fine pumpkin for him to get all upset about it.

    Comment by a random John — September 5, 2006 @ 2:11 pm

  5. I love the ‘pumpkin’ too. It serves to show that Jonah was all upset about the gourd – because it affected him – but cared nothing that many people – and cattle – were going to expire. Its really a great story depicting the natural selfishness of man. That is, everyone except for me.

    Comment by Hal H. — September 5, 2006 @ 3:45 pm

  6. I should note that Ed Snow also has a somewhat related post on this over at BCC.

    Comment by Seth R. — September 5, 2006 @ 6:04 pm

  7. “And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?”

    What do you suppose the bit about the people that can’t discern between their right and left hands means? That the people are simple minded – or maybe they are incapable of making decent choices? I thought it was an interesting description.

    As a full disclosure, I must have been absent during the kindergarten class for directions; left, right and so on. I always have trouble being a navigator when travelling somewhere. Interestlingly, this only applies when speaking English. I never had any problems with right and left, navigating, directions in taxis, or otherwise in Bulgaria on my mission.

    Comment by Chad — September 5, 2006 @ 9:05 pm

  8. Chad,

    I know you’re joking, but I think the Lord is referring “hand” as a symbol for the deeds we do. Perhaps in this instance the people of Nineveh did not know right from wrong.

    Comment by Bret — September 5, 2006 @ 9:11 pm

  9. That’s what it seems like to me.

    It brings to mind certain condemnations of adulterous Nephites – where it is emphasized that the Lamanites, because of their ignorance of The Law, are in better standing before God than the Nephites.

    Comment by Seth R. — September 6, 2006 @ 8:52 am

  10. Interesting thoughts Seth. It does seem that Jonah’s lust for vengeance was his worst characteristic. (But of course I agree with Ed that this tale is a satire and not a literal historical story.)

    Comment by Geoff J — September 7, 2006 @ 2:37 pm

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