Ways of accessing God’s portrait in the story of Jonah. A straight-forward hearing or reading of Jonah conveys a picture of God as repentant and forgiving, as characterized by the vocabulary of grace in chapter 4 (merciful, slow to get angry, loyal), and as the savior of all peoples, even the hated Assyrians. What more can we learn by paying close attention to literary and stylistic features like irony, repetition, ambiguity and paradox, parallel passages, etc.? What theological hues are painted into the picture of God by means of the literary strokes of a story so extremely well crafted? What do the questions God asks Jonah tell us about God?
Inclusion/exclusion. Many scholars feel that the book of Jonah was put to writing long after the prophet lived, during the time following the devastation of the Babylonian exile of Judah. It was in this traumatic time that many wondered how they could avoid a future engagement with captivity. Several biblical sources suggest a focus on identity as God’s people, with attention to separateness, exclusion, removal of foreigners and their influence especially from the temple and worship – Ezra, Nehemiah, Malachi. Other biblical sources tracked in another direction: Isaiah 56 speaks of a “house of prayer for all peoples”; Joel sees the spirit poured out “on all flesh”; Ruth is a Moabitess; Jonah preaches to the hated Assyrians, in their very capital. Thus, ancient Judah faced a huge tension, reflected in the inspired literature of the Bible, between these two ways of surviving in a harsh world. Maybe the creative tension between the two is a healthy thing?
Relevant Biblical Passages
- Read the entire book of Jonah.
- Exodus 34:6-7. Since this is the apparent source for Jonah 4:2, it provides the best portrait of God in the Bible, especially since it is presented as a divine self-portrait. The attributes of mercy (motherly compassion for one’s own children), graciousness (generosity to a fault), hesitancy toward anger (it takes a while to stir God to wrath), overflowing love (loyalty) and faithfulness (firm stability), forgiveness (lifting and carrying away), and accountability contribute to a portrait rich in compassion. Jonah knew his Bible well. It was God who surprised him.
- Isaiah 40. This is one of the greatest chapters in the Bible, presenting a God who created the world in majestic fashion (sea and dry land!), yet who also finds ways to encourage the down and out.
- Isaiah 56. Some suggest that this section of the book of Isaiah comes from after the Babylonian exile. If so, it contributes to the same side of the debate about how to relate with foreigners as does the story of Jonah (not the prophet Jonah, but the story!): a house of prayer for all peoples.
Contributions to the study of Jonah
In keeping with the fact that the book of Jonah is puzzling in many ways, continuing to complicate the lives of scholars who study it, is the portrait of God we find here also left with ambiguities? Do we know all there is to know about Jonah’s God?
Lessons for Life
What does it mean for daily life and faith that God can change his mind? That God goes to a lot of trouble with his prophet to dog the steps of offenders in order to offer a chance of rescue? How is my life different by paying attention to Jonah’s not-so-subtle bashing of perspectives which exclude people from his purview?