Bible blog 1975

JONAH 3

2:11: And God spoke to the fish so that it spewed Jonah on to the shore.
3:1The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8 Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9 Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

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.image

Readers will wonder what has happened to most of chapter 2. The answer is that the psalm which occupies most of the chapter is a later addition to the book of Jonah by editors who did not understand the humour of the book. The original text simply adds to the comic cuts image of Jonah by having the whale spew him on to the shore. He is not in a very dignified condition but the Lord gives him no respite, repeating his command to go to Niniveh and cry out his judgment.

When Jonah finally does his job, he finds that his mission is spectacularly successful. The author even depicts the repentance of the great imperial city with comic book exaggeration: the full costume drama of repentance is instigated immediately with even the King  sitting on his throne knee-deep in ashes and the animals as well as human beings dressed in sackcloth and commanded to fast!

The humour is meant to point up the folly of not sharing God’s truth with Niniveh, as human beings, indeed living beings are the same everywhere, and capable of responding to God’s truth when it is made available. As in the book of Ruth, the turning point here is that God is the creator and the God of all living creatures, not a tribal God of Israelites.

But this robust humour also exposes, as we shall see, a deeper resentment of Jonah’s at the Lord’s persistent mercy. All it takes is full-hearted repentance and there he goes, cancelling the wholesale destruction which would have been so entertaining to the prophet.image

I will follow the story to its denouement in my next blog, but today it’s sufficient to end by noting that apart from the book of Genesis, this is the only book of the Bible to use humour as an important way of communicating its truth. In particular, the New Testament lacks all humour, except that of Jesus, especially in his parables, which may not have been well understood by the gospel authors. There aren’t many laughs in the letters of Paul and others, or in the book of The Revelation.

This is a real lack. The man who called flaky Shimon his rock (Aramaic,Kefas; Greek Petros; English, Peter), and who joked about his disciples having to become like babies, or being born again, deserves followers with the capacity to laugh at themselves. The book of Jonah with its good-humoured mockery of Tea-Party Religion, is a good model for a faith that is serious enough about God not to take its own doctrines and institutions with entire seriousness.image

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