Jonah 4New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
4 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3 And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” 5 Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
6 The Lord God appointed a bush and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10 Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
Here the author brings his theological comedy to an end. The prophet of Israel, who wants a God of severe judgement – at least for foreigners – is faced with another instance of God’s mercy, in which he, much to his chagrin has played a leading role, for the Ninevites have repented after his prophecy. His anger issues in a tantrum in which he tells God just to kill him (as well as humiliating him). All along he has distrusted God’s kindly nature, and now he has proof that his distrust was justified. The Hebrew translated “ready to relent from punishing” is literally “repent of evil” which reminds the reader that, contrary to Jonah’s opinion, this is justice: the Ninevites have reptented their evil, so God repents the evil he/ she has threatened. At this point God simply asks the obvious question, “Are you right to be angry?”
In fact God also asks the question more powerfully by an a acted parable. While Jonah sits in a booth, as pious Jews did at the festival of booths, God gives him protection in the form of a bush that shields him from the sun, then destroys it by means of a worm, provoking another tantrum from Jonah. When he justifies his anger at the needless death of the bush, God asks his devatasting question, “If you are concerned for a bush, should I not be more concerned for a whole city population of ignorant people and their animals?”
The depiction of God by this author does not go beyond the best theology of the Torah or of the great prophets of Israel. Certainly God is believed to have and on occasion to used the power of destructive punishment, but also is known as “a God gracious and merciful slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” The author is asking his readers to live up to their own tradition about God, which does not justify a negative and vengeful attitude to other nations. Perhaps Israel/Judah should recognise that her best political weapon is the tradition of her compassionate God.
Some of the Jewish captives in Babylon did not return to Jerusalem to establish a narrow theocratic state, but remained, practicing their own religion in Babylon and recording their traditions in what eventually became the Babylonian Talmud. They did not believe that their God was limited to a patch of land or that he/she had one face for Jews and another for foreigners. The Jonah author may have known of them and approved their thinking.
The comedy of Jonah would be salutary reading for the purveyors of Salafist Islam, which has provided a theological framework for Al Quaida, Boko Haram and Islamic State, by its insistence on Allah’s hatred of non-Muslims. It also puts in question the use of Christianity as a marker of “us” as opposed to “them.” We are a Christian nation and they are something else, a claim that often ignores the fact that the people we are complaining about – as in the case of Polish immigrants – are a lot more Christian than we are.
The author of Jonah reminds us in his genial fashion, that we like Jonah are concerned with any small thing that seems to belong to us. Should God not be similarly concerned with all the lives that belong to him/her? He is asking us gently, “Do you think that God is stupider than you?”