The Book of Jonah – Session Two
I. Re-cap and Introduction – Some in the more spiritual camp see this narrative to be about the soul’s journey in the world. Jonah represents the soul going forward here into the big world. He certainly, after repenting, does fulfill God’s call to prophesy to Nineveh.
A. Read 3 :1-10. (Note the 40 days. We won’t dwell on it, but it corresponds to the number of days we find elsewhere in the Bible needed for certain responses, such as Moses with God to get Torah or after the golden calf, or the rains, for revitalization, or Jesus’ fast in the face of Satan’s temptation.)
1 The Lord’s word came to Jonah a second time: 2 “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and declare against it the proclamation that I am commanding you.” 3 And Jonah got up and went to Nineveh, according to the Lord’s word. (Now Nineveh was indeed an enormous city, a three days’ walk across.)
4 Jonah started into the city, walking one day, and he cried out, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast and put on mourning clothes, from the greatest of them to the least significant.
6 When word of it reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, stripped himself of his robe, covered himself with mourning clothes, and sat in ashes. 7 Then he announced, “In Nineveh, by decree of the king and his officials: Neither human nor animal, cattle nor flock, will taste anything! No grazing and no drinking water! 8 Let humans and animals alike put on mourning clothes, and let them call upon God forcefully! And let all persons stop their evil behavior and the violence that’s under their control!” 9 He thought, Who knows? God may see this and turn from his wrath, so that we might not perish.
10 God saw what they were doing—that they had ceased their evil behavior. So God stopped planning to destroy them, and he didn’t do it.
1. Describe the reaction of Nineveh to the prophecy. Have you ever read such a response? What impresses you about it? What might have caused this response?
(a. Some say surviving sailors arrived to tell the story, which would have stirred the people.
b. Some say Jonah’s prophecy was extremely effective, though it was very terse.
c. While they might or might not have truly believed in God, they did believe that God had the power and would use the power to punish them.)
2. Go through each element of the response, and account for them.
a. A fast – one form of prayer to counter a decree, as in Esther, and a denial of rich experience, associated with extravagance.
b. Donning sackcloth and sitting in ashes and crying out mightily to God – this was done among all classes, as if to admit shared responsibility for the sin; and it involves a denial of physical comfort (which counters the luxury effected often by wrongdoing).
(Both of these prepare for repentance.)
c. The king joined in repenting, including taking off his royal robe, which has significant symbolic power for a leader to do. Leaders are often a big part of a society’s problems. This gesture signals a readiness for change, to bow as king to the King.
He brings about suffering for his people and beasts, which surely was unpopular, and thus a sacrifice he and they all pay, as atoning for their wrongs.
It’s interesting that the animals suffer, too, AND that God shows concern for the animals at the very end of the Book. Is His sympathy for them based in part on the fact that the animals “repented” as well?
(Or are these “herds/flocks” symbols of common folk who may have sinned or followed others? Or is it the beastly side of human beings?)
3. Does the fact that the city is not overturned somehow make a fraud of the prophecy that it would be overturned?
(No. A classic sign of a prophecy of God of this sort is that the people virtually always, unless rarely specified to the contrary, have the choice to repent, which can “avert the stern decree” of the punishment.
In a way, though, the sinfulness was “overturned” indeed. There’s a strong sense in the commentary that the people made restitution to those they wronged, in addition to being contrite.
We see all this discussed in the chapter’s final verses.
Yet, Jonah has concerns about appearing a false prophet, which we’ll discuss.)
4. What seems most significant about God’s relenting in the promised punishment?
(God sees their true change through both heart and deeds. That’s what leads to forgiveness. Note, too, that the name of God that forgives is Elohim. This is significant because this is the Divine Dispenser of Strict Justice Who is moved to mercy. All of it suggests the significance and sincerity of Ninevite repentance.)
B. Read 4:1-3
1 But Jonah thought this was utterly wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “Come on, Lord! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy. 3 At this point, Lord, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.”
1. Why was Jonah aggrieved?
(Some traditionalists say he was worried he would be an instrument against Israel. The Ninevites had repented and were being forgiven. He knew the Israelites would not repent and would eventually be conquered by these same people (Assyria), who would be God’s rod of anger.
He did not want these people to repent, get out of trouble, and then bring harm to Israel.
This, thus, brought guilt on him, too.
More likely, he was a stickler for truth, that there be consequences for sin. He sees that Nineveh will get out from under its wrongdoing. This could be a sign, and perhaps an encouragement, of other such possible evasions from accountability and truth.
Rashi attributed it to his seeming a false prophet, that it wasn’t the repentance so much that made this happen but rather the errant prophecy in the first place. Yet, a prophecy of such destruction is always subject to being pulled back if the people repent. Jeremiah 28:9
It could be that he was simply jealous of the Ninevites who had wealth AND then repentance, though he knew there was and would again be evil.)
2. To go deeper, read Jonah 4:2 and compare to its root in Exodus 34:6.
Jonah 4.2 “And he prayed to the Lord and said, "Please, O Lord, was this not my contention while I was still on my land? For this reason, I had hastened to flee to Tarshish, for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, with much kindness, and relenting of evil.”
Exodus 34:6 “And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed: Lord, Lord, benevolent God, Who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness and truth…”
The two passages are very much alike, but different in one key respect. What is it, and what does it show us about Jonah, how he perceives the world, and what disappoints him about the trajectory of this story?
(Truth is a key element of the Divine in Moses’ experience of that moment of revelation. Jonah believes that truth, which he prizes, is missing in the actions of the Divine in this story.
God seems to be all about teshuva, which involves mercy and loving-kindness. But, the consequence of sin, which in a predictable system of truth involves punishment, is missing.
Perhaps Jonah sees a different, and uglier, reality under Nineveh’s repentance. Surely, Assyria’s future return to sinfulness, which the Bible says caused God then to punish it severely, would confirm a proclivity on its part that concerned Jonah all along.
God seems to say to Jonah that any serious attempt at turning, at repenting, must be taken seriously. If a people repent and seem to mean it truly, the God of the world should, in mercy, accept it, that is, until proved otherwise.)
C. Read 4:6-11
6 Then the Lord God provided a shrub, and it grew up over Jonah, providing shade for his head and saving him from his misery. Jonah was very happy about the shrub. 7 But God provided a worm the next day at dawn, and it attacked the shrub so that it died. 8 Then as the sun rose God provided a dry east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head so that he became faint. He begged that he might die, saying, “It’s better for me to die than to live.”
9 God said to Jonah, “Is your anger about the shrub a good thing?”
Jonah said, “Yes, my anger is good—even to the point of death!”
10 But the Lord said, “You ‘pitied’ the shrub, for which you didn’t work and which you didn’t raise; it grew in a night and perished in a night. 11 Yet for my part, can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
1. God wants to show Jonah an object lesson. It’s powerful. Can you describe it?
(Jonah sits in a succah-like dwelling, perhaps readying himself for a spiritual sort of experience, akin to that we associate with the holiday of Sukkot.
God places a plant of sorts over Jonah to provide shade from the heat of the sun. Jonah rejoices over the relief. Plus, he may think it reflects Divine approbation.
God then sends a worm that causes the plant to wither. Jonah is deeply grieved for the loss of the plant and at the pain of the heat.
(Alschich teaches that Jonah feels himself to be a sinner since he wishes for death instead of life to continue to do mitzvot.)
God asks Jonah if he’s so deeply grieved over the fate of the plant. Jonah says yes.
Then, in the famous verses 10-11, God questions how Jonah can care this much for a being that he had no stake in, and for which he did no labor, in bringing or growing it, when God had right to care for Nineveh, with all its people and animals, which are His handiwork.)
2. How do you explain those who do not know their right hand from their left?
(The sages say this might be the children and/or adults who were simple or were not part of the covenant, and, in both cases, were thoroughly innocent.
They weren’t taught of the commandments or the covenantal teachings to guide as to good and evil.)
III. Conclusion – what are your takeaways and lessons learned?
(A. The story shows a commitment to justice and mercy, righteousness, and compassion which spreads outward in the world, even to potential adversaries. This speaks of God’s sovereignty in the world and the extension of ethical requirements and expectations.
B. The discussion of the nature and elements of teshuva (turning back to God after straying) is special and worthy of study and inculcation in one’s mind, heart, spirit, and lives.
C. People are judged by what they’re doing in the here and now. We saw this in Ezekiel, too.
D. So much depends on a single righteous person.
E. We must be careful about creating rationales for our views that are grounded more in self-interest than in what’s just and merciful.
F. This teaches a great deal about those things to which we’re entitled and those to which we’re not.
G. There are complexities and uncertainties in the world that are difficult to see and understand. Our role, our responsibilities, discerning evil, the impact of what we do, the forces within the physical world, confusing our desire to help our people with our real mission – all this is perplexing and must be handled with care.
H. Where is Jonah at the end? It’s rare for God to get the last word in a book of the Bible, and it’s rare not to know the outcome of the leading character.
What’s the effects of God’s last words? What do you think the author wants us to think about where Jonah goes next and what happens to him?
(Perhaps the overarching takeaway in the Book is that God and Jonah began in relationship and ended in relationship. They were talking in the beginning and in the end,
I think God respected, even loved, Jonah and understood the truth he spoke, much as He respected the truth Abraham spoke and Moses spoke. Jonah had a tougher message, but it was a respectable message. It was worthy of consideration by God and by us, though not the position that prevailed.
God punished Jonah for not following, and instead fleeing from, the Divine command. But God did NOT punish Jonah for having his views. This book is about both, and the story it weaves wraps us up in all the issues we’ve discussed.)
Scripture taken from the Common English Bible®, CEB® Copyright © 2010, 2011 by Common English Bible.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. The "CEB" and "Common English Bible" trademarks are registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Common English Bible. Use of either trademark requires the permission of Common English Bible.