A Retelling of Jonah and God's Mercy
The story of Jonah is often told as a kids story, a story about a man who ran from God, only to be swallowed by a whale for his disobedience. But the story of Jonah isn't a kids story. It's a dark story, a story that eats human understandings of compassion and just how far God is willing to go in order to forgive.
Jonah had been called to go preach a message of repentance to Nineveh, and Nineveh was the last place on earth anyone would ever want to go, especially a prophet of God. Nineveh was the heart of Assyria, the Capitol city of the Assyrians where drowning in the sea would have been a more favorable death than dying at the hands of the Assyrians.
They were an especially cruel people. Many gruesome tales have been told about Assyrian warriors. They often used axes to chop off the ears and bottom lips of those who rose against or broke Assyrian law. There are even tales of nobles who would have to wear the decapitated heads of their kings around their necks as necklaces and Assyrian warriors would even carry strips of flesh from those they had flayed alive to intimidate others they would brutally wage war against.
It's no wonder Jonah went on the run trying to sail as far away as he could from Nineveh when God called him to go preach a message of repentance to these ruthless people. The story goes that he didn't make it very far. He endangered the lives of those he was sailing with. They tried to save him but eventually he knew they'd have to throw him off the ship if they were to save themselves. He would be tossed into the sea, only to be swallowed by a giant fish where he would spend three days in the belly of the fish. The only thing more unbelievable than being swallowed by a giant fish is that Nineveh would ever repent.
But that's exactly what Nineveh does. Jonah ends up in Nineveh, sure of himself that he would face certain death when he started preaching repentance to them. But they repent and turn towards God and Jonah could hardly believe it. How could God forgive such a people?
God and Jonah go back and forth with one another over God's compassion. It just doesn't seem right knowing who the Assyrians were and what they had done but God's compassion knows no bounds towards those who are willing to repent and believe.
Maybe you feel like Nineveh, like you've done things that are absolutely unforgivable. Take heart in knowing that others don't get to determine whether you're worthy of love or not because God has already determined you are worth loving even when others think you're not. If God can forgive Nineveh, he can forgive you. He can forgive me. He can forgive us.
- The Meaning of the Book of Jonah – jewishideas.org
- Working Preacher commentary on Jonah by Roger Nam
- The Worst and Most Successful Prophet Ever by Matthew Darwin Stidham
- Torture Practices of the Ancient World – Spiegel International
- 10 Horrors of Being Invaded by the Assyrian Army – Mark Oliver
Storyline Commentary on Jonah 1:1-17; 3:1-10; 4:1-11
Every story can be broken down into a few parts. The setting, where the story takes place and why it might be important. The characters and their emotions and thoughts invested in the story. A tension that needs resolved. A resolution that brings us through the tension, and a through line (aka main idea) that carries the story through from beginning to end.
The Setting Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrians, the heart of Assyria, inhabited by an especially cruel people who tortured and murdered those they conquered. Many gruesome tales have come out of Assyrian culture including chopping off the ears and bottom lips with axes of those who rose against or broke Assyrian law. There are even tales of nobles who would have to wear the heads of their kings around their necks as necklaces and Assyrian warriors would even carry strips of flesh from those they had flayed alive to intimidate those they would brutally wage war against. Nineveh was the last place you would want to go and speak against because it would mean certain death.
- Jonah, on the run from both God and Nineveh, where most assuredly the Assyrians would torture and kill Jonah. Unbelievably, he spent three days in the belly of a fish which highlights an even more unbelievable idea, that the Assyrians of Nineveh would ever repent.
- God, who calls Jonah to go preach a message of repentance to Nineveh whose evil and cruel ways have come up before God.
- Nineveh, who instead of killing Jonah, repents and accepts God's forgiveness.
The Tension God has called Jonah to go and preach a message of repentance to Nineveh, who led by the Assyrians were particularly vile. They generally tortured and killed their victims in especially cruel ways and God calling Jonah to go tell Nineveh to repent must have felt like a death sentence. Jonah likely knew people killed and tortured by the Assyrians and he didn't want God to forgive them.
The Resolution Nineveh repents. God shows them mercy and while Jonah disapproves, it's God who gets to determine who is shown mercy, not humankind.
The Through Line If God can forgive Nineveh, he can forgive us too.
Why has this story endured? It's a story of God's radical compassion on the least deserving. Jonah speaks to the overwhelming nature of God's grace. If Nineveh can be forgiven, then so can we.
What is true for them then that is still true for us today? God is still slow to anger, quick to forgive. We all have enemies in this world and God's love extends even to our enemies.
How does this story help us love God? It shows us that's God's mercy and compassion aren't based on the things we do and don't do, no matter how vile they may be. God's mercy and compassion depend on God alone and God extends it to anyone willing to repent and believe. That's incredibly good news and worth devoting one's life to.
How does this story help us love others? It's a reminder that God's compassion doesn't stop short of our enemies. A part of our Christian calling is to love our enemies because that's what God does. This is a part of our pursuit in following Jesus.