jonah (nahum)

Robert Vining rvining at log.on.ca
Mon Dec 30 11:50:09 EST 2002


On 29 Dec 02, Susan Jeffers wrote,

 > I'm beginning research for my thesis which I plan
 > to write on the book of Jonah. I was wondering if
 > any of you had any particular commentaries you
 > would recommend, or other sources, for my use.

Two Tales of a City

The city is Nineveh. The two tale tellers are Nahum and Jonah.

I. Nahum’s tale about Nineveh is an account of his vision. In this grim vision, the author sees a jealous, all-powerful God bent on the annihilation of the notoriously wicked city. This God tolerates no rivals; puts up with their opposition only once; punishes those who oppose Him, and in His anger pays them back.(1)

"When He is angry, who can survive? Who can survive His terrible fury? 

He pours out His flaming anger, rocks crumble to dust before Him.

Like a great rushing flood, He completely destroys His enemies;

He sends to their death those who oppose Him". 1:6,8

The devastation God wreaks upon the murderous city is deserved because, we are twice told, "they have plotted against the Lord" 1:9,11. God promises His people, Israel, that He will never again use the Assyrians as His agent to make them suffer.(2) Rather, His obliteration of the Assyrians will be complete. They will be totally destroyed; they will disappear, and they will have no descendants. In his vision, Nahum hears the Lord say, "They don’t deserve to live!" God will destroy the idols that are in the temple of their gods, and He will prepare a grave for the Assyrians. A messenger brings the great, good news of victory to the people of Judah (3),

"The wicked will never invade your land again. They have been totally destroyed!"

Nahum, particularly adept at painting graphic war pictures; invites the reader to witness the wicked city under attack. The Shatterer (JPS) has come. Listen! To the: crack of the whip; the rattle of wheels; the gallop of horses; the jolting of chariots! See! the horsemen charge; swords flash; spears gleam! Corpses are piled high, dead bodies without number-men stumble over them! More vivid battle scenes are found in 2:2-10. 

When the battle is over, doomed Nineveh is destroyed, deserted, desolate and descendant-less. The author has not seen fit to identify who the conquering heroes (4) are who defeat the wealthy, lying, murderous, loot and plunder-filled, once strong, oppressing city. It is not important to Nahum who the pawns are that God uses to accomplish His grand purposes. It is enough to know that the Lord Almighty says regarding Nineveh, "I am your Enemy", and that, [The Lord Almighty says, "I will punish you, Nineveh!"]. The destruction of Nineveh is clearly God’s doing.

In punishing Nineveh, Nahum employs one of the most drastic, daring depictions of God to be found in the scriptures. Nineveh, the whore-attractive, full of deadly charms, enchantress and enslaver of nations-is being punished, by God. He will strip her naked so all the nations can see her, and see her shame. The Lord Almighty says, "I will treat you with contempt, and cover you with filth." According to one commentator, "The imagery is repulsive: Yahweh will expose Nineveh’s nakedness and pelt her with filth" (5)

Nahum persists in gloating over the eminently-deserved downfall of his people’s cruel oppressors, and plotters against God. Their fate will be like that of illustrious Thebes, also a well-defended, extremely powerful, conquering city. Yet, the Thebeians, were carried off into exile. And, at every street corner their children were beaten to death. Such is God’s plan for Nineveh. Nahum goes on to mock the useless, feeble, attempts the Ninevehites will muster in the last days of their God-ordained demise; including the taunt, that your soldiers are like women. All the last ditch efforts are futile. For God has willed that, "No matter what you do, you will still be burned to death, or killed in battle." "There is no remedy for your injuries, and your wounds cannot be healed".

Such should be the fate of an endlessly cruel city. Happy are the delighted vindicated onlookers. For Nahum, this outworking of God’s providence is just, and a cause for rejoicing.

"All those who hear the news of your destruction clap their hands for joy"

II. Laying aside the Book of Nahum, and picking up the Book of Jonah, we read another tale about the renowned city of Nineveh. Again, the Main Actor is God Himself. The author chooses a Jonah (6) to be the main human character, and the notorious city of Nineveh to be the backdrop of his intriguing drama. The central event of the dense-with- meaning, richly symbolic, ironic, sardonic, paradoxical, whimsical, farcical, comical adventure short story is, that God, Who had determined to destroy the city in 40 days, changes His mind, and does not. Poor Jonah gets caught up in God’s planning and replanning. At the end of the story, he waits around to see if perchance God might change His mind again and destroy the city as He said He would and commissioned Jonah so to proclaim. Futilely, because it is this author’s intention not to have his Nineveh destroyed by God.

We are not sure why the ancient classifiers elected to place this charming-but-serious short story among the Minor Prophets. It doesn’t fit the mold, and would seem to sit more comfortable with the conventional-wisdom-challenging Writings, especially Job, with which it has the closest affinity. This prophet doesn’t act much like all the other Major and Minor Prophets, and it is this uniqueness, and the style of the literature, that catches our attention. Coming to Jonah after Nahum is a bit unsettling. Nahum’s purpose seems transparent; to set forth another correct, conventional oracle of condemnation of the wicked by God via His chosen prophet. Not transparent at all is what the tricky, subtle Jonah author is up to in his literary masterpiece. It is fun, tho’ trying to figure out his intent. ""Fun" seems like an okay word to use when thinking about Jonah, since his well-crafted, nuanced, allusive, elliptic, cryptic classic seems to be infected by his delightful sense of humor.

The story begins with the patently absurd idea that by getting on board a boat bound for Tarshish/Spain, Jonah could escape God’s commission by running away to a God-free zone. While foot-dragging reluctance to serve is a motif common to a numbers of the prophets, it is unique (Jonah was unique in a number of ways, as we shall see) for a prophet who is supposed to stand in the Presence of God, to attempt to flee from His Presence. A stupid thing for Jonah to do, as the sailors will later chide him, "That was an awful thing to do!". This, after he had pompously given them a brief homily about the greatness of God, Maker of heaven, earth and the seas, the very God-stirred up, raging sea they were now endangered by. Jonah goes on to tell them that it is this great Sovereign God, his God, that he is running away from. This delightful irony is mixed in with the first of a number of crypticisms where the elliptical author leaves us wondering what he means. In the midst of the storm, the author will have Jonah sound asleep! How come? Is this the serene, mid-storm, Jesus-like-sleep (Mk. 4: 35-41) of one who has complete faith in God? Jonah is fleeing from God. The boat, so small it could be rowed, is in danger of breaking up. The sailors are terrified at the storm’s violence. Jonah is asleep. Amazing! Is this one of a number of incongruous-unbelieveables whereby the author signals (more later) the fantastic, mythological nature of his writing? 

Or, perhaps Jonah is a foil for the industrious, increasingly righteous sailors. While the sloth slumbers in the extreme peril, the resourceful, hard-working sailors are casting lots, jettisoning cargo, rowing with all their might; doing all they can to save lives. Earlier, these roughnecks had prayed each to his own god. Now, they pray to the true God this enlightened prayer, "You, O Lord, are responsible for all this; it is Your doing". Then, these new converts offer to God an unspecified sacrifice, and promise to serve Him. The now-saintly sailors have already done exactly what later a swallowed up Jonah promises he will do sometime in the future, although that future never comes in the story.

The author seems to enjoy going about turning things upside-down. The presumably pious prophet, religious, called, man of God, proves to be not so pious after at all. Meanwhile, all of the unpious, irreligious, supporting characters of questionable repute, turn out to be notably noble, pious men who do only good things. The crusty, old Boat Captain, rouses Jonah out of his sleep, and exhorts him to prayer. There is a time to sleep, and there is a time to pray. "What are you doing asleep?" Get up, and pray chides the Boat Captain.(7).

Upon Jonah being cast into the raging sea, the storm calms down immediately. God, Who had sent (8) a sea-stirring wind, now sends a large fish to swallow up Jonah. At this stage in the story, we don’t know if this is a good or bad thing; ominous or hopeful. More likely bad, ominous. In the biblical record, to be swallowed up by God was very bad. Did the author know the story in I Kings 13 where God sends out a lion to swallow up an earlier disobedient prophet? Or, the appalling scene (see the stick drawings in Good News Bible) in Numbers 16 where God opens up the earth to swallow up alive 3 families, parents and children. Likely, the author would know the revered Exodus drama and how God used the sea waters to swallow up the Egyptian army, Ex.14:26; 15:4,5,12. It is not a good thing to be swallowed up by God. But, in this story, Jonah needs to live another day. So, the swallowing up here is not a tragedy, but salvation.

After 3 days and 3 nights inside the fish, God orders the fish to spit up Jonah onto the beach. The fish obeys, and now a chastened Jonah having learned his lesson, also obeys. Proceeding to Nineveh he begins to preach. The results are unique to the prophetic tradition, phenomenal, spectacular, even incredible, which we suspicion is the intention of the author. With barely 5 words out of his mouth and without so much as a thus saith the Lord, the entire city, all the people of Nineveh from the greatest to the least believe God’s message. To show they had repented all the people, and all the animals put on sackcloth. The sudden, immediate, complete, overwhelming, total transformation of the wicked city, man and beast, makes Jonah an incomparably successful revivalist outstripping even Billy Graham in his finest hour. By contrast, earnest Jeremiah, and other ardent prophets poured their hearts out for their beloved city of Jerusalem, and were met with the cold shoulder and disbelief.

That paragon of evil, the most brutal King of Nineveh (9) is sketched as most pious. He comes down off his throne, lays aside his royal robes, puts on sackcloth and sits down in ashes. He issues an edict for a total fast, no eating or drinking; this to include all persons, cattle and sheep. All persons and all animals must wear sackcloth. Like the Crusty Old Sea Captain and the Saved Sailors, the now-pious King calls all to prayer, along with this excellent admonition, "Everyone must pray earnestly to God, and must give up his wicked behavior, and his evil actions". The converted King concludes his royal decree with this hopeful observation, "Perhaps God will change His mind. Perhaps He will stop being angry, and we will not die!"

And, God did change His mind!-the central event in this story. He didn’t do what He said He would do, and commissioned Jonah to proclaim. He did not punish the Ninevehites. When Nahum looked upon the city he saw death and destruction in a God destroyed city, with corpses piled high in the streets, and children being beaten to death at every corner. In this story when God looked upon the city, "God saw what they did; He saw that they had given up their wicked behavior. So He changed His mind, and did not punish them as He had said He would".

Wise Jonah says he knew all along that this would happen, which is why he did his best to flee to Spain. He knew in advance that "You are a loving and merciful God, always patient, always kind, and always ready to change Your mind, and not punish". Jonah was right, God did change His mind. That He didn’t punish is the problem. Because of this Jonah is very unhappy, angry and wishes he were dead. Which reminds us of another biblical character who was very unhappy, and very angry at God, and who devoutly wished he could have his day in court with God. The issue for Job and Jonah is the same, justice. Each wished they were dead rather than live in a world where God is not just. 

Think of the early readers of Nahum and Jonah, the ones for whom the authors wrote. They are trying to understand their own bitter experience, the meaning of events and the nature of God. God’s people suffered a lot- too much according to Isaiah (10)-but, justifiably according to the prophets because of their stiff-neckedness and great sin. Meanwhile, the godless people who were their oppressors, prospered and enjoyed life. There just ain’t no justice. Not so, says Nahum. God will be just. He will punish the evildoer. In His own good time, God will mete out His punishment on the wicked city of Nineveh. There were those who clapped their hands upon reading Nahum. "JUSTICE WILL BE SERVED" reads the bold headline in today’s newspaper, (Toronto Star, 7/3/01) referring to the words of a grieving mother over the murder of her teenage son. "Father, let destruction come upon them (her son’s slayers)", she prays. Nahum is the book for her. In it, God appears to be just. He does punish the wicked.

Jonah is a different kettle of fish. Hard to swallow. God does not punish the quintessentially evil oppressors of His people. Strict and stern with His own beloved chosen people, He will be lenient with the iniquitous; change His mind; have pity on them, and not punish them as He promised.

God reneged on His promise to destroy Nineveh in forty days. Jonah was very unhappy about this, and became very angry. "Now, then, Lord, let me die. I am better off dead than alive." (2x-4:3,8). A popular interpretation is that a petty Jonah is pouting because God made him look foolish-an exegesis not supported by the text. The author’s Jonah is nobler than that. While he does enjoy satirizing the prophet, especially poking fun at his perceived piety, the author also will give him an heroic quality. He will expect His God to be just; the Ruler of a dependable, well-ordered world. In the fantasy, God is not just. In such a world, Jonah wishes he were dead. In the comforting Book of Nahum, God is predictably just. God’s righteous people are rewarded; cruel sinners are severely punished, as it should be in a world ruled by a just God. In the discomfiting Book of Jonah, the cruelest of the cruel are not punished. The wicked city gets off scot-free. Meanwhile, God continues to punish His own. He sends a hot east wind, and a worm to destroy Jonah’s shade. In our last look at Jonah he is miserable, about to faint, sitting sweltering in the broiling sun unshaded, wishing he were dead, while God explains to him why He has such pity on the city of Nineveh. Nahum says, "God never lets the guilty go unpunished".

************* 

(1) For exact pay back, see Joel 3:4-8

(2) For how the Sovereign Lord will use all the Assyrians to punish His people, including; cutting off their noses and ears, killing the children, burning alive the sons and daughters, see Ezekiel 23:22-35. For, pay back, see vs. 31

(3) cp. Isaiah 52:7

(4) Extra-biblical literature records that Nineveh fell to the combined forces of the Babylonians and Medes in 612 B.C. "Bible Dictionary, Paul J. Achtemeier, Ed., 760

(5) Duane L. Christensen, Harper’s Bible Commentary, p.736

(6) The Jonah in II Kings 14:25 announced the good news that God promised the reconquering of all the territory that had belonged to Israel from Hamath Pass in the north, to the Dead Sea in the south.

(7) Jonah is chided: by the sailors for his ludicrous behavior; by the Captain for sleeping when he should have been praying, as a prelude to God 3x’s chiding in Chaper 4.

(8) God sends a stormy wind, a hot east wind, a large fish, a vine and a worm.

(9) cp. The King of Judah in Jeremiah 36 who scorns Jeremiah’s warnings of God’s judgment upon Jerusalem.

(10) Isaiah 40:2, "For she (Jerusalem) has received from the hand of the Lord, Double for all her sin". JPS 

Robert Vining, Owen Sound, Ontario rvining at log.on.ca

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