Missional Hermeneutics – Old Testament 3

Perhaps the most striking story of God’s desire to bless all nations comes from the prophet Jonah. In the narrative of Jonah, the hated Assyrians are the focus of concern from God rather than hatred. While other prophetic material, including the Oracles against the Nations in Obadiah and the “hate-song” in Nahum, attack the surrounding nations, the narrator of the book of Jonah sets polemic aside in favor of pity (An Introduction to the Old Testament 232). In fact, the distinction between Jonah’s hatred of Nineveh and God’s desire to save Nineveh drives the narrative.

Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian kingdom, a kingdom that continuously threatened Israel. However, security was not the only threat from Assyria. The land was godless, glorifying human might. In many respects, the response of Israel to Nineveh might have paralleled the response of early Christians to references of “Babylon the great” found in the Book of Revelation (Allen 203). Yet, Yahweh’s justice and mercy extended toward Nineveh.

One of the intriguing questions about the story of Jonah is whether the story reveals a sustained mission to the Gentiles. In other words, the presence of this story may point to a broader effort. What we know as the book of Jonah may have been used as a missiological public relations tool for recruitment and instruction. It is difficult to determine the validity of this thought, however. Primarily, the difficulty comes from an inability for scholars to identify a date of composition (Allen 185). Without a date of composition, assigning purpose would be irresponsible. Yet, the text has survived through the years and offers insight for us.

No matter the date or purpose of composition, Jonah states a clear rationale for mission. The book sets up several conflicts. The initial conflict is between God and Ninevah because “their wickedness has come up before me.” Almost immediately, a new conflict arises. Jonah puts himself at conflict with God. In addition, there is conflict between Jonah and the people of Ninevah. Throughout the book, only one of the conflicts is resolved. Jonah still detests the Ninevites. Jonah is still at odds with God. However, Yahweh and the people of Ninevah have made their peace. In fact, Yahweh’s goal was that Ninevah would repent and be saved, and that goal was accomplished.

An Israelite, hearing the story of Jonah, would have been shocked by what Yahweh put Jonah through in order to save a hated people. Not only does Yahweh care for the Ninevites, he is willing to put Jonah through peril in order to save them. Like a good inductive preacher, the storyteller saves the reason for the last line of the story (Jon. 4:11). “And Should I not,” says God, “be concerned about Ninevah, 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?” God’s concern for his creation is universal.

Most people know Jonah as the prophet swallowed by a great fish. While we might dismiss this part of the story as trite, animals play a role in showing the variety of ways that Yahweh accomplishes his desires. The storyteller uses all of creation to tell the story of God’s mercy. First, the storm gets Jonah thrown overboard (1:4-16). Immediately, God “provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah” (1:17). Though Jonah did not preach this, the Ninevite king understood the creation encompassing mercy of God when he included animals in his proclamation of repentance (3:7-9). As Jonah watched to see what would happen, God “appointed” a plant to give Jonah shade (4:6). Then, he “appointed a worm” to eat the bush (4:7). Finally, in the explanation of his care for Ninevah, God includes the animals as a reason to save the city (4:11). God’s creation is an active recipient of the redemption process, but God also uses all of creation participant in the process, moving his people into a place of mission for the sake of others (Dillard 395).

An interesting juxtaposition arises when the Ninevites repent. As the prophets continually called Israel to repentance, here, we have a story of actual repentance. Greater sorrow for sin was found among the godless Gentiles than in Israel (Timmer 167, Kaiser 71). Frieder Ludwig suggests that we can read the story of Jonah as one of a missionary who was converted. On three occasions, Jonah was surprised: that Ninevah repented, that God responded quickly, and that God was trustworthy throughout it all. In the process of God’s desire to extend mercy, Ninevah’s repentance, and God’s response, Jonah was converted (191). While the story does not appear to offer a full conversion of Jonah’s attitude, the storyteller makes it clear that God was continuing to work toward that end.

Perhaps, we could draw even further from the story of Jonah a correlation between Jonah and the people of God. Jonah is representative of the people of God in his doubts and his defiance. Through his experiences, Jonah observed and benefited from God’s faithfulness. Perhaps the lingering hope from the storyteller is that the people of God would go out to tell of God and in the process find themselves changed.