Who is God to Jonah?

This afternoon I wrote my fourth (and last) exegetical paper on Jonah for my Hebrew class. Enjoy.

Who is God in the Book of Jonah?

The narrator of the book of Jonah presents the LORD to be a God who 1) reigns completely over all creation, and employs his spoken word as his primary means of ruling; what is more, he 2) actually gives his creation real agency toward the completion of his purposes. The chief agent, in fact, is his spoken word. His ultimate, defining characteristic throughout this story, the trait that qualifies his divine sovereignty, is his longsuffering patience. He is willing to wait—even to repeat himself—in order to win obedience. Whether or not Jonah sees the LORD to be all of these things or understands them fully is doubtful, as we see Jonah’s reluctant obstinacy and stubborn rebellion throughout the narrative.

We see in the episode on the sea that God is sovereign over all creation, even the capricious sea. God throws a great wind (1.4) and “provides” a great fish (2.1, NRSV), demonstrating his mastery over both the elements and the animals. These, then, are not mere objects, but God’s commissioned subjects to fulfill his intended purposes. The wind is sent, not as divine terrorism, but to win the obedience of Jonah, and the sailors; the fish is sent, not as another punishment, but as a vehicle of Jonah’s personal transformation toward obedience. Throughout the Jonah narrative, we discover that God’s primary mode of relating to his people and his creation is his word, to the extent that “the Word of the LORD” is almost another character (1.1, 3.1, 3.6). In a way, the wind might be seen as God’s breath (1.4); the LORD speaks to the great fish (2.11). Thankfully for Jonah, the fish obeys God more promptly and more fully than Jonah himself does.

“Telling” is the only verb in participle form where the LORD is the subject that we find in Jonah 1-3 (3.2). God’s speech is not a static decree that requires messengers and prophets for its transmission; it is an agent of itself, living and active in God’s world and effective for transformation. It is indicative that the only instances where the narrator directly quotes God in the first three chapters are his commands to Jonah: “Get up,” “walk to Ninevah,” and “cry out” to them (1.2; 3.2). This is incredibly profound, as Jonah is the only character in this entire narrative with the gall to not obey the LORD the first time. Rather than vindictively make an example of Jonah’s disobedience in order to demonstrate his sovereignty, God patiently repeats himself, giving Jonah opportunity upon opportunity to obey freely.

God’s patient sovereignty is writ large in his treatment of Ninevah. At the end of chapter 3, the LORD saw Ninevah’s repentance, “changed his mind” (NRSV) from the evil that he said he would do to them, and he did not do it (3.10). The “Word of the LORD” becomes an agent of relationship, a kind of contract, to which God himself submits: because Ninevah turned from their path of destruction, he also will turn from his planned destruction.

The narrator, I envision, stands next to Jonah throughout this entire narrative, gesturing wildly at the abundance of examples of God’s patient reign and spoken word winning the obedience of his creation, begging him to follow their example. To a shallow extent, Jonah sees what is happening all around him: he rants, “You are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2, NRSV). However, Jonah clearly cannot fully comprehend this, as he gives these all as reasons to disobey God, rather than to submit to his reign. What Jonah most misunderstands, perhaps, is what is most central to his confession: “You are…slow to anger.” Jonah slips this in the middle, and seemingly passes over its significance. The narrator, instead, sees this as the crux of God’s character, what is most evident in this entire narrative. Jonah is blind to this; we cannot be.

My previous exegetical papers on Jonah:

       ~   some initial reflections on Jonah

  1. Where is God? and Where is Jonah Going?
  2. Repetition is Emphasis; Emphasis is Theology
  3. Didn’t I Read This Earlier?

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