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?

Didn’t I Read This Earlier?

Here is my third exegetical paper on Jonah. My first and second exegetical papers were published earlier, if you’re interested. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Interpreting Jonah 1.1-5 and 3.1-5 as Parallel Passages

Narratively, Jonah 1:1-5 and 3:1-5 passages follow the same pattern: the word of the Lord comes to Jonah: “Get up, go to Ninevah…and cry out to them;” Jonah gets up and goes—albeit with varying degrees of (dis)obedience; God intervenes—either directly or through Jonah; and those who witness God’s intervention respond in religious fear to alleviate the impending doom. The similarities are too striking to ignore, but the differences are far more compelling as we discover more of Jonah’s character, and ultimately, more of God’s character.

Jonah 1.1-2 and 3.1-2 are nearly identical in word choice and structure. Only one adjective differs between 1.1 and 3.1. Jonah 1.2 and 3.2 differ only in wording, not in content: in 1.2, God gives Jonah the message “that their [Ninevah’s] evil rises up before my face;” in 3.2, God tells Jonah to deliver “the message that I am speaking to you,” presumably from 1.2.

Jonah 1.3-5 and 3.3-5 are more substantially different, though they follow a closely parallel structure. In 1.3, Jonah goes “Tarshish-wards, away from the face of the Lord;” in 3.3, Jonah goes “to Ninevah.” Here Jonah’s going is described as “according to the word of the Lord.” It would seem that in 3.3, we finally see Jonah obeying God. However, what at first looks like a total reversal of Jonah’s disobedience, we discover in v.4 to be only the slightest degree away from absolute rebellion: rather than walk to the heart of Ninevah, Jonah only enters “one day’s journey,” giving God’s message with the bare minimum obedience.

We see that Jonah, rather than being deeply transformed in response to God’s sending the storm and the fish, only changes as little as possible to avoid further intervention—this is particularly interesting in contrast to the sailors and the Ninevites, who dramatically respond to God’s storm and message. God, however, still speaks through Jonah in spite of his obstinacy.

Repetition is Emphasis; Emphasis is Theology

Here’s my second exegetical paper on Jonah. This one gets a bit technical, but I hope it’s insightful:

Repetition is Emphasis; Emphasis is Theology

As we inspect the repetitions found in the first twelve verse of Jonah, and discern what implications or importance can be found in these repeated words or ideas, we discover that Jonah’s apathetic disobedience and continuous motion “away from the face of the Lord” implicates not only himself, but also the sea, the ship, and the sailors, in God’s increasingly violent efforts to turn Jonah around and win his obedience.

The verb “arise” appears three times in the first twelve verses of Jonah: twice in the imperative form (vv. 2 and 6), and once in the narrated participle form (v. 3). In verse 1, the word of the Lord comes to Jonah and tells him to “Get up.” In the second instance of this imperative form, the captain of the storm-ravaged ship wakes Jonah and tells him to “Get up!” The repeated command here, first from God and then from the captain, cannot be overlooked: God is coaxing Jonah to obedience by whatever means necessary; at first, we think God succeeds. In verse 2, we see Jonah “getting up,” but not to obey. Instead, this is an action of rebellion that is perpetuated throughout the rest of the narrative.

Jonah’s subsequent rebellious movement directs him “away from the face of the Lord” (vv. 3 and 10). We understand that God’s attention is located over Ninevah, where the city’s evil rises up before his face (v. 2); we also understand, then, that as Jonah flees from God’s calling to Ninevah, he also is fleeing from the Lord’s attention, “away from the face of the Lord.” More than his movement, this is Jonah’s continuous posture, rejecting the Lord and his word.

As Jonah’s rebellion results in God’s increasingly overt efforts to attract his attention and coax his obedience, these efforts (the great storm and the great wind) increasingly impact those whom Jonah accompanies. The sailors understand that this storm is not an unpurposed event, that it is “on account” of someone. They cast lots to determine “on whose account” the storm is raging (vv. 7 and 8). When the lots fall to Jonah, they wake him, and he finds himself no longer able to delude himself. He admits that the God who made the sea and the land sent this storm on his account (v. 12); whether this admission is in any way indicative of substantial repentance or obedience from Jonah is doubtful, seeing as we have had no sense of Jonah’s repenting up to this point.

The last half of this passage is characterized by pervasive fear. In verse 5, the sailors become afraid because of the storm. In verse 10, the sailors react with fear because Jonah has angered the God who made the sea and the land. Their frenzied actions on the ship (throwing cargo into the sea, casting lots, accusing Jonah) are all motivated primarily by fear. While the sailors frantically do everything they can to save themselves, Jonah’s seeming apathy during the storm is incredible. Jonah evidences no real fear at all.

Jonah’s apathetic disobedience and continuous motion “away from the face of the Lord” endangers the sailors and their ship as God escalates his efforts to coax Jonah’s obedience and win his repentance. The fear of the sailors and the fury of the sea seem to have no real emotional influence on Jonah, even though he admits who he is and why God has sent the storm. This first movement of Jonah culminates in Jonah remaining statically opposed to God’s will that he bring the word of the Lord to Ninevah, even at the risk of the innocent people around him.

Here are links to my first exegetical paper and my first-blush reflection on Jonah.

Where is God? and Where is Jonah Going?

Here is my first exegetical paper on Jonah for my Hebrew class:

Geography and Movement In Jonah

Jonah’s actions in Jonah 1:1-6 poetically portray his attempt to flee the Lord. The two poetic movements are introduced by Jonah fleeing “away from the face of the Lord.” Both of these units then depict Jonah’s attempts to progress further and further down. By examining Jonah’s actions, we understand his character and God’s better.

The only exception to Jonah’s movement away and down is at the very beginning, and it cannot be seen as an exception in intent. After receiving the word of the Lord to “get up,” Jonah does get up; this is not act of obedience, however, but an act of rebellion. Jonah proceeds “to flee to Tarshish, away from the face of the Lord.” The description of Tarshish as oriented “away from the face of the Lord” is a significant clue to Jonah’s intent. The fact that this description is repeated should draw our attention.

The two units of movement characterized as “away from the face of the Lord” are further described by Jonah’s downward movement. The first unit of movement continues with Jonah going down to Jaffa, where he finds a ship and pays the fare, and going down into the boat. The second unit of movement continues with Jonah going down even further into the ship, lying down, and falling asleep.

Each movement away and down is a response to the intervention of the Lord in Jonah’s life. The first unit follows the word of the Lord reaching Jonah. The second unit follows the “great wind” of the Lord reaching Jonah. The more Jonah encounters the Lord, the further away and down he flees; clearly he is bent on avoiding the Lord’s instruction.

Jonah’s movement away and down suggests two things about God: first, about God’s attention and second, about God’s location. The face of the Lord is mentioned three times in the first six verses of Jonah; this mention of his face, along with Tarshish’s orientation “away from the face of the Lord,” suggest that the Lord is not abstractly all-present or all-aware, but that he particularly directs his attention. The Lord’s use of word and wind and Jonah’s continued efforts to move down both suggest that the Lord dwells in the air. Ninevah’s wickedness rising “up before [the Lord’s] face” seems to support this.

If you want, here’s an earlier post on Jonah.