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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

The Humor of the Story

The Humor of the Story

The humorous quality should be apparent from the opening verses. Where else do we ever hear of a prophet who so flagrantly disobeys a divine command? The idea that one could get away from the Lord by sailing to a remote place is not only naive but deliberately ridiculous. The pagan sailors exhibit more “fear of the Lord” than does Jonah. When he finally goes to Nineveh, the Assyrians respond with a fervor unparalleled in Israel. Even the animals join in the repentance. The author of this passage is not concerned with historical plausibility—everyone knew that Assyria had never turned from its “evil way.” The fantastic repentance of the Assyrians simply adds to the enjoyment of the tale.

The centerpiece of the humor of the story is even more fantastic than the repentance of the Assyrians. A great fish arrives just in time to catch Jonah when he is thrown overboard and vomits him up on the shore. Nothing could be more remote from the spirit of this story than to believe that this actually happened. The episode of Jonah and the fish has rich theological implications, especially for Christians, but there is no theological virtue in mistaking a fantastic joke for literal fact.

The humor of the story has an ironic quality. It refuses to give the prophet the dignity associated with the office, or to take his convictions seriously. It invites us to reconsider our stereotypes of both pagans and prophets. Unlike the oracles of Amos, it assumes the goodwill of its readers and tries to lead them to new insight.

The Attitude to Foreign Nations

The primary subject matter of the book is indicated at the outset when the prophet is sent to preach to the Assyrians rather than to his own people. The wickedness of Assyria is not in doubt; it is the premise of the story. Jonah, naturally enough, wants to see justice done and is upset at God's excessive mercy. The incredible repentance of the Assyrians forces the issue: does Assyria, the most destructive tyrant of its day, deserve divine forgiveness? It is as if the Nazi leaders made a show of repentance after World War II and were pardoned. Jonah is not exceptionally narrow‐minded here. His demand for justice is just as reasonable as that at the Nuremberg trials. It is not accepted, however. God speaks here as creator, to whom the Assyrians are as important as the Israelites (or, in modern terms, Nazis are as important as Jews or Christians). The concluding verse of the book recognizes that “the Assyrian in the street” is no more guilty of the crimes of his nation than are the cattle, but guilt or innocence is not the point. The book of Jonah sees God in the same terms as the much later book of Wisdom 11, 24 : “For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for what you hated, you would not have fashioned.” The magnanimity of this sentiment is astonishing, especially when we consider the situation of the Jews in the postexilic period, when they had every reason to resent foreign powers. We may compare this story to Jesus' parable of the good Samaritan. The parable presupposes that most Jews would have regarded “good Samaritan” as a contradiction in terms. The penitent Assyrian is at least as great a contradiction, and as hard to accept. Admittedly, when the book of Jonah was written the Assyrian invasion was already ancient history, and it did not arouse emotions to the same degree as the Holocaust in our time. Nevertheless, it is not that Jonah was exceptionally narrow‐minded here, but rather that God is exceptionally tolerant.

The Perspective on Prophetic Zeal

Jonah reacts to God's mercy by sulking and praying for death ( 4, 8 ). He is not the first prophet to do so. The great Elijah also sat under a tree and asked God to take his life (1 Kgs 19, 4f ). Elijah, more than any prophet, was known for his zeal in destroying sinners (witness his treatment of the prophets of Baal in 1 Kgs 18, 40 ). Jonah is a prophet in the same mold. In this case, however, the zeal of the prophet does not meet with approval. The book of Jonah sees the limitations of prophetic zeal. God's rebuke is mild. Jonah is well intentioned and is acting in accordance with a long tradition. Conformity with tradition is not enough, however. Hosea had marked a breakthrough in the Israelite tradition by the recognition that it is more fitting for God to have mercy than to punish. The book of Jonah extends that insight to the treatment of foreign nations. Even the prophet must learn that reconciliation holds a higher value than strict retribution. Not all the prophetic books reflect this insight, but it is certainly the view affirmed for Christianity in the Gospels.

The Sign of Jonah

The episode in the belly of the fish is a minor humorous motif in the original story, but it acquires greater significance in later tradition. In Matthew 12, 39f , Jonah's stay in the belly of the fish is taken to prefigure Jesus' time in the tomb, and Jonah is often used as a symbol of resurrection in early Christian art. The symbolic significance of this episode appears already in the psalm in chapter 2 . There the belly of the fish is equated with the netherworld, and Jonah's rescue is equivalent to resurrection from the dead. In the context of the Old Testament, the resurrection is metaphorical and means simply that the psalmist is delivered from desperate circumstances. It is a confession of the power of God to give life and take it away. We should note that what Jonah regrets about the netherworld is that he is separated from the presence of God. What he asks is not just continued survival but restoration to that presence. Fullness of life, for most Old Testament writers, is not life without end but the experience of God's grace, which is so satisfying that it is better to have “one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere” (Ps 84, 11 ).

The Relevance of Jonah

Jonah's message of tolerance and forgiveness is as urgent in the modern world as it was in the fifth century BC. It is a hard word and should not be sentimentalized. It demands not only tolerance and understanding for those who are different from us, but forgiveness for those who have truly behaved wickedly, if they are willing to accept it. It is not yet a demand for unconditional forgiveness, since it has the precondition of repentance, but it is not an easy demand for all that.

The sign of Jonah caught the imagination of later generations as a sign of hope. That hope nicely undergirds the message of tolerance and forgiveness, since the wicked deeds of the oppressor are not as final as they seem. Those who hope for deliverance from the belly of death can afford to forgive the injustices of life. Belief in resurrection is often associated with the hope that the wicked will be damned. The book of Jonah, read in the light of the New Testament and Christian tradition, suggests that resurrection can also give a larger perspective on life, which has room for tolerance and forgiveness.

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