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Jonah 3: The Mission of God in the Nations


And it was [Qal Pret 3MS hayah with waw cons] the word of YHWH to Jonah a second time, saying [Qal Inf Cons amar with lamed prep], 2Arise [Qal Impv MS qum], go [Qal Impv MS halak] to Nineveh, the great city, and proclaim [Qal Perf 3MS qara with waw cons] to it1 the preaching that I am speaking [Qal Part MS dibber] to you. 3And so Jonah arose [Qal Pret 3MS qum with waw cons] and he went [Qal Pret 3MS halak with waw cons] to Ninevah, according to the word of YHWH. And Nineveh was [Qal Perf 3FS hayah] an exceedingly2 great city, six days journey. 4And Jonah began [Hiph Pret 3MS chalal with waw cons] to enter [Qal Inf Cons bo with lamed prep] into the city one days journey. And he proclaimed [Qal Pret 3MS qara with waw cons] and he said [Qal Pret 3MS amar with waw cons], Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown [Niphal Part FS hapak]. 5And the men of Nineveh believed [Hiph Pret 3MPl aman with waw cons] in God. And they proclaimed [Qal Pret 3MPl qara with waw cons] a fast, and they put on [Qal Pret 3MPl labash with waw cons] sackcloths from the greatest of them even to the least of them.

And the word reached [Qal Pret 3MS naga with waw cons] the king of Nineveh, and he arose [Qal Pret 3MS qum with waw cons] from his throne and laid aside [Hiph Pret 3MS abar with waw cons] his robe from him, and he covered [Piel Pret 3MS kasah with waw cons] in sackcloth and he sat [Qal Pret 3MS yashab with waw cons] in ashes. 7He made proclamation [Hiph Pret 3MS zaaq with waw cons] and he said [Qal Pret 3MS amar with waw cons] in Nineveh by decree of the king and his nobles, saying [Qal Inf Cons amar with lamed prep]: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock taste [Qal Juss 3MPl taam with al negative] anything; nor let them feed [Qal Juss 3MPl raah with al negative], nor water let them drink [Qal Juss 3MPl shatah with al negative]. 8But let them cover [Hithpael Juss 3MPl kasah with waw cons] with sackcloths, man and beast, but let them cry out [Qal Juss 3MPl qara with waw cons] to God with strength. And let them turn [Qal Juss 3MPl shub with waw cons], each man, from his evil way and from violence that is in their hands. 9Who knows [Qal Part MP yada] if God will turn [Qal Impf 3MS shub] and repent [Niphal Perf 3MS nacham with waw cons], and if he will turn [Qal Perf 3MS shub with waw cons] from his fierce anger, that we might not perish [Qal Impf 1CPl abad]? 10And God saw [Qal Pret 3MS raah with waw cons] their doings that they turned [Qal Perf MPl shub] from their evil way, and God repented [Niphal Pret 3MS nacham with waw cons] over the evil that he spoke [Piel Perf 3MS dibber] to do [Qal Inf Cons asah with lamed prep] to them, but he did not do [Qal Perf 3MS asah] it.

eleyha: Definition 4 for : Where the motion or direction implied appears from the context to be of a hostile character, = against (BDB 40). The word is used in 1:2, where the meaning is clearly hostile in character. Based on the overall outworking of Jonahs second call in 3:2, my interpretation has settled on reading the context as not hostileGod has purposed to deal kindly with the Ninevites. 2 Strangely, the word here is elohim with a lamed preposition. This seems to be the only time in the Hebrew OT that elohim means exceedingly in this way. The closest would be when elohim means great (Gen. 30:8, 1 Sam 14:15) or mighty (Gen. 23:6, Ex. 9:28).

3:1: As many point out, it is sheer grace that the word of Yahweh comes to Jonah the second time. And, as many also point out, the text of 3:1-2 is identical to 1:1-2 with two small variations (and one larger variation; see 3:2): (1) second replaces son of Amittai, and (2) instead of preaching against Nineveh ( ), Jonah is called to preach to Nineveh ( ), although this word could still mean against. This book is carefully written so I am inclined to believe that the word change means something, but I am unsure what that might be. What is absolutely clear is that Yahweh insists that Jonah should preach to the people of Nineveh, and so the word comes to Jonah a second time. Phillip Cary writes to give us pause at Yahwehs relentless grace: Through all the vicissitudes of the narrative, one thing is certain: he will be the God who has always already taken sides with Israel. It is precisely this God and no otherthe LORD God of Israelwho sends Jonah to Nineveh, to the people who will eventually destroy Israel, so that even Nineveh might hear the word of the LORD and be saved. We will miss the surprise, the irony and offense of this story, if we do not reckon with the particular God who speaks here. 3 The theme of this passage is the relentless grace of Yahweh, who is willing to overturn his own prophet in order to overturn a wicked city toward faith. 3:2: The text of Yahwehs call to Jonah is again terse: Arise! Go! Nineveh is described again as a great city. Also, here is the larger variation from 1:1-2 (call out against it, for their evil has come up before me): call out against it the message that I tell you. Many commentators are quick to note that we never really hear the message that Yahweh instruct Jonah to call out against Nineveh, aside from the snippet we read in 3:4. Cary observes that This may be a very significant omission. It is not how the story usually goes. One of the most characteristic features of ancient narrativesfound not only in the Bible but in Homer and in ancient Near Eastern epics as well as in any number of folktalesis the repetition of the content of a message.4 Although I think that this plays into Carys interpretation of Jesus words that Jonah is himself a sign, having risen from three days in the tomb of a fish (see quotation for 3:5 in my notes, p. 80-81), I think this also emphasizes Gods grace toward Nineveh. Jonah did not have to debate with Nineveh, nor to wrangle with their hard-heartedness, nor anything of the sorthe basically showed up, and the work was accomplished. God converted the Ninevites, and Jonah was merely the unwilling participant. 3:3: How big was the city? That isnt the point. Cary writes: But of course the reference to three days is also meant to remind us of the three days Jonah spent in the guts of the fish. We are not supposed to miss the parallel: for Jonah to walk into Nineveh, that great city, is like being swallowed up again by the monster in the depths of the sea and exiled from the land of the living. He cannot possibly be enjoying this mission.Yet above all we must of course remember the three days our Lord spent in death, being the sign of Jonah, making all these experiences look different because death itself is different after our Lord is swallowed up in it.5 This is good exegesis! The point isnt to calculate the breadth of Nineveh, but to indicate that this preaching is a second death for Jonah. He could probably see Ninevites responding instantly to his

Phillip Cary, Jonah, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008), 29. Phillip Cary, Jonah, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008), 106. 5 Phillip Cary, Jonah, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008), 107.

preaching wherever he went, much as he suspected (4:2-3). His curse was that of King Midas: his greatest nightmare happened ironically when everything he touched turned to gold! 3:4: I didnt agree with Cary at first, but the more I think about this passage, I am inclined to agree with his suggestion on the meaning of the 40 days: In the Bible the number forty indicates a time of trial or testing that leads to holiness, renewal, homecoming, and salvation. The waters of Noahs flood are upon the earth forty days (Gen. 7:17), Moses is on the mountain with God for forty days (Exod. 24:18), and Ezekiel bears the iniquity of Judah for forty days (Ezek. 4:6). Most paradigmatic are Israels forty years in the wilderness, which point forward to the forty days that Jesus was tempted in the wilderness after his baptism. Jonah has already had his baptism, plunged into the depths of the sea and brought back up to new life: could it be that these are his forty days of testing?6 On the word overturn, Cary writes: Still, the irony of the story is even more satisfying if we suppose that Jonah himself, prophet posing as bureaucrat, supplies the evasive passive-voice term, so uncharacteristic of the LORDs very unevasive habits of speech, by altering the message the LORD has given him. We can almost hear the gracious and merciful God chuckling and [page] saying to himself, Okay, Jonah, have it your way. You want to say Nineveh will be overturned? Well then, I will make sure Nineveh is overturned for you! I will surely turn them upside down, convert them and turn them into something altogether new. Eventually, it seems, the LORD aims to turn the whole world upside down (Acts 17:6). Things keep getting better than Jonah wants them to be.7 I am a little uncomfortable reading too much into a passive voice verb like this, but I think that Cary is onto something here. I have no doubt that Jonah was preaching with veiled, hopeful delight, desirous to see Nineveh actually overturned. When the city was overturned (but not as he suspected it would be), he is furious. 3:5: And then, miraculously, the people of Nineveh believed God. They repent (signified by fasting and putting on sackcloth) down to every last Ninevitefrom the greatest to the least. This is a miracle in the highest degree, and none of it may be attributed to the work of Jonah: It is clearly not Jonah but the word of God that converts Nineveh. We hear of Jonah uttering one brief sentence, never even mentioning God, and that is the extent of his prophecy. Perhaps we can imagine him repeating himself. But what we are not invited to imagine is any kind of dialogue between him and the Ninevites comparable to the tense but fruitful conversation in Jonah 1, from which the sailors learned that the God they were dealing with was the LORD. The Ninevites apparently have no opportunity to question Jonah about who he is and what God he serves, and evidently he never tells them. We do not hear of Ninevites calling upon the name of the LORD like the sailors, and their belief is described using the generic term for God (Elohim) that any pagan could use. Jonah, we have to assume, never instructs them. 8 I do think that there are hints here that this isnt a full conversion to Yahwism; nevertheless, we should not discount the reality and genuine nature of this conversion. They believe the message that they are given, and they are saved because of it.

Phillip Cary, Jonah, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008), 108. Phillip Cary, Jonah, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008), 109-10. 8 Phillip Cary, Jonah, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008), 111.

Why do the Ninevites repent? Here is Cary: Jesus is the sign of Jonah because he is a sign the same way Jonah is a sign. Jonah offered Nineveh no sign but himself. He did no miracles and had little to say, and that little was ironic and enigmatic, like a parable about not knowing what time it is. The mystery, the hidden meaning, is right there on the surface, as if to [page] say: Dont you know whose word youre hearing? Thats what time it is, the time when your LORD visits you and speaks to you. And now you want a sign? The Ninevites knew better, and when Jonah came as a sign among them they believed his word and repented. The sign of Jonah is good news, for the Ninevites did believe, and therefore it must be that we can too. Of course this also leaves us with no excuse for our unbelief. Indeed the great, evil city Nineveh has every right to rise up at the last day and condemn all of us who follow in Peters footsteps, but that is only because (and here again is good news, the gospel) a greater than Jonah is indeed among us, and he is stubbornly persistent in being nothing less than the sign of Jonah, given to an unbelieving generation so that we may believe. Need it be said that we should not be so foolish as to think ourselves worse off than those who first heard Jesus preach? If we are paying attention at all, we will realize it is not easier to believe him just because he is visibly present. We have indeed not been put to the test like that earlier generation, who took his visibly present flesh, hung it on a cross, and then buried it in the heart of the earth. Yet we, more than they, are that evil and adulterous generation of whom Jesus speaks, for like the Ninevites we are those to whom came one who had already been buried three days. Those who first heard Jesus preach did not have that advantage, because he had not yet died. Jonah is a sign in his own person because he had been as if three days dead, and yet there he is in the heart of Nineveh proclaiming the word of the LORD. So Jesus is to us the sign of Jonah, three days dead yet there he is in the heart of us, present among us in word and sacrament, preaching and mystery, as enigmatic as a parable whose meaning is hidden right on the surface and therefore impossible for an evil and adulterous generation to understandunless like the Ninevites we believe in him. 9 3:6: Even the king repents! Cary offers insightful comments on the actions of the king in his repentance: And he arose from his throne Like Jonah (1:3; 3:3) the king of Nineveh arises to take action. But in contract to Jonah, his action is a symbolic declaration of his own helplessnesssomething Jonah did not get around to recognizing until he was in deep water. The kings first act is to leave the majesty of his kingship behind him. He gets up off his seat, something the mighty dont ordinarily do unless they are knocked off (as Mary reminds us in the Magnificat in Luke 1:52). Normally, the king sits while all his inferiors stand in attendance around him and his petitioners kneel before him. To rise from his throne is to join them all, leaving behind the visible seat of his authority. But he does this precisely in order to exercise his authority for the good of his people. It is the first of a whole strong of actions, truly royal and worthy of imitation. [page] And took off his mantle and covered himself with sackcloth The king divests himself of glory, though not of responsibility. He will be ruler only in repentance. And even in this he is meek enough to follow the lead of his own people, who have

Phillip Cary, Jonah, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008), 80-81.

already called a fast and dressed themselves in sackcloth. Conforming to their faith, he removes all the visible splendor of royalty that protects his mortal body and replaces it with the same garb of abasement they all have on. His gesture of humility is therefore also a gesture of solidarity one vulnerable human being joining the rest as they beg for mercy. This is a great king indeed. Only the one who wears a crown of thorns rules in greater humility. 10 In the way Cary describes this, you can almost hear the footsteps of Jesus as he descends from his heavenly throne, divesting himself of his heavenly glory, in order to humbly come among the people for the sake of their salvation. 3:7-8: The king issues a proclamation meant to touch not only man, but beasts, herds, and flocks. Cary reminds us that these animals are the wealth of the city, and that Gods judgment has no problem falling on the prosperity of a wicked city: The king is concerned, because what admits of blessing and prosperity also admits of curse and destruction. The original readers of the book of Jonah would no doubt have regarded his concern as well founded. They would remember that a number of the plagues that the LORD sent against Egypt struck both human and livestock: gnats (Exod. 8:17-18), boils (9:9-10), hail (9:19, 22, 25), and above all the final plague, which struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human and livestock (12:12; cf. 11:5; 12:29).11 I also see a hint here of the gospel extending to all of creation. One day, we will enjoy the new heavens and the new earth, in which the animals themselves shall be transformed: For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpents food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the LORD (Isa. 65:17, 25). Is this not a universal repentance in Nineveh? 3:9: 3:10: On Gods repenting from the justice he meant to impose on Assyria: A similar incoherence in the narrative of the book of Jonah points toward a God outside time, which means he is present to all times at once. For on the one hand, God threatened to destroy Nineveh and then did not do it, which seem to be aptly described by saying he changed his mind. But on the other hand, as we have seen, it seems impossible to regard the conversion of Nineveh as anything but the LORDs doing, a miracle of divine grace.12



Phillip Cary, Jonah, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008), 113-114. Phillip Cary, Jonah, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008), 116. 12 Phillip Cary, Jonah, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008), 123.