Chapter & Verse: Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Meg Warner explores Jonah’s bumbling prophecy
On the surface, this story is a simple one. A reluctant prophet is prodded back on track by Yahweh. He prophesies to the city of Nineveh as Yahweh has asked and is spectacularly successful – the city repents and Yahweh forgives. This excerpt from Jonah can be a neat introduction to the first two verses of the Gospel reading, Mark 1:14-15. It confirms that even foreigners who repent will receive God’s forgiveness.
Under the surface, more is going on. Why is Jonah so reluctant? What was the point of the first two chapters of the book if everything works out so neatly now? What happens in the verses that the lectionary misses out? Why does Jonah’s message cause the Ninevites to repent? Is this story really about repentance and forgiveness?
Jonah’s prophecy is the briefest and least appealing, of any in the Old Testament. And yet it is also the most dramatically successful.
In Hebrew, Jonah’s message is ambiguous. The verb Jonah uses, which means literally ‘to turn’ can be understood in two very different ways. One is the way that English translations universally choose – Nineveh will be overturned (overthrown). The other is that Nineveh will turn itself (or repent). The second meaning, which our translations ignore, is the one that turns out to be true.
In Old Testament times, it could be difficult to tell between true and false prophets. The test was whether the prophecy came true (Deuteronomy 18:21-22). Nasty things could happen to false prophets, especially in cities that were not their own. Nineveh was an especially concerning prospect. It was capital of the Assyrian Empire that defeated the Northern Kingdom in 721 BC. It seems that Jonah’s fear was precisely that Yahweh would forgive the people of Nineveh and that Jonah would appear to be a false prophet and face the wrath of the Ninevites. As it turned out, he was right, and this goes some of the way to explaining his peevishness in chapter 4…
Meg Warner is Tutor in Old Testament and Biblical Hebrew at Northern College. She is the author of Joseph: A story of resilience (SPCK, 2020)
This is an extract from an article published in the November 2021 edition of Reform