For this week, please read Jonah 3.
Last week, our story ended with the fish spewing Jonah upon the dry land. This week’s story begins with the same words with which our story began: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah (the second time) saying ‘Arise, go to Nineveh.” This time Jonah obeys. Instead of fleeing, Scripture says that “Jonah arose, and went.” God says, “Arise and Go” and Jonah “Arose and Went.” It is said that if we do not learn from God’s word the first time, then he will teach us via a field trip. Jonah went on his field trip, and he learned. Jonah is shown God’s infinite mercy and takes advantage of his new beginning.
Jonah may have the shortest message of any prophet in Scripture. In the Hebrew, Jonah’s message is only four words long: “Forty Day Nineveh Overthrown.” If you read through the other minor prophets, at least 95% of those books are the prophetic words of the prophets themselves. In Jonah, we only hear four words of prophecy. We are only given the most basic outline of Jonah’s message to the Ninevites because the message is only of secondary importance to the story. Almost every prophet preaches sin and repentance, but the story of Jonah is Nineveh’s actual repentance and God’s and Jonah’s reaction to it.
The message, though brief, is important. First, Jonah preaches that the occurrence will occur in forty days. Throughout Scripture, cleansing and repentance is a forty-day (or in one case a forty-year process). In Noah, the world is cleansed from sin by forty days of rain. Gen. 7. Moses fasts and repents for forty days on Mt. Sinai/Horeb to cleanse the people of their golden calf rebellion. Deut. 9. And Israel wandered in the desert for forty years to cleanse them of their sins from failure to take the Promised Land when commanded. Num 32:13. Through Jonah, God gives Nineveh the standard forty days to fast, repent, and be cleansed.
Jonah’s message is that Nineveh will be “overthrown.” The Hebrew word is haphak which means to turn or overturn. The word can mean to “destroy” as in Sodom and Gomorrah. Gen. 19:25. But the word can also mean to transform one’s appearance or to turn from evil to good. Jer. 13:23. Rashi, the great 11th-century Jewish rabbi, takes this ambiguity to say that Jonah’s words would necessarily come true – either Nineveh would be destroyed or it would be transformed from evil into good. Jonah’s message of haphak presents Nineveh with this choice of transformation or destruction.
Nineveh appears to respond immediately. The entire city, from the beast to the king engages in a strict fast of neither food nor water. All of the people put on sackcloth (a very coarse cloth) and sit in ashes which are a traditional sign of humility, lamentation, and repentance. See, 1 Kings 21:27, Job 2:8, Dan 9:3. The king’s edict is not for his people to merely engage in an outward form of repentance, but to actually repent in their hearts which is the appropriate of all fasts. It is the king of Nineveh and his subject who fulfill the perfect fast of repentance as described in Isaiah 58:6.
In response to Nineveh’s perfect fast of repentance, God relents. The evil Gentile city is not destroyed but it is redeemed. God’s judgment is stayed. In Nineveh’s repentance and God’s relenting, we see that God values the ethical over the theological and mercy over the juridical. The theological would require the Ninevites to adopt the Israelite religion or at least to begin to solely worship the Israelite God. Justice should require that God punish or destroy Nineveh because of the evil that they had previously committed. Neither happens. Rather God shows Nineveh his everlasting mercy. God does not require them to adopt Torah or to relinquish their idol worship. He only requires Nineveh to repent of their evil and violence. When they repent of their violence, so then does God relent of his destruction.
The Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) begins this Wednesday night. Yom Kippur is the holiest day in the Jewish year and is that time of individual and collective purification by the practice of forgiveness of the sins of others and by sincere repentance for one’s own sins against God. The ancient service is described in Leviticus 16.
The book of Jonah is one of the readings designated for this Day. The story of Jonah is the perfect story for a day of repentance. Jonah tells us that we cannot flee from God and God’s justice and Jonah shows us that everyone, including a prophet, needs repentance. Nineveh presents the paradigm of true repentance which has both an outward sign and an inward change. Most importantly, however, Jonah tells us to always trust in God’s mercy for if God can forgive the Ninevites, he can forgive anyone, even me.
When Jonah is read on Yom Kippur, the last three verses of the prophet Micah are added which emphasize God’s mercy:
Who is a God like thee, pardoning iniquityMicah 7:18-20
and passing over transgression
for the remnant of his inheritance?
He does not retain his anger for ever
because he delights in steadfast love.
He will again have compassion upon us,
he will tread our iniquities under foot.
Thou wilt cast all our sins
into the depths of the sea.
Thou wilt show faithfulness to Jacob
and steadfast love to Abraham,
as thou hast sworn to our fathers
from the days of old.
Schedule: We will finish Jonah next week. On September 28, we will start our autumn study of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. Hopefully, Covid will begin to decline by the end of the month. We will plan on meeting on the back porch just to be safe.