There’s a lovely narrative symmetry here, as God replays the call to Jonah. Knowing the first cycle, we anticipate Jonah’s response, and our own plans. Nevertheless, once Jonah arrives, the task is daunting. Jonah doesn’t deliver alone, but others pick up the message, ultimately the king decrees compliance.
Jonah is, in this chapter, the most successful prophet in history, implausibly and marvelously effective in communicating a warning and having it accepted. This is far more miraculous and incredible than some fish story! When would a big imperial city change its degenerate culture – when Jerusalem had not done so?
My people do not buy this as a historical account of a profound conversion of a Gentile people to Yahwism by one prophet’s single cry, or divine inspiration. Calvin sums it up in old language by saying the Ninevites were not circumcised, but morally challenged and changed. As the sailors, they’re ‘good without God’.
Whoever said that the goal of being the chosen people is to convert everybody to become ‘one of us’? Judaism welcomes converts, but ‘chosen’ means being a light to the nations, to bear witness, to re-present God and humanity to other peoples as faithfully as mortals can do with divine help and guidance.
So that also includes the content of the warnings of the prophets. Sure, Israel and Judah and their leaders are expected to seek ritual fidelity – but injustice and economic crimes in particular are the offences that arouse the threats to the whole world, including fish and birds on the ‘day of God’.
Anyhow, a gracious God gives more than humans earn, and a merciful God punishes less than we offend. We do not get our just deserts – thank God! When even Ninevites offer a bit of repentance, God relents from bringing the threatened calamity. Imagine that in terms of ecological outcomes now!
Jonah 3 (NRSV)
1 The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying,
2‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’
3So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across.
4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’
5And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.
7Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water.
8Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.
9Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’
10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.