There are many pictures that come to mind when thinking about the biblical book of Jonah: a prophet running from God, a powerful storm on the sea, a giant fish/whale/sea monster, the metropolis of Nineveh, multitudes on their knees crying out in repentance, etc. A golden cow is not typically one of those impressions. Yet the golden calf in the Sinai wilderness would have been perhaps the primary image in Jonah’s mind as he fled to Tarshish. Let me explain.
After Jonah was vomited up by the giant fish, he traveled to Nineveh and preached the judgment of God to the city and its people. When the people heard his message, they believed God (Jonah 3:5) and repented. Instead of rejoicing over their change of heart, however, Jonah was livid. He viewed God’s showing compassion on Nineveh as horrifically evil. Why?
Jonah’s Israelite Nationalism and Anti-Assyrian Prejudice
It is no secret that the Israelites hated the Assyrians during Jonah’s time. Assurbanipal II advanced the Assyrian Empire through grotesque and brutal war propaganda meant to instill fear in the hearts of Assyria’s enemies. Shalmaneser III even recorded taking tribute from the Israelite king Jehu on his Black Obelisk. After Jonah, in 722 BC the Assyrians would deport many from the northern kingdom of Israel from their homes and leave the territory desolate. It is no wonder that the Israelites hated the Assyrians, including the people of Nineveh as representative of that culture.
Yet during Jonah’s time, Assyria had weakened. Jonah prophesied by the word of the LORD that Jeroboam II would restore the northern border of Israel, taking back what Assyria had stolen of their land (2 Kgs 14:25). This would have been a great victory for the northern kingdom of Israel. For God to then tell Jonah to go and cry out against Nineveh would have generated deep resentment in the heart of the prophet. But more than resentment, Jonah’s anger at God reveals his questioning of God’s righteousness and justice. God had acted in violation of Jonah’s view of what was right.
Jonah’s Use of the Old(er) Testament
In his outrage Jonah revealed the reason why he didn’t want to go to Nineveh in the first place. “And he prayed to the LORD and said, ‘Please LORD, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore, in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity,’” (Jonah 4:2).
Jonah’s knowledge of God’s character was not something original to him. He remembered the days of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness after coming up out of Egypt, and the explanation of God’s character given to Moses as recorded in Exodus 33 and 34. There Moses asked to see God’s glory, but the Lord denied his request. Instead, God hid Moses in the cleft of a rock, covered him until He passed by, and allowed him to see only His “back.” While God was present with Moses, He proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth,” (Exodus 34:6). This statement is almost word for word the same as what Jonah says about God in Jonah 4:2, with one stark contrast.
Rather than saying God abounds in lovingkindness and truth, Jonah says He abounds in lovingkindness and is one who relents concerning calamity. This last phrase looks back further to Exodus 32. Moses had gone up Mount Sinai to receive the Law, and in his absence the people of Israel abandoned the Lord’s commandments to worship an image of their creation. Aaron fashioned a golden calf from the molten jewelry of the people, and they sacrificed to it as Yahweh. Know what transpired, the Lord told Moses that He would destroy the people and make a great nation out of him instead.
Moses responded by reminding the Lord of His display of power in bringing Israel out of Egypt, and asking Him to change His mind: “Turn from Your burning anger and change Your mind about doing harm to Your people,” (Exodus 32:12). The phrase “change Your mind about doing harm” is the same Hebrew phrase translated “relent concerning calamity” in Jonah 4:2. Jonah’s use of this uncommon phrase means he knew from Israel’s history that God had “changed His mind” about destroying Israel after their sin with the golden calf. Even though God had determined to wipe them out and start over, He did not follow through when Moses intervened. Jonah also knew that if God had relented concerning the judgment He had determined to bring down on Israel, that there was a good chance He would relent concerning the judgment He had determined to bring down on Nineveh. Because of his hatred for Assyrian and Nineveh, that was a chance Jonah was not willing to take, and so he ran.
Jonah and the Disconnect Between Mind and Heart
Knowing the content of the Scriptures, and even the character of God, does not always lead naturally to making right decisions. Jonah knew the history of Israel’s sin in the wilderness with the golden calf, and the Lord’s compassion on the people to forgive them and not completely wipe them out. Yet rather than allowing that knowledge to lead him to the conclusion that God loves individuals and desires to show mercy to all, Jonah’s prejudice led him to conclude God would show mercy to people who did not deserve forgiveness. Rather than rationalizing that the Lord of all the earth would act rightly, Jonah believed that God’s compassion would cause Him to violate justice.
Sin corrupts not only our persons, but also the way we read and view the Bible. Our prejudices will influence the way we read the texts and the theology that we generate from those readings. Jonah had been operating under something of an Israelite covenantal prosperity gospel. When Jonah was told to take God’s word to Nineveh, his preunderstanding of God’s character collided with his hatred for the Assyrian people, and what resulted was the wrong conclusion that God’s love would displace His justice. What Jonah did not realize was that God’s love and justice are always complimentary rather than contradictory.
God’s mercy does not operate according to a human assessment of right and wrong. He will have mercy on whom He will have mercy, as demonstrated both at the foot of Sinai and at the gates of Nineveh. Jonah had everything right about God’s character, but was dead wrong in his application of that knowledge. Among other things, the book of Jonah serves as a warning that knowing God’s character does not automatically equate to having God’s heart.