Reading Jonah Backwards: Reconsidering a Prophet’s Repentance

April 01, 2019

by Stephen Coleman


The portrait of the angry, bitter prophet that concludes the book of Jonah has long proved difficult to reconcile with the seemingly repentant and obedient prophet who earlier had praised God from the belly of the great fish before fulfilling his divine commission to bring the word of God to Nineveh. This article considers the rhetorical purpose of these disparate portraits by interpreting Jonah’s acts of piety through the lens of the concluding depiction of the prophet entrenched in his hardhearted rebellion. There is an irreducibly prophetic purpose to this ironic portrayal of a wayward Israelite prophet who gives praise to God with his lips only later to reveal that his heart is far from him.


Janet Howe Gaines captures something of the abiding appeal of the book of Jonah when she says, “The story of Jonah is simple enough to delight a child and complex enough to confound a scholar.” One of the many complexities of this short book that continues to confound scholars centers on the character of the prophet Jonah himself. Jonah, of course, is infamous for his rebellious flight from God and his divine commission to proclaim God’s word to the Ninevites. Jonah’s dialogue with the Almighty that concludes the book reveals a similarly rebellious spirit, as the prophet stridently objects to God’s extension of mercy to Ninevites, an objection which is even more reprehensible in light of the mercy Jonah himself had received in the form of a great fish.

In between these two acts of rebellion, Jonah’s flight (ch. 1) and Jonah’s dialogue with God (ch. 4), two episodes are often interpreted as somewhat mitigating this otherwise dim portrait of an Israelite prophet. In chapter 2, Jonah utters a prayer from the belly of the great fish, a prayer that is remarkable for both its theological profundity and its rhetorical force. This prayer is commonly understood as an expression of the prophet’s repentance— which, whatever lingering issues he may have with God, is nevertheless genuine contrition. The prophet’s obedience to his divine commission to preach to Nineveh recorded in chapter 3 is seen as confirmation of his repentance. It stands in stark contrast with his earlier flight from the divine presence and is therefore understood by some as signaling a change of heart toward God, if not toward his commission.

These central episodes have led interpreters to treat Jonah as a somewhat more complex character, one who throughout the narrative repents and demonstrates the fruit of repentance in his obedience, yet one who continues to struggle with the mysteries of divine justice, mercy, and sovereignty. This reading essentially places the interpretive weight in the center of the narrative, chapters 2 and 3, and understands its conclusion, chapter 4, in light of its center. However, this interpretation sits uneasily with the portrait of Jonah that closes the book. Is the embittered Jonah of chapter 4 noticeably improved from the fleeing Jonah of chapter 1? Is Jonah’s anger with God defensible or even understandable, and, if so, on what grounds? Unsurprisingly, the two portraits of Jonah have proved difficult to reconcile. At the risk of oversimplifying, one could say that the central chapters present a positive picture of a prophet humbled, grateful, and obedient, while the bookends present a negative picture of a prophet entrenched in his opposition to God and preferring death over service to him.

This article revisits this question of the characterization of Jonah using insights from rhetorical criticism, especially the discipline’s emphasis on exploring what one author calls “the practical persuasive power of the texts in influencing action.”4 Specifically, it revisits the question of the prophet’s repentance. Is the main character portrayed as repentant, unrepentant, or something in between? One’s answer to this question will, to a considerable degree, determine how one understands the book’s fundamental message. In terms of method, the rhetorical function of Jonah’s prayer from the depths and obedience will be examined in light of the concluding dialogue between Jonah and God, thereby reversing the common hermeneutical approach to the book, which reads the end in light of the middle. The concluding portrait, therefore, serves as the lens through which Jonah’s words and actions will be evaluated. Section one of this article sketches the portrait of the prophet found in the opening and closing chapters. Section two then examines his repentance in light of this emergent portrait.

A controlling assumption is that the author of Jonah deliberately juxtaposes these seemingly disparate portraits to better get his meaning across. Considered as a whole, the narrative portrays a prophet who delights in his own experience of mercy but is nevertheless so entrenched in his own notions of divine justice that he is unwilling to let God be God. What then is the reader to make of the prophet’s prayer and obedience? The prophet’s prayer, it will be argued, should be understood as a good prayer (with regards to its theological orthodoxy as well as its appropriateness to the situation) prayed in bad faith, and the prophet’s recommissioning can be seen, on one level, as an expression of God’s displeasure with Jonah and by implication his covenant people. The purpose of the narrative, therefore, was to serve as a prophetic warning to and condemnation of Israel. They, like the prophet, were quick to rejoice in their experience of God’s merciful deliverances, yet slow to be changed by them in such a way that they would fulfill their calling to be a kingdom of priests and a blessing to the nations (Gen 12:3; Exod 19:6).


I. Portrait of a Rebellious Prophet

In the opening verses of the book, the author gives a parodic tone to the narrative. While the divine command is fairly typical, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it” (1:2), the prophet’s response is almost humorously atypical, “But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord” (1:3).6 As many have pointed out, the author employs yrd (ירד , “to go down”) as a leitmotif highlighting the nature of Jonah’s flight “from the presence of the Lord.” The verb is used to describe Jonah’s geographical movement “down to Joppa” (1:3), “down into [the ship]” (1:3), “down into the inner part of the ship” (1:5), and “down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever” (2:6). Given the terminus of the prophet’s downward journey, the prophet’s geographical movement “away from the presence of the Lord” symbolizes a corresponding spiritual movement away from God and toward the place of death (2:6). In sum, the initial portrait of Jonah is that of a prophet so deeply averse to his calling to preach to the Ninevites and distrustful of the God who would call him to do so that he would rather die than fulfill this commission.

What about the concluding portrait? The author of Jonah employs a number of literary devices and strategies designed to connect the prophet of chapter 4 with the prophet in chapter 1. One such connection is the setting or movement of the prophet. In chapter 1, Jonah flees from the presence of the Lord, heading west first to Joppa, then toward Tarshish. In chapter 4, the prophet somewhat curiously travels east of the city and makes “a booth for himself there” (Jonah 4:5). Uriel Simon suggests that “this unnecessary geographic precision is probably intended to present his waiting in the east as an antithetical sequel to his westward flight. The rebel who opted for exile in Tarshish in the far west, now restates his protest by going in the opposite direction: instead of return west and going home, he camps out east of Nineveh in a desperate endeavor to prove that he is right and God is wrong.”

As Jonah’s flight was cast as a spiritual as well as physical descent to the realm of the dead, so Jonah’s hut built east of the city takes on a similarly symbolic significance. It is from here that the prophet will take his stand against the Almighty, arguing his case that divine justice demands retributive punishment…

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