Bible Q&A: Why did Jonah not go to Nineveh when God told him to?

Our Bible Q&A series explores the questions you’ve asked us about the Bible.

This article represents the author’s personal view. It accords with Bible Society’s values, but is not intended to express our position as an organisation.

Question: Why did Jonah not go to Nineveh when God told him to?

Answer:

One answer is that arguing with God and wrestling with his word is a thoroughly Jewish thing to do. Israel, the name of a nation founded as late as 1948, reveals something of God’s relationship with his people since ancient times. Israel means to struggle with God. It was the nickname given to one of the nation’s foremost patriarchs. Judaism is as much about debating as learning by rote. It is as much about individuality as submission.

When the Church turned from persecuted minority faith to state religion, it adopted Roman hierarchy, authority and order. Obedience was key for the system to function. Scattered across the globe and without a central religious authority, Jews were in a very different situation.

But even much earlier, in biblical times, you find iconic figures arguing with the Lord: people like Abraham or Moses, as well as Prophet Jonah. As it turns out, Jonah’s sin was less to do with disobedience than his lack of compassion.

God commissions Jonah to warn the depraved citizens of Nineveh of impending judgement and to urge them to turn from their wicked ways. Jonah faces a double dilemma: why help non-Jews? And why would a just God not punish them anyway? Jonah’s conscience – his patriotism and sense of fairness – makes him disobey.

Jonah ends up sailing for Spain, being caught up in a storm, swallowed by a fish and finally being spat out onto a beach. The fish, a place of darkness and isolation, echoes Jonah’s inner state of estrangement from his fellow-humans.

In the end, Jonah does go to Nineveh. The city repents and God spares it. Once again, Jonah wrestles with the question of why evil should go unpunished: ‘Lord, didn’t I say before I left home that this is just what you would do ... that you are a loving and merciful God?’ (Jonah 4.2) Well, quite.

It is Jonah’s sense of justice that makes him reluctant to go to Nineveh in the first place and accept God’s generosity, once the people repent. We are reminded of Jesus’ parable of the Workers in the Vineyard: everyone is paid the same wage, regardless of their different working hours. When those who worked the longest complain, the owner of the vineyard replies, ‘Don't I have the right to do as I wish with my own money? Or are you jealous because I am generous?’ (Matthew 20.15). Jonah doesn't go to Nineveh because he seems to have believed more in God's justice than in his grace.

The Bible, then, has several Jonahs – icons of the faith who resisted and argued with God and ended up closer to him than before. The process could be dramatic and painful; think of Jacob, Job and of course Jonah himself.

Personally, I’m wary of churches or individual Christians who seem to have it all sewn up and keep talking as if God had just shared his latest ideas over breakfast with them. For me, one message of Jonah is that growing closer to God involves detours, doubt and conflict. Who knows? Had Jonah obeyed God straight away, might he have missed the lesson of his life: that there will be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents?

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