Philippe Guillaume, «The End of Jonah is the Beginning of Wisdom», Vol. 87 (2006) 243-250
Is God, at the end of the book of Jonah, claiming that he will not destroy Nineveh?
Or should the straight-forward reading of the Hebrew and Greek texts be taken at
face value as claimed ten years ago by Alan Cooper? Although they do not
challenge the common reading of the end of Jonah as a rhetorical question, the
results of recent studies on Jonah support Cooper’s contention. Reading “You had
pity over the plant… but I will not pity Nineveh…” makes more sense and places
Jonah on a par with Job.
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The End of Jonah is the Beginning of Wisdom 249
in peace and not see the disaster (2 Kgs 20,19). His repentance only
postponed judgment (37). The best kings of Judah were no better than twelve
myriads of Ninevites to revert disaster. There is no point in denying the
sincerity of either of them. The people of Nineveh believed God (Jon 3,5).
When the Elohim saw how the Ninevites turned from evil, he had compassion
about the evil that he had said he would bring upon them; and he certainly did
not do it (Jon 3,10). However, it is JHWH who has the final word. Nineveh and
Jerusalem were destroyed. The issue is theodicy, not repentance (38). Nineveh
is a foil for Jerusalem.
Comparing Jonah with the account of the reign of Jeroboam in 2 Kings
14 shows that both accounts share a lack of coherence between human
behaviour and divine response (39). 2 Kgs 14,23-29 present Jeroboam as a
sinful king who reigned for 41 years and restored the borders of his kingdom
according to the word of the prophet Jonah because JHWH had seen the distress
of his people. Both accounts put prophecy in its proper proportion: â€œThe
prophetâ€™s proclamation of JHWHâ€™s word is presented at first as having great
impact on the events, but in both cases it is shown to carry no real
importanceâ€ (40). The evil kings successfully saved their people from deep
trouble, temporarily. In the book of Jonah, the prophet who had averted
disaster is sent again, this time to announce judgment. Because in 2 Kings he
was a bearer of good tidings, Jonah refuses to preach disaster upon Nineveh.
This is congruent with the plain meaning of his justification in Jon 4,2: â€œI
knew that you are a gracious Godâ€, how could I preach disaster? To reinforce
the parallels with the books of Kings, Jonah quotes Elijah, a prophet with
much blood on his hands. Tired of running away to escape retribution for the
many murders he committed, Elijah asked God to let him die. Jonah asks for
the same treatment (twml wÃ§pnAta laÃ§yw 1 Kgs 19,4//Jon 4,8), requiring
punishment for his disobedience to Godâ€™s commission (Jon 1,2). Elijah
admitted that he was no better than his ancestors (ykna bwfAal). Jonahâ€™s double
ytwm bwf (Jon 4,3.8) is a critical comment on the whole prophetic corpus.
Contrary to obedient Elijah who was dying because he was running away
from the consequences of his own massacres, Jonah insists that his
disobedience makes him innocent.
The direct quote of the greatest Israelite prophet also explains Jonahâ€™s
justification for his flight towards Tarshish: Ninevehâ€™s guilt was no greater
than the guilt of other cities. JHWH agrees: the Ninevitesâ€™ ignorance of their
right and left makes them morally unaccountable. Nineveh is no worse than
Samaria, the horizon of 2 Kings 14. Yet, Samaria remained a thriving city
after Ninevehâ€™s destruction, even after Jerusalemâ€™s demise. JHWHâ€™s
affirmation at the end of Jonah makes the point that his pity towards Israel (2
Kings 14) is not transferable to Nineveh. Similar sinners have different fates.
(37) BEN ZVI, Signs, 25.
(38) FRETHEIM, â€œTheodicyâ€, 227-237.
(39) BEN ZVI, Signs, 56.
(40) BEN ZVI, Signs, 63.