Justice and ancient storytelling: The book of Jonah

The book of Jonah is a remarkable work of storytelling.

There is urgency, an immediacy. God’s word is given in the first line, and it feels like it is everything we need to know: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” We are thrust into the concerns of God, and the storyteller gives it to us in straightforward prose. He does not linger or waste space. He does not have time for poetry—yet. The wickedness, cruelty, and oppression of the great city have risen up—like Abel’s blood—before God, but we cannot even pause to consider these things, because Jonah is already on the run, feeling from God, paying money, boarding a ship, and—before we can think about where he is going and what he is doing—falling asleep. We, however, cannot rest because already a sea storm is rising. People are crying for salvation. And Jonah is neglecting his responsibility (his shipmates’ words) to join them in prayer.

Here we see the shipmates asking a string of questions we would have been asking all along if we had had space to take a breath. By virtue of the shipmates’ insight or by a device of the storyteller, the text gives us language for our questions, and it is in the language of justice: “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?” How does your corporate identity square with your responsibility to do right by your God and your people?

Jonah responds with unimaginative facts. This isn’t the earnest truth-telling of a prophet, not the overflowing revelation of God’s word, not even the unfolding of hot information or breaking news. It is the reductionist claim to be a “Hebrew”—(but the outsider’s expression for it, a foreigner’s word for a people whom he has already disowned)—and the reductionist description of God, who made the sea and the land. (There is a stirring when he mentions God’s name, but when he says he “worships YHWH,” how can we believe it?) And he offers a reductionist view of justice: throw me overboard and you’ll be safe because I am the one who deserves this punishment. Filled with fear, both for the storm and for the wickedness of such an action, they grant his wish, and Jonah, no longer committed to his people and hardly committed to his God, expects his death in the abyss of the waves.

To our great surprise (and the storyteller has a full store of discoveries to make), Jonah’s words are effective. He has opened his mouth to spout out half-truths, and all around him, people are saved. The storm stops. The shipmates make sacrifices, they make vows, and in a way Jonah could not, worship this new God. And God, who has surprises of his own, provides a fish that by swallowing Jonah keeps him alive.

Now–at the center of this short book—the storyteller takes time to give us poetry. Here, finally, we hear Jonah speak like a prophet, and his words read like one of the psalms of his people. There is the crushing water. There is the grave, not just an evocation of it but a startling imagining of it—the “roots of mountains,” “weeds wrapped around” the prophet’s head. There is salvation in looking to the temple. And, like a psalmist, the singer comes to a decision: “Salvation,” he says, “comes from the LORD…what I vowed I will make good.” And the fish vomits Jonah onto dry land.

As the storyteller continues, the events sound strikingly similar. Reaching Nineveh, Jonah speaks one sentence of prophecy and everywhere people turn and are saved. They pray for salvation. They acknowledge God. And—the parallelism is brutal—to the great sadness and confusion of listeners and readers everywhere, Jonah slinks back once more into his bitterness, his chosen selfishness, his rejection of a people God has called him to. Once more, this time on the outskirts of town—east of the city, in the path of the dry desert wind—he flirts with his own destruction. And once more, he speaks to God.

Here the storyteller turns over another card: “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home?” Jonah asks. “That is why I was so quick to flee…I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God–(These are not the words he used for God on the ship)–slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”

It was for this moment that we see the storyteller has crafted his biggest surprise, the grand revelation, the subversion of expectations. We had thought we knew Jonah. We had thought we knew why he had run from God. We had thought we had figured it all out. We had thought Jonah’s was a fear of others (the very real threat of the people of Nineveh). We had thought he had a death wish. We had found all this understandable. Be we had also thought that he was reckless, lazy, spiteful, a rejector of his identity as a Hebrew and his commitment to be a prophet for God, and we had thought that this could never be excusable. We had distanced ourselves.

But we had gotten something wrong about Jonah. And what we had missed about Jonah was that he had missed something about the justice of God, that God’s justice makes space for compassion, that God in his justice rescues wicked people, that God, who once saw the wickedness of a people come up before him, could also see when this oppressive people turned from their evil ways, and that God, in having this compassion, was still good.

“Shouldn’t Jonah have known all that from his own story?” we ask, accusing him. “We would never act as Jonah did,” we claim. But as we start to talk to the text, it fires right back: Do we really believe God is gracious and compassionate when dealing with the violent people in our world, in our communities? “But surely the oppression of the Ninevites is nothing compared to the violence we see today,” we argue. Now that the story is asking challenging questions about God’s justice, we want to make it about Jonah and Nineveh again. But the story has shifted. The storyteller has provided us—the readers and hearers of Jonah across the centuries—a new entry point, and with that, he resumes his narrative.

God “provides” a vine that “eases Jonah’s discomfort.” Here is another stitch in the pattern of storytelling. We have already been told that God had “provided” a fish to rescue Jonah. Now, even in this economy of words, we see that God “provides” three times—first the vine, then a worm to eat the vine (we start to imagine the mythic potential of these images, the underworld poetry from the belly of the fish still fresh in our minds), and then, coming like a punch to the gut, God “provides a scorching east wind.”

“It would be better for me to die than to live,” Jonah says to God.

And God responds in the language of justice: “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?”

“I do,” Jonah answers. “I am angry enough to die.” He does not mention the vine.

But God does not seem to waver in his focus. Again he brings up the vine, and though his words do not ring in our consciousness with the symbolism of myth, they stir our philosophical imagination. “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow,” God says. There are suggestions here of God’s sovereignty over creation, but also of a tenderness, the role of a nurturer. “It sprang up overnight and died overnight,” God says, echoing the most ancient psalms in their wisdom of the transience of creation and the frailty of all human life. God continues: “Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left and many cattle as well.” We cannot yet pause to wonder at this somewhat strange declaration that the number of cattle should be a factor at play here, because God’s words conclude with an even sharper question: “Should I not be concerned about that great city?”

And so concludes the narrative, abruptly. We lurch forward. Was Jonah listening? There is much for Jonah to hear in these words. Does he rejoin the city? Does he return to Judah? We assume that he does not die in the desert, because who would tell his story otherwise? And then we ask the broader questions: Is this really what God’s justice looks like—forgiving a people’s wickedness because of their ignorance and their many cattle, planting a vine and destroying it to prove a point? Why, we are still asking, should God be concerned with this great city of violent people? And does God, we ask—the readers and listeners to the story of Jonah across the centuries—still concern himself with our own great cities—willfully violent, depraved, and filled with people who do not know their right from their left?

We do not know what to do with these questions. Where is the poetry, the rousing prayers we find in later prophetic works? Where are the lamentations, the mind-bending apocalyptic visions, the intimate promises? What happened to the storyteller who rushed, prodded, and guided us through this story so knowingly?

Perhaps an ending like this requires something else from the listener, not merely emotional engagement (in the sense of a catharsis—we cannot feel relieved until Jonah does) or intellectual engagement (in the sense of solving a puzzle—the lack of information cuts us off), but the actual work of completion. The unsatisfying suddenness, the sense of not having closure when our questions about Jonah and God’s justice are at their peak become a provocation that forces us to dig deeper.

Our questions remain, but maybe it is the storyteller’s intention that we enter Jonah’s story and imagine the rest of his conversation with God ourselves. And God’s emphasis on the vine could be our starting place.


Jonah could not have taken God’s challenge lightly.  Here is God, meeting a prophet at the moment of his greatest weakness and need, speaking in words that resound with the imagery of his people’s scriptures.  He could not have shrugged it off. “You have been concerned about this vine,” God tells him, “though you did not tend to it or make it grow.” But as God begins to make the connection between this vine and this great city, does Jonah have a rush of feeling and thought? It feels almost as though Jonah should cut God off. He waits to hear the rest of God’s word, but then, does he respond? “But Lord, I was not concerned about this vine.” We have scene Jonah’s bluntness before. We cannot imagine it takes either him or God by surprise. He was only concerned about his discomfort in the sun and the wind, he argues. Of course he did not tend to the vine or make it grow. The life of the vine meant nothing to him. And neither is he concerned about the life of the city—or of its cattle—and maybe God shouldn’t be either. Is Jonah bold enough to utter these last words?

But God’s words keep challenging Jonah. Maybe the vine is–more than a symbol–a parable for the people of Nineveh. Jonah had not tended to the vine or made it grow, but now God was tending to this city with his compassion. To kill the vine, to “chew at it until withers” would be more unbearable for Jonah than he could have seen, as bitter as he was. Does Jonah here at last discover the pain of his selfishness? Or does God have to show him that he alone—the prophet whose word of warning had saved the city—was getting a taste the destruction he had prophesied? Jonah was by his choice sitting in the path of the “scorching east wind” on the eastern edge of a city whose citizens had by their choice turned from their violence and received God’s compassion.

The parable of the vine challenges further. Maybe God is saying that Jonah’s rejection of God’s compassion can result only in suffering. If God’s compassion was effective in his own life–he had only recently been rescued by a fish–why not for the lives of the people of Nineveh (and our own)? “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs,” said Jonah in the belly of the fish.

Maybe God is saying that this vine, which God had grown and tended to, was a poor substitute for the shelter of a city whose people God is concerned about, that this plant, a passing shelter, cannot compare to a city whose one hundred twenty thousand people had turned from their violence. (It is hard for the readers of this story at any period to imagine the world’s perpetrators of violence as a future source of safety, but the image sticks with us.) God cares more for this city than for the vine, Jonah ponders.

Maybe God is even directly challenging Jonah’s system of justice: Jonah may be willing to sit under a vine and watch a city be destroyed or to sleep while a ship full of innocent people goes under, but for the sake of the one hundred twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right from their left—even for their cattle (This is what reductionist justice sounds like, God suggests)—God is not willing to neglect his purposes of compassion. You in your selfishness did not tend to the vine or make it grow, but should I not have compassion for this city?

These are only possibilities. We still have our questions. We still do not know how Jonah reacted or what he did next. We still may not understand God’s justice or feel the compassion that it requires. We are still aware of our own complacency and, if we admit it, our own hatred. We still wonder if the vision of justice proclaimed in this story applies to the most violent places of our cities today. The rest of Jonah’s life may have been brief or it may have been long enough for him to have told, maybe even have written out, his story. We do not know. But the master’s stroke of a masterful storyteller—who gave us urgency of narrative; who gave us all the parallels, the ship and the city of Nineveh, the fish and vine; who gave us poetry, and who asked us all the right questions in the right moments, in the words of people and in the words of God—was to leave off at the moment of Jonah’s decision and by so doing to force us—the listeners and hearers across the centuries—to respond.