The Question of Ethnicity in the Book of Jonah

Is the book of Jonah truly about multi-ethnic relationships or are we reading a modern political agenda into the biblical text?

This is a good question. Although we can’t view any biblical text without seeing it through the lens of our own culture, careful bible study requires readers to reflect on a text in a way that allows it to challenge our lenses and our cultures (Acts 17:11 & 26:2–3). So, in its own terms what is the book of Jonah about?

The fundamental question in the book is: Can an Israelite (Jonah) be unreconciled with Gentiles (the people of Nineveh) when Israel’s God is reconciled with Gentiles? (Note that ‘Gentile’ is the word Israelites used for all ethnicities not descended from Jacob/Israel; the Hebrew is ‘goy’ and the Greek is ‘ethnos,’ from which we get the English word ‘ethnic.’)

We see this in the question God asks Jonah at the climax of the book. He asks it twice. “Is it right for you to be angry (4:3 & 4:9)?” By the end the reader knows the answer is ‘No.’ Jonah is not so sure.

The (unnamed) narrator has masterfully told the story in a way that elicits the reader’s identification with Jonah but that also challenges a false sense of spiritual privilege that Jonah attaches to his ethnicity. For example…

a/ In chapter 1 Jonah proudly proclaims his ethnicity (“I am a Hebrew” v. 9); the sense of entitlement is clear. And it is satirized by the narrator who takes pains to portray the pagan sailors with all the marks of Israelite piety (fear of the Lord, concern for Jonah’s life, prayer using God’s covenant name, offered a sacrifice…). Jonah takes up none of this. He just claims to be a Hebrew. The irony is clear, and the reader is on notice: Jonah’s claim to ethnic privilege is dubious at best.

b/ In 4:1–3 Jonah reveals why it is that he ran from “the presence of the Lord” at the outset of the story. It was not because he feared the Assyrians in Nineveh; it was because he “knew” that God would embrace them graciously. And Jonah didn’t want that. It was acceptable (to Jonah) to serve a God who was gracious with his own people (Hebrews) but not to serve a God who was gracious with Gentiles (Assyrians).

c/ Most strikingly, Jonah fears that God might make the same covenant name known to non-Israelites that he had made known to Israel (4:2). When God had made covenant with the descendants of Abraham and Jacob/Israel on Mt. Sinai, he disclosed to Moses a fuller version of his covenant name “I AM.” His ‘sentence name’ (as scholars of the ancient near east refer to it) can be found in Exodus 34:6–7. And Jonah’s fear is that God would make himself known to non-Israelites by the same sentence name. Which is exactly what God chooses to do. This is scandalous. Would God really make covenant with another ethnicity the same way he did with Israel on Mt. Sinai? Jonah is worried. (And his justifiable fear points us beautifully to Jesus Christ.)

By the end of the story, Jonah is angry. A world in which God is gracious to all peoples as God has been to his people is not a world in which Jonah wants to live. He wishes to be distinct, aloof, uniquely privileged… or dead.

And God asks, “Do you have a right to be angry?” No. How could Jonah have a right to be angry with his Gentile enemies in Nineveh when his God is no longer angry at them? If they are to be condemned, to what judge could Jonah appeal? The “Lord, the God of heaven” (1:9) has himself “changed his mind” (literally, ‘turned’ or ‘repented’; 3:10). God is not angry with the Ninevites. Does Jonah have a greater claim than God? Is Jonah superior to God?

God asks Jonah the climactic question—poignantly—as Jonah sits on a bluff overlooking Nineveh, looking at these people he wants to exclude, wrestling (as God would have it) with the relative worth of these people versus a shrub that had given him shade. Shouldn’t you also “share my concern” for them? By now the readers—who were Israelites in the first instance—know the answer: ‘Yes.’

And this has implications for Israel’s relationship with the Assyrians—and all Gentiles. We should not make the mistake of concluding that the story is just about the character of God, that it only makes a theological point (that God is merciful…). Of course, the book is about God. But notice: Jonah had the right theology from the beginning. He knew God was “a gracious God…” right at the start; that’s why he ran. The problem is that Jonah wants to maintain his vertical relationship with God without the vertical impacting his horizontal relationship with fellow humans. The book doesn’t challenge his theology. It challenges his sociology, his relationships with those he wants to keep beyond God’s grace, with outsiders.

The widely respected Old Testament scholar Christopher J. H. Wright puts it this way (in The Mission of God): “If Jonah is intended to represent Israel, as seems likely, then the book issues a strong challenge to Israel regarding their attitude to the nations (even enemy nations that prophets placed under God's declared judgment), and regarding their understanding of God's attitude to the nations. The concluding open-ended question of the book is an enduring, haunting rebuke to our tendency to foist our own ethnocentric prejudices on to the Almighty.'”

The following are some implications from this reading of Jonah for us today…

1/ The book of Jonah (like any biblical text) must be read in its wider canonical and theological context. Seen in the wider arc of revelation, Jonah challenges the ethnocentric tendencies of all people. All people bear the image of God (Gen 1:27). God’s people are blessed to bless all peoples (Gen 12:1-3). Jesus has broken down the hostility between all ethnicities and calls all to live as members of the family of God (Eph 2:11-22). Jesus prays for the unity of his church (Jn 17:21). Jesus commissions his followers to make disciples of all nations (ethnoi, Mt 28:18-20). And one day we will see Jesus most clearly when we see him in the company of believers from every tribe and language and people and nation (Rev 5:9).

2/ We need to let Jonah challenge us. Prophetic revelation is uncomfortable by nature. That’s the reason God often gave his prophets parables… like the sheep parable Nathan shared with David (2 Sam 12:1) and the bush (living) parable that God shares with Jonah. These stories circumvent our defenses so that God’s life-giving word can get through. If we want to hear God’s word to us in this text, we have to pay attention to our emotions, sit with the discomfort. We will be tempted by rationalizations (“this is just liberal stuff”), over-spiritualizing (“God calls me to other things”), and theological abstractions (“does God really change his mind”).

3/ Jonah calls us to turn around. God turns Jonah so graciously; he will do the same with us too. But the message of this book is meant to be lived, and our engagement with it needs to move from the historical to the present, from the theological to the practical. The book is best read in a faithful and gracious community that will help one another find life-giving ways of expressing its teachings. Doing so is not the same thing as reading into the text (eisegesis) bur rather reading out of the text implications and applications for today (exegesis).

4/ A word about politics: We live in a very politically polarized culture at present and are habituated by our media to filter information through political polarities. In so doing we tend to reduce the complexity of issues to slogans and black/white simplicity. The issues raised by the Jonah story and the Bible’s teaching on the multi-ethnic family of God are too rich and complicated to be flattened and compartmentalized so neatly. The book of Jonah does not make an argument for a modern political philosophy on the “left” or “right” (the story is set in the 8th cen. BC!). Let us try to honor one another, respect each other’s political philosophies, defer to one another, and speak graciously. And instead of debating policy, let us stay focused on the text’s implications for our values and relationships.