Jonah: a parable of calling

What does the biblical figure of Jonah have to teach us about calling? On the surface, not much. In fact, Jonah may be the great anti-hero of vocation. God calls Jonah – and he runs in the opposite direction.

What does the biblical figure of Jonah have to teach us about calling? On the surface, not much. In fact, Jonah may be the great anti-hero of vocation. 

God calls Jonah–and he runs in the opposite direction. God asks him, a good and upright man, to “Go to great city of Nineveh and tell them to end their wicked ways.” Now, to a Jew, Nineveh lay in enemy territory; it was in the country of the Assyrians. Nineveh was the Paris, the Mexico City, the Shanghai of the ancient world, an “exceedingly large city,” a city of “a hundred and twenty thousand people–and many animals,” a city it takes “three days to walk across.”

Maybe Jonah thinks this calling is beneath his pay grade. Maybe he crosses borders with difficulty. Maybe his passport has expired. Maybe he’s just terrified. But he’s quite certain the God of Israel should not bother with the Ninevites and Assyrians, because they’re not part of the “chosen people.” They don’t worship the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Rachel and Leah. So Jonah boards a ship heading across a different sea. He thinks he can outrun God’s call.

A huge storm comes up and threatens to sink the ship. The sailors row mightily against the waves before determining that some god among their passengers is angry. Whose? Only under pressure does Jonah reveal who he is, whom he worships, and why his god might be upset with him. He recommends that he be thrown overboard. Only when the storm worsens do the sailors pitch Jonah into the waves, and in a sea grown suddenly calm, Jonah is gobbled up by a great fish.    

Illustration of Jonah being swallowed by the fish from the Kennicott Bible, folio 305r (1476), in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

From the belly of a whale Jonah pleads to his god for deliverance, promising in a heartfelt prayer to do anything he’s asked. Distress has a way of focusing devotion. The great fish spits Jonah out onto dry land. 

Jonah’s god has other plans for him. 

Again, the call comes to him: “Go to the people of Nineveh and tell them to end their wicked ways.” This time Jonah goes to the great city of Nineveh; he walks around the city for three days, preaching repentance. 

The call to repentance works. The king decrees a fast, and the people comply. The king demands everyone, even the “many animals” put on sackcloth, and they wrap up like hot dogs. The king orders up wailing, lamentation, and loud expressions of remorse, and there’s lots of noise.

On a related note…

For more on the prophet Jonah (Younus in the Qur’an), see Younus Mirza’s “What’s in a Name?”

The late Harold Bloom shared why Jonah is his favorite book in the Bible in this 2011 essay in the New York Review of Books.

Jonah preaching to the Ninevites, by Gustave Dore (d. 1883).

When God changes course and spares the city, all of its inhabitants, and all of its “many animals,” Jonah erupts in anger. Storming out of the city, he begs God to take his life, “it is better for me to die than to live.” And God simply asks: “Is it right for you to be angry?”

While Jonah broods outside the city of Nineveh, God appoints a bush to shelter him, but in the morning the bush withers and dies. After a long day of blistering winds and blazing sun, Jonah again begs to die. God asks: “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?”  Jonah is adamant: “Yes, angry enough to die.”A divine rebuttal concludes the book of Jonah:

You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals? (4:10-11)

Rembrandt, The Prophet Jonah before the Walls of Nineveh, c. 1655

Three characters remain: Jonah, the great city of Nineveh, and God. What could this odd trio possibly have to say about vocation?

From Jonah, that anti-hero of vocation, we learn the breadth of God’s mercy–and the futility of trying to limit it. Jonah wants God to be merciful to him and his tribe–and judge everyone else. He’d rather die than believe in a God whose mercy extends into enemy territory.  

From Jonah we also learn the futility of avoiding any call when God is at the other end. Jonah tries to outrun his own calling, attempting to close it out in an overseas escape, an angry sea, and blatant pleas to die. God’s call persists, even when Jonah tries–quite literally–to drown it out.   

From Nineveh we learn that great cities mattered, especially in the ancient world. Cities were places where trade bustled, arts flourished, and people of all origins and colors and classes forged a common life. City life may have been messy and contentious, but great cities sparked human hope and divine delight. All the lives in this city mattered to God, from the greatest to the least, two legged and four-pawed alike. 

While the story of Jonah sketches a profile of individual calling, Nineveh shows that God calls groups, communities, even cities. God called Nineveh to repentance, a call that rolled out from God to Jonah, from Jonah to the king, and from the king to all his subjects. And lo! they turned to the God who called them.

Finally, from God we learn that even God can be called. Nineveh is not only the place where God calls Jonah, this great city calls God. When God regards the conversion of the great city, God’s own heart softens. Nineveh’s repentance converts God, prompting display of the full sweep of divine mercy. For in the end, God’s mercy always outruns God’s judgment.

In the end, the book of Jonah is not a story about Jonah anyway. It’s a story about the divine calling to a great city. Across millennia the book of Jonah telegraphs God’s fierce labor and persistent mercy to the hapless cosmopolitans of other great cities who do not know their right hands from their left.

For us latter-day Ninevites, that’s good news.

Martha (Marty) Stortz is the Bernhard M. Christensen Professor of Religion and Vocation at Augsburg University. Prior to joining the community at Augsburg in 2010, she taught at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in The Graduate Theological Union for 29 years. She wonders why it took her so long to get into higher education. She is an avid swimmer and writer, and she is a life-long pilgrim. An earlier version of this essay appeared in Intersections in 2017.

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