The Divine Comedy: Commentary on the Book of Jonah

for Joshua Rocks and Paul Drozdowski

1: 1-4 – Jonah is told by God to go to Nineveh and “cry out against it.” The wickedness of Nineveh has “come up before” the Lord.

So Jonah does what anyone would do if told by God to do something. He pays for passage on a boat to get away “from the presence of the Lord.” He tries to head to Tarshish, which my Oxford Annotated NRSV tells me is probably in southern Spain and one of the ends of the earth most likely – the farthest point to which one can sail.

At this point in the story, we have not been told why Jonah wants so badly to escape God. We’re laughing at him for trying to escape the word of the Lord. But there are at least two reasons we can conjecture for his attempting to flee:

  1. He’s scared of what will happen to him if the people don’t take kindly to his message (appetite/self-preservation).
  2. He understands what is just, and understands Nineveh to be fundamentally unjust.

In either case, the graciousness of the Lord is merely a dream, one that a change of climate should dispel any thought of. Regarding the second point – pride, honor and human reason are all mixed together. Contrast with the Platonic tripartite soul: there is no appeal to reason as the highest here.

But there’s a higher and a lower motivation for Jonah, potentially, and both motivations are not alien to the way we act. You might wonder why not granting mercy is a just action, but think about what an inability to trust another does to the possibility of justice in the world: enlightened self-interest has perhaps never been enough to maintain society, let alone found it. Actors who cannot be trusted at all must be dispensed with, for the not insignificant reason that it is just to dispense with them (there’s a reason why the Levitical law is liberal with death as a punishment).

1: 4-15 – But as we are all aware, a few strange things happen to Jonah while he tries to run from God. The first is the danger that his ship encounters: a storm hits the ship and amongst all the sailors “each cried to his god.” They threw the cargo on board into the sea to lighten the load, thus depriving themselves of any potential profit. Jonah was sleeping the whole while before being awoken by the captain, who tells him to call on his god.

The piety the sailors display just in order to survive is quite impressive. They could complain, they could be hateful, they could be without any pride – in Thucydides, the destruction of the Athenian force at Sicily occurs while the soldiers harbor a distrust of the divine: every omen they saw they only saw doom from.

This piety continues as the sailors attempt to use divination to find out if they have done something wrong (1: 7-8). Even the Gentiles have a rudimentary understanding that links the divine with the just – we can see here how it is that Nineveh will repent later. To be formed in the image and likeness of God is to be moral.

The divination is a casting of lots. There is no strange ritual involved, no augurs or any pagan element involved. As we have discussed before, election by lot is the most democratic way to choose in the ancient world; voting is aristocratic. The equality before the Divine Will is perhaps the ultimate truth behind the Law and it is being used to indict Jonah, who (unwittingly?) tells the sailors his God made the sea and the dry land. He thus tells them the present source of their troubles is the very nature of his God (i.e. this means in the very separation of land from sea in Genesis 1, there is a moral teaching).

The sailors do not threaten Jonah. They instead ask him how this can be remedied. He tells them to throw him overboard. They refuse to do this, because they do not want to shed “innocent blood.” They are truly descended from Noah, and the line of Cain is gone. But God has a way of making even the strongest will crack, and the storm rages, and their efforts to row to land are failing. So they throw Jonah overboard, and when the sea calms, make sacrifices and vows.

The whole first chapter of Jonah, then, is an inversion of the Noah story – we have someone who emphatically does not want to do God’s will and is preserved in spite of himself. There is no dominion through the Ark, but the Ark-like whale swallows and saves Jonah.

Why is any of this important? The most important thing about this first chapter is Jonah’s attempt to escape God. Not only does he fail to escape God, but he fails to escape the piety he is beholden to. The underlying truth of human existence is Providential, and not in spite of necessity. Rather, it is reflected through necessity. We can see people fall apart in the face of the worst of circumstances – but how do we explain what we’re seeing when they do their best regardless?

2: 1-10 – Jonah’s prayer demonstrates the notion of piety that is creating the tension between him and the will of God. It isn’t that Jonah is impious.

It is precisely because Jonah worships God and understands justice that he wants Nineveh destroyed. His action on the ship is not ignoble. He doesn’t offer to be thrown overboard out of despair. He is precisely the sort of person with whom judgment can reside. He can be trusted to say who should punished and how.

Jonah’s prayer can be taken as one where he requests to be spat out of the whale. But he doesn’t ask that directly, and the story he tells could be taken to be a story of whether he did the right thing or not. “Out of the belly of Sheol” is where he cried, in the chaos where it seems impossible to make a correct decision (2: 2-3). Perhaps something greater is forming, but all one can see are the waves and billows (2:3, again, note how the Genesis 1 account of Creation is Providential). But again, in a reversal of the Noah story, Jonah remembered God (2:4, contrast with Genesis 8:1), and even as he was being sunk, pushed down to the “roots of the mountains” (2:6), he stayed loyal and did not worship vain. The temple of the Lord has always been the human heart, nothing less.

I think Chapter 2 can be read as a prayer of thanksgiving that the sailors, who were not guilty, were not killed on account of him. That Jonah doesn’t really care for his own life is something we have to take seriously. What he cares for is his notion of justice. What we think is that his notion of justice is flawed without mercy. We seem to forget just how many times we allow the worst sorts of evil to take place because of “mercy:” our “mercy” comes at tremendous cost. Jonah knows who is guilty. Should he not act on this knowledge?

3: 1-10 – So Jonah is spat out and told to go to Nineveh, and he does as he is told. He perhaps does it half-heartedly, but I’m not sure – I think the length of Nineveh is meant to tell us how quick some people are to embrace the Lord. We should probably contrast that zealotry of the new convert with Jonah’s grizzled wisdom. Yes, Jonah has been shamed by the Lord. Any of you who think you know better, take it up with him in the next life. I wouldn’t be surprised if every single idea and argument you had about mercy and justice was given back to you in tatters.

Everyone in Nineveh immediately repents. Again there are echoes of Noah and Creation – human beings and animals fast and cry unto the Lord and attempt to return the world to its original, prelapsarian state.

If you think something is strange about this, where the world can repent to such a degree because of the threat of destruction that the Fall never happened, then you’re pretty sharp. Martin Buber and Leo Strauss and Walter Kaufmann would probably yell at me here and tell me the word “repent” has nothing to do with this. There is no “sin,” per se. There is the Fallen world, and all it needs do is merely “return.” (If you want to read more on this – see Kaufmann’s Introduction to Buber’s I and Thou, and also see Strauss in “Progress or Return?,” the final essay in The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, ed. Thomas Pangle).

I don’t know that the Judaic “Return,” or any doctrine or Scriptural teaching of any sort, for that matter, covers the enormity of what is happening here. This seems to be a colossal joke, just like getting eaten by a whale, and just like having a notion of justice which is inflexible – look, now every third-rate reader of the Bible can laugh at you, Jonah, and then go back to committing the 101 injustices they were in the midst of.

The only thing that brings this text back to the utmost seriousness is the possibility that this could happen, not the actuality.

It is the mere possibility that the world can be just that matters. It is for that reason, and that reason alone, that God’s mercy is just. And we have to wonder if human mercy is permissible at all.

4: 1-11 – Now, finally, after all is said and done, the Lord and Jonah have something like a dialogue. Jonah calls God out on his mercy (4: 3), and all the Lord does is ask if he has the right attitude – “Is it right for you to be angry?” (4: 4).

Jonah, knowing full well that arguing with God is pretty pointless, walks out into the desert. It is hot and uncomfortable, and God makes a bush to give Jonah shade. Jonah gets happy, and that’s when God kills the bush via a worm and blasts Jonah with a nasty wind to the point where Jonah almost dies. Jonah says he misses the bush and is angry about it, and God says that if he’s “concerned” about the bush which He labored to grow, how much should He be “concerned” about Nineveh and the more than 120,000 people there?

The allusion to Moses is obvious – not just the bush, but the number of 120. Perhaps what God is doing is dismissing Jonah’s wisdom because Jonah has not led a people; he is merely a prophet, completely subordinate to the Law and never in dialogue with God.

The story leaves off with the tension between God and Jonah unresolved. In the deepest sense, it cannot be resolved: it is the tension which comes from the spirit of the law and the letter of the law. And it cannot be said that those who study only the letter are unwise – they’re incredibly wise, for if they weren’t, there would never be a conflict this serious in the first place.

You might argue we can read this story and say that Jonah’s unwillingness to be merciful in any way towards Nineveh compromises his love of justice. There is Scriptural support for this position – it isn’t hard to argue that justice doesn’t mean a heck of a lot in a world without mercy. And I’m not going to say that’s a bad read of this story. I will only submit that it is incomplete.

The truth is that we’re more like Jonah than we care to admit, and it might not be our weaknesses that make us like him. Human justice and human wisdom may have to be transcended by the Divine, but if only the Divine can properly show mercy, then can the Divine adequately teach us anything about justice and wisdom? The Bible doesn’t pretend this is easy to answer: love of justice and the Lord is the starting point. The point of Jonah is to emphasize a love of humanity, to which justice and the Lord are both directed. But in some ways, that only brings up the same problems – humiliation for the wise, and the prospect of utter destruction for every single other person – all over again. What is obvious in stories is never so simple in practice.


  1. Your writing is ….a delight…and Jonah is my favorite story. Nineveh is a source of hope…because we do not know the hour not the day…it is my reminder to turn to my Providence…”if my people will call my name,and seek my face, I will heal their land….I have seen this in my life already…and what happens when we all submit to His divine providence…heaven

  2. Could you explain this passage more?:

    “It is the mere possibility that the world can be just that matters. It is for that reason, and that reason alone, that God’s mercy is just. And we have to wonder if human mercy is permissible at all.”

    When you say that it is possible the world can be just, does that mean in the sense that Jonah is just? If so, I think I understand a little more more…

    In my Bible, it says the number 120,000 actually refers to the amount of children in Nineveh, not the total number of inhabitants. This sort of changes the idea of justice in the book as well, I would think.

  3. oooh, i like. and i like the book of Jonah, as well. He reminds me ever so slightly of myself– and only because i’m just a brat ;).

    kind of funny, but this reminds me of that movie you weren’t too fond of with the inflexible guy in the mask…

    but there was a thought i had about foreshadowing and Christ here and darn my battery is dying and i need to leave. I’ll make it later

  4. aaaaaah, I’ve forgotten my point about foreshadowing. Oh well, I’ll make my other one. My husband and some of his work buddies keep carrying on about the guy in Watchmen- the redheaded guy- and how he was crazy in X way and they relate to him in Y way and he was so convicted he couldn’t act outside of his principles.

    This is basically Jonah according to this interpretation (and I am not at all saying I disagree). I told the husband that I could not relate at all because I, unfortunately, am morally bankrupt. This is a stretch. I’m not bankrupt, but much more a relativist than I maybe care to admit…

    But, despite that, I have my tendencies, as everyone does to be inflexible and unforgiving of some transgressions, and as loosely structured as my rulebook may be there are some unforgivable sins.

    Mercy means that there is no unforgivable sin. Truly, only God is merciful.

    (the article reminded me of my husband and his carrying on, but it also reminded me of my Grandmother- and that’s the part I just can’t remember now… =/)

  5. I am presently preaching on the book at my church. I was looking for some fresh thoughts and I think I have found some in your study. Amazing some times when things are going smoothly we think it is the work of God. Thanks for your thoughts.

  6. The trouble with so much of mankind is that they look to see what is in if for them. Perhaps Jonah’s problem was that he expected God to punish those at Nineveh, whereas God’s intention was to give them a chance to change their ways. Had God punished Ninevah then Jonah would have felt all the effort it took to get there justified.

  7. The way in which Jonah turns away from the words of God are very interesting. His sailors, whom all are very religious, still love and respect Jonah, even though they don’t understand him. I fell he was misunderstood for his beliefs; however, he has his own personal reasons to believe the way he does. A truly interesting story.

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