Tuesday of week 27 of Ordinary Time – First Reading


Commentary on Jonah 3:1-10
After his three days and nights in the belly of the big fish, Jonah was, at the word of God, vomited on to the shore. Without delay, the word of Yahweh comes to Jonah a second time. It is almost as if God was saying to his prophet, “OK! Let’s try one more time.”

Jonah is told again to rise up, to go to Nineveh and to preach to it in the words that Yahweh will lay down. That, of course, is the role of the prophet – to pass on a message from God not to preach his own word. A much chastened Jonah now submissively, if not with much enthusiasm and against his better judgement, obeys and sets out for Nineveh. He is not expecting much response.

Nineveh is a city, we are told, “great beyond compare”. Literally, it is “great in the eyes of God”, which is the strongest superlative in the Hebrew language. So big, in fact, that it took three days to walk across it.

Later in the story we are told that the city had more than 120,000 inhabitants, just a large town by today’s standards. Archaeological excavations indicate that the later imperial city of Nineveh was about 12 km round. The fact, however, that “a visit required three days” may suggest a larger area, such as the four-city complex of Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah and Resen mentioned in Genesis 10. Greater Nineveh covered an area of some 100 km in circumference.

On the other hand, “three days” seems to have been a conventional way of describing a medium-length distance. But, as we are dealing here with a story, the author simply wants to say that Nineveh was a very big place with a lot of people.

Having arrived at Nineveh, Jonah had only walked one day’s distance into the city proclaiming Yahweh’s warning: “Only 40 days more and Nineveh will be overthrown”, when the people responded immediately and believed God’s word.

The 40 days are reminiscent of the 40 days of the Flood or the 40 years of Israel wandering in the desert. Jesus will also fast for 40 days in the desert and, in the Acts of the Apostles, ascend to his Father 40 days after his Resurrection.

A fast was then proclaimed and everyone put on sackcloth – all conventional signs of repentance for sin. This speedy conversion of the Ninevites after hearing God’s word will be commented on later by Jesus and contrasted with the reluctance of the Scribes and Pharisees to accept Jesus’ word. “At the judgement, the citizens of Nineveh will rise with the present generation and be the ones to condemn it. At the preaching of Jonah they reformed their lives; but you have a greater than Jonah here” (Matt 12:41).

When the proclamation reached the king’s ears, even he rose from his throne, divested himself of his royal garments, put on sackcloth and sat in ashes. This is the mighty King of Assyria, king of an empire which brought so much suffering to the Chosen People. Here he is, humbly submitting to Yahweh and acknowledging his sinfulness.

Further, he gives orders for a general fast from eating and even drinking water, an order extended to both people and animals. And he gives the order: “All must put on sackcloth and call on God with all their might; and let everyone renounce his evil ways and violent behaviour.” Inclusion of domestic animals was unusual but here it expresses the urgency with which the Ninevites were to seek mercy.

“Who knows?” said the king. “Perhaps God will change his mind and relent and renounce his burning wrath, so that we shall not perish.” He knew they deserved any punishment God could send them but they lived in hope that Jonah’s God might relent and put aside his great anger against them. In Jeremiah Yahweh says, “Sometimes I threaten to uproot and tear down and destroy a nation or a kingdom. But if that nation which I have threatened turns from its evil, I also repent of the evil which I threatened to do” (Jer 18:7-8)

And, indeed, God does see their efforts to abandon their evil ways and withdraws the disaster he had planned for the city.

One would imagine that Jonah would have been absolutely delighted with such a response to his preaching and with the conversion of the Ninevites to the Lord but he reacted very strangely indeed. For his actual response we will have to wait for tomorrow’s reading.

Like the pagan sailors in the boat, the people of Nineveh show that they are ready to change their ways and recognise the power of Yahweh. Ironically, the one rebellious person in the story is a member of his own People and his prophet.

In our world, too, non-Christians can frequently put us to shame in the way they show a Christian spirit.

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