But the Lord replied, ‘Is it right for you to be angry? Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city.
The Book of Jonah’s meaning lurks out of sight.
The text is rich in allusions and references to other parts of the Scriptures. A few verses ago we heard echoes of the words God utters to Moses whilst he is up the mountain receiving the commandments during the Book of Exodus (“The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness…”).
During that same episode, at the foot of the mountain, the Israelites were setting about constructing the Tabernacle, a tent-like proto-Temple. In much the same way, Jonah now builds himself a shelter on the outskirts of Nineveh, a nod to the festival of booths (Sukkot), which commemorates the Exodus. During this seven-day holiday, Israel is commanded to welcome strangers, servants and foreigners. The fact that Jonah’s hastily improvised version of the celebration involves him glowering at the city of Nineveh whilst praying for its downfall is one of the book’s many ironies.
Of course, the relationship between God and Israel is pretty up-and-down during the Exodus story. At roughly the same time as building the Tabernacle, the Israelites are fashioning themselves a golden calf to worship, much to God’s annoyance. God’s wrath is only diverted following an intervention by Moses on behalf of his people.
During the ninth chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses tells his people not to forget these episodes. Keeping one eye on your dark past after all will keep you honest. Of course, Jonah has forgotten. In all his cherry-picking from the verses of Exodus about God being ‘gracious and compassionate’, he has missed the bit that Moses told his people to not lose sight of: “He does not leave the guilty unpunished…”
The point is that God showed mercy after Israel got itself caught up with the golden calf. Now God has relented with the people of Nineveh, who have been able to put aside their warmongering (at least for a moment). As uncomfortable as this might be for Jonah, God can often show mercy in the face of the most imperfect forms of repentance.
We spend much of our lives hoping for the downfall of those we might consider unworthy. This is human nature. Forgiveness and reconciliation are almost beyond our capabilities. We just need to keep reminding ourselves of those impossible displays of mercy from our past, metered out to ourselves and others, as a reminder that God’s mercy is not only for us.