Jonah the Post-Modern Nihilist

The final section of Jonah opens with the prophet’s anger and displeasure at the reversal of God’s wrath. (4:1)  In a reprisal of  his teenager persona, Jonah justifies his selfish behavior from chapter 1, wagging his finger at Dad, “didn’t I tell you?” (4:2) Jonah’s childish rant teems with hypocrisy.  Even as he is rescued from Sheol (2:2) he angrily pouts that his weaker brother (Nineveh) is forgiven for lesser crimes.  Lesser, since before God sent Jonah to warn Nineveh, they had no way of knowing their offence. Again, Matthew’s application of Jonah comes to mind in the parable of the merciful king:

32 Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ 34 And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him.” (Matthew 18:32-34)

Questioning Jonah with fatherly patience, the Lord asks, “Do you have good reason to be angry?” (4:4)  This inquiry appears twice in chapter 4 and addresses inherent contradictions in  Jonah’s rebellion.  A kind of post-modern nihilist, Jonah finds neither purpose nor meaning in God’s judgement (4:2) or in life itself. (4:3)  Still, when faced with his own suffering, nihilism gives way to Jonah’s active engagement in his own comfort.

Like an American watching cable news, Jonah setup a “shelter for himself”  grabbed a bucket of popcorn and “sat down”  in judgement (4:5) to watch 120,000 people suffer a certain and violent death. (4:11)  It is notable that the Lord’s plant–not the prophet’s self-made shelter–was able to provide for Jonah’s needs. “Unless the Lord builds the house, in vain do they labor who build it.” (Ps 127:1) Alas, suddenly,  the same Lord who provided the plant for shade replaced it with a “scorching east wind.” (4:8) Poor Jonah. What does it all mean? Does Jonah have a “good reason” to be angry about the plant? (4:9)

Jonah is a nihilist for his neighbors but a believer for himself.  To paraphrase The Sopranos, sorry Jonah, “either it means something or it means nothing.”  You can’t have it both ways. Jonah mourned the loss of a transient plant “for which [he] did not work and which [he] did not cause to grow” (4:10) yet cared nothing for his needy neighbor. Surely, if Jonah’s comfort means something, what of Nineveh?

“Then God said to Jonah:”

Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?” (4:11)

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