While attending seminary I had the opportunity to teach an undergrad class, the class was a Bible study methods lab; we worked through interpreting narrative and poetry literature in the Bible. In fact we worked through the book of Jonah for the whole semester, since this was the book that the supervising professor did his master’s and doctoral work in. Anyway, I thought it might be interesting to probe the book of Jonah as well. I am going to let my supervising professor present us with an interpretive conundrum from Jonah, and we will go from there. He says:

Many readers simply assume that because Jonah obeyed God by arising and going to Nineveh, he ipso facto delivered the message obediently as well. But this poses a problem. Jonah’s words were phrased as an unequivocal pronouncement indicating Nineveh’s overthrow, yet the subsequent repentance of the Ninevites (and Yahweh!) points to the inaccuracy or failure of the prophecy. If Yahweh is the source of this falsity, his veracity is impugned. The thoughtful reader, then, must choose from among several options as he seeks to fill in this narrative gap.

(1) Jonah did deliver Yahweh’s message exactly as he received it, but both he, Yahweh, the Ninevites, and we readers are meant to understand it as something else, namely, that it is a conditional threat which will not be carried out if Nineveh repents.

(2) Jonah delivered the message as given, but he knew before hand that it was false. Yahweh never intended to execute it, but his posturing is justifiable on the grounds that it achieved a higher good, the repentance of the Ninevites.

(3) Jonah conveyed the message accurately, but it was fulfilled at a later time when the Assyrian Empire was destroyed by the Babylonians; i.e. the destruction did take place as prophesied, although the timing was off.

(4) Jonah did not utter the message Yahweh gave him, but either altered or abbreviated it to suit his own purposes. Instead of delivering the original, conditional message, he distorted it so that the Ninevites would understand it as a pronouncement of irrevocable judgment. (Ray Lubeck, “TrinJ 9 NS [1998] 38)

The message to Nineveh is found in Jonah 3: 4, and it says: On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: ‘ forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned. . . . which option, from Lubeck’s list, do you think is the right response, contextually? I realize this will require more time than typical bloggers desire to give; but I’m curious. And if you don’t want to give it too much time, just to give your off the top/knee-jerk response, and we can go from there. A hint: how we translate “overturned” will help determine our response (so a little concordance work might be called for 😉 ). I will give Lubeck’s answer later.