When a certain Samaritan village refused Jesus’ attempt to visit, James and John asked Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven upon it. The allusion to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is evident, but, as the story shows, James’ and John’s thinking was entirely warped. Jesus rebuked them: “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of.” (Luke 9:55, NKJV). We must remember that this is not long after Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi (Luke 9:20) and the transfiguration of Christ (Luke 9:28-36), to which James and John had been witnesses. Perhaps, therefore, the intensity of their anger on the occasion arose from their deepened convictions about and loyalty to Jesus. At any rate, they were wrong. Among other things, they misunderstood the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah, to which they self-consciously alluded.
I am tempted to say that they read the Old Testament the way that many modern scholars, including some believers, misread it. It is common today to come across scholars who regard the God of the Old Testament as if He were very different from Jesus. Jesus is understood to be merciful and gracious in contrast to the severity of Israel’s trigger-happy Yahweh — jealous and always ready to judge.
But Jonah understood God’s character very differently from such modern readers.
Initially, the word of Yahweh came to Jonah in language similar to His declaration about Sodom given to Abraham in Genesis 18:20: “Arise, go to Nineveh, thatgreat city, and call out against it, for their evilhas come up before me.” (Jonah 1:2). When Jonah had finally been “persuaded” — everyone knows the story — to go to the city of Nineveh, the word of Yahweh that Jonah was commanded to preach sounds to us like a declaration of most certain and inescapably imminent judgment: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4)
Though there is no mention of fire from heaven, the situation resembles Sodom. The wickedness of Nineveh had drawn God’s attention and He had determined to overthrow its inhabitants. So, why did Jonah have a problem? Why run away from proclaiming judgment, when he definitely wanted to see Nineveh judged?
We need to ask what Jonah might have been thinking.
The answer is that Jonah understood from the beginning the important differences between the two cities, Sodom and Nineveh, and the terrifying — to him — implications of his mission. It was that understanding that made him such a reluctant prophet.
So, again, what exactlymight he have been thinking? At least two things come to mind immediately, the first of which Jonah himself makes clear to us.
First, Jonah remembered Yahweh’s words to Moses on Mt. Sinai when He declared His “name” to Moses (Exodus 34:5-7). Jonah obviously refers to them: “O Yahweh, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country?That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” (Jonah 4:2) The quotation is not exact, but very close. From his meditation on Yahweh’s words to Moses on Mt. Sinai, Jonah realized that Yahweh was a God who delights in mercy, not in judgment.
He had abundant evidence. Beginning with the Exodus, the whole history of Israel testified to Yahweh as “slow to anger” and “abounding in steadfast love.” Who could miss it? Over and over, before, during, and after the Exodus itself, the children of Israel had been stubborn and rebellious against Yahweh (Exodus 5:20-21; 6:9; 14:10-11; 15:23-24; 16:1-3, 28-29; 17:1-3; 32:1-6, 9, 19-25; Numbers 11:1-3, 33-35; 13:31-14:10; Deuteronomy 1:26-28, 32, 41-46; 9:6-7, 13, 24; 31:27). Yet, Yahweh loved them and was faithful in His covenant grace: “the LORD your Godcarried you, as a man carries his son.” (Deuteronomy 1:31) One aspect of that was inherent to the office of prophet: when His wayward son sinned, Yahweh sent His messengers to warn Israel of His wrath and call the people to repentance (2 Kings 17:13; 2 Chronicles 24:19; 36:15-16; Jeremiah 35:15; 44:4; Nehemiah 9:30).
This brings me to the second thing that Jonah would have remembered: the work of the great prophet, Abraham. Even though Abraham was the first man in the Old Testament to be identified as a prophet (Genesis 20:7), others before him, especially Noah, undoubtedly functioned as prophets.
But Abraham was special (Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23). Abraham, as a prophet and a missionary, went from place to place in the land of Canaan digging wells and building altars almost everywhere he went (Genesis 12:7, 8; 13:4, 18; etc.). Conducting worship in a place near a well or an oasis — where people would naturally come — was the form of missionary labor Abraham engaged in.
The Canaanites, therefore, heard years of testimony about the Most High God before judgment fell upon them. They were given much longer than 40 days (cf. Genesis 15:13-15).
But there is more. Among the Canaanites, surprisingly in retrospect, Sodom in particular had been the recipient of special grace. For when Chedorlaomer and his confederation made war with Bera, king of Sodom, and the cities with him, Chedorlaomer defeated them soundly and carried them away captives (Genesis 14:1-12). Abraham, the prophet, led 318 trained men and pursued the enemies of Sodom, overthrowing them and delivering Sodom (Genesis 14:14). In other words, Sodom had been made slaves of a Pharaoh-like Chedorlaomer, but Moses forerunner, Abraham, delivered Sodom from slavery and brought them back to the land of Canaan!
Sodom — from the beginning identified as an extremely sinful city (Genesis 13:13) — had experienced an “Exodus” deliverance. This is amazing grace! God was patient hoping that all the men of Sodom would repent (cf. 2 Peter 3:9). But they did not understand that His goodness draws sinners unto Him (cf. Romans 2:4).
After Sodom’s deliverance, Melchizedek, the king of Salem, went out to meet Abraham, and he preached the Gospel of the Abrahamic Covenant to the assembled kings (Genesis 14:18-20), including Bera. Then, when the king of Sodom offered Abraham a portion of the spoil, Abraham refused, again preaching faith and loyalty to Yahweh, the Most High God, Possessor of heaven and earth (14:22-24).
As a servant of Yahweh, Abraham testified to the people of Canaan about the Most High God, the One true God who possesses heaven and earth. His message would no doubt have included a call to repentance, like the message of his great forebear, Noah. In other words, long years before judgment came on the people of Sodom, Abraham had called the people to repentance and faith in the Most High God, but they never acknowledged the grace of their “Exodus,” nor gave thanks to Yahweh (cf. Romans 1:21-32).
Since the words of his initial call alluded to the story of Sodom and Abraham, Jonah would have understood that if there were only ten righteous men in Nineveh, Yahweh would relent and not judge the city. More than that, Jonah knew too well that for Yahweh to send a prophet to a city is offering a chance to repent and be saved from judgment. So, Jonah wanted to wait out the 40 days in order to see Nineveh utterly destroyed. But Yahweh forced Jonah to love his enemy and warn him of the coming judgment.
James and John seem not to have grasped what Jonah was painfully aware of: Yahweh is slow to anger and rejoices at the repentance of sinners. They misunderstood what kind of ministry they were called to and how they were to respond to rejection by sinful men. In the Byzantine text tradition, Jesus’ rebuke includes the words: “For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to savethem.” (Luke 9:56 NKJV)
It was the same Yahweh who appeared on Mt. Sinai that was born in Bethlehem, the God who is slow to anger, but abundant in loving-kindness, the God who seeks sinners and rejoices at their repentance — the Father of the prodigal son.
Jonah knew about Yahweh’s grace. We who believe in the incarnate Yahweh should know it even better and read the whole Bible in the light of Yahweh’s long-suffering grace.
Ralph Smith is pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church.