When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.Jonah 3:10
This should really be where the book of Jonah finishes. And in many children’s bible versions, it does finish here. The narrative arc of the disobedient prophet turned good is concluded. We have a happy ending. Roll the credits over scenes of Ninevites rejoicing.
Of course, it doesn’t finish here: all of Chapter Four still lies ahead of us. But it’s worth pausing here nonetheless because it’s a natural break in the story and, really, one of the most remarkable details in the story.
The book of Jonah embarrasses many people because of its miraculous details, namely the storm calmed by the sacrifice of Jonah, the swallowing by the fish, the return unharmed to dry land. Many feel that the book cannot be historical because of these details. Yet the conversion of Nineveh is every bit as miraculous. The Assyrian Empire was known for its brutality, and not long after this story is set the Assyrians would conquer the kingdom of Israel despite this momentary turn to Yahweh. Is this also a fiction? Nationalistic propaganda from Israel? Not likely: the fact that the story doesn’t end here but goes on to show Jonah’s petty reaction to God’s mercy undermines the story as a national confidence boost.
Yet it strikes me that, whether or not the story is fully historical fact is not the most important thing to say about it. I am confident that it could be true. The miraculous details should not embarrass us, not if we base our lives on the belief that someone rose from the dead. But the story serves its purpose whether or not the specific details are historical fact.
You see, the book of Jonah functions as a very powerful test of what boundaries we put around grace. It asks us to imagine our worst enemies, whoever we consider least deserving of forgiveness – the Nazis, Pol Pot, Stalin, Attila the Hun, the drunk driver who killed our family – and says, “Now go and tell them to repent, and watch me save them from their sins.” The reality is, God has done this, and does this every day. And it should make us uncomfortable, far more than the question of whether a man can be swallowed whole by a giant fish and live. It should make us squirm, and then we should reflect that this, just this, is the very thing that has happened to us. And we should imagine ourselves with the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge, the drunk driver, the Ninevites, and Jonah, glorying in the illogic, the recklessness of it all.