In two previous posts I described how the portrayal of Jonah in the book bearing his name reminds one of Cain and the Pharisees, both negative characters in the literary contexts of Genesis and the Gospels. There is a more positive way to think of Jonah.
The Gospels portray Jesus as a patient teacher who bears with his disciples and their slowly developing understanding. I think of Jesus’s common retort “Oh you of little faith.” He doesn’t directly address the disciples as “faithless” (ἄπιστος), like he does those on the outside, but “ones of little faith” (ὀλιγόπιστοι). In the Sermon on the Mount ὀλιγόπιστοι almost sounds like a term of endearment. It is easy to imagine Jesus smiling as he says it. Even after Peter explicitly denies Jesus, the patient teacher calls Peter back into fellowship, even leadership (John 22). Long-suffering is a characteristic that is commended in the early church because disciples of Jesus do not always act as they should. Paul calls the churches to bear with one another as an imitation of Christ (Colossians 3:12-13).
Throughout the book of Jonah, Yahweh responds to the prophet’s hard-heartedness not with the judgment of an authoritarian, but more like a patient teacher bearing with his disciple. When Jonah runs like a fugitive, Yahweh moves heaven and earth to get Jonah on board. When Jonah flees, Yahweh hurls a wind onto the sea. When the sailors throw Jonah overboard in an effort to appease the God of sea and dry land, Yahweh will not permit Jonah to drown; he appoints a big fish to carry Jonah back to shore. As Jonah sits bloodthirsty waiting for Nineveh’s destruction, Yahweh appoints a plant to give him shade and then a worm to take it away.
The story ends without telling us whether Jonah actually came around or whether he drowned in his own Cain-like hatred, in his Pharisaical disdain for God’s mercy. At the end of the day, however, Yahweh’s questioning of Jonah sounds more like the long-suffering of Jesus than the condemnation of Javert. And in this light Jonah looks more like Peter than either Cain or a Pharisee.