A meditation on Jonah 3 – 4 based on a drawing by Jane Rowland
Jane Rowland, an artist, theologian and Anglican priest living in Alberta Canada has created a wonderful illustration of Jonah chapters 3 & 4, entitled “Under the Gourd Vine.” Let’s look at this picture and use it to dig deeper into Jonah’s story and to discover something about God’s mercy. We will work our way in from the edges as we examine the drawing.
Starting in the upper left hand corner, notice the hot yellow sun, bathing Jonah in a swath of yellow. The sweltering east wind is suggested by the curlicues in the background. The sun and wind are so oppressive that Jonah has removed his shirt.
Next, notice the shelter Jonah has built and the vine that grows up around it. The vine encapsulates God’s actions toward Jonah. On the left we see the vine springing up luxurious in its growth; God provided this vine to give relief to Jonah and then took it away to help him learn a lesson. Across the top of the shelter, the vine begins to wither and the gourd to shrivel until the leaves begin to fall from it. On the right side the vine has died and nothing remains but some sticks. At the bottom left you can see the yellow worm that God used to kill the vine. The worm is balanced by a dead leaf at the bottom right.
Notice the city in the upper right-hand corner. In the city we see a church, a mosque, a skyscraper, some commercial buildings and a few houses. The people represent a variety of cultures and socio-economic classes: a black businessman in a suit and tie; the woman with the red shawl suggests an indigenous person from Latin America, the man in a t-shirt seems to be a laborer and the woman in the yellow dress could be a North American, middle-class woman. There are even a couple of children in the picture. In the midst of this crowd we see both a cow and a sheep (although the sheep does look a little like a dog) and behind the city we see mountains and forests. All of this suggests that this represents something more than just the city of Nineveh. The artist has universalized the story to include all cities, all cultures and even all creation.
Notice that the people seem to be praying. Some fold their hands and others lift them up. When I first saw this picture, I thought they were giving thanks for God’s mercy and deliverance. But then I noticed the man in blues jeans, kneeling on the ground and seemingly pulling his hair out. I also noticed the sheep and the cow and I remembered that by order of the king even the animals joined in the repentance of Nineveh, both fasting and wearing sackcloth. So perhaps they are all repenting. However, I like to think that they are doing both: repenting and giving thanks.
Turn next to the triangle in the middle of Jonah’s booth. This is a Trinitarian symbol for God. The three sides of the triangle represent the three persons of the Trinity, and the all-seeing eye represents God’s omniscience. Notice that this symbol is the focal point of the painting. It is God’s presence that unites the story; all the action, both in the picture and in the story, revolves around God. Although Jonah looms large in this painting, he is just a foil to reveal God’s character and mercy.
Turn next to Jonah. Notice that his head is turned away from both God and the people of Nineveh. He wants nothing to do with either of them. His hair creates a sense of motion suggestive of a person running from God as it flies backward from his face. His lips are turned down in a deep frown, his chin thrust forward and even his Adam’s apple is tight, all suggesting a smoldering anger. His eyes are squeezed shut and his arms crossed protectively across his chest as he withdraws deeper and deeper into himself. His unshaved face and unruly hair suggest that he has reached a state of deep depression where he is no longer able to care for himself. His disheveled appearance echoes his words in the story, “It is better for me to die than to live.” He is so distraught that he is suicidal.
Finally, and this is the most significant detail of the entire picture, notice that two tears are leaking from the corner of God’s eye. God is weeping. He weeps for the 120,000 Ninevites and all the people of the world who “do not know their right hand from their left (v 6).” He weeps for the creation, “for the many animals” (v 6) who are also in danger of destruction. Why? Because that is who God is. In his self-revelation to Moses after the people sinned by worshipping the golden calf idol, God said,
The Lord, the Lord,Exodus 34: 6-7
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.
The most significant thing about God is not his anger, but his mercy and compassion. And that compassion is extended even to the bloodthirsty Assyrians in Nineveh so that when they turn from their wickedness, God forgives and restores.
However, God weeps not only for Nineveh; God also weeps for Jonah. Jonah has spent this whole story running from God. Jonah would rather die than submit to God’s mercy, but God doesn’t give up on him. Rachel Scheinerman at the blog, My Jewish Learning says:
Apparently Jonah is so angry that he has a death wish. [By sitting outside the city] it may be that Jonah is trying to die again (the first time by drowning, now by dehydration). Once again, God won’t permit him to perish without facing his mistakes. Where previously God sent a giant fish to save him from the water, this time God sprouts a plant to shelter Jonah from the burning sun.https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/jonah/#:~:text=The%20Book%20of%20Jonah%20is%20read%20in%20synagogue,whose%20sins%20are%20so%20terrible%20they%20merit%20destruction.
I love that line, “God doesn’t permit Jonah to perish without facing his mistakes.” Throughout this story Jonah has been a self-centered, whiny, disobedient prophet, but God did not give up on him. God has continued to engage Jonah in dialogue, extending mercy in spite of his recalcitrance. Jonah doesn’t want God’s mercy for himself. He is suicidal, both emotionally and spiritually. But with tears in God’s eyes, God shows Jonah a severe mercy. It is a mercy because it keeps him alive; it is severe because it requires him to change.
This week I learned that every year on Yom Kippur Jonah is read in the afternoon as the haftarah. Rachel Scheinerman tells us why.
The Book of Jonah presents two very different stories about repentance. On the one hand, there are the Ninevites, the evil villains of the ancient world whose sins are so terrible they merit destruction. And yet, the minute they genuinely repent — even though that repentance is, admittedly, self-interested — God is merciful. Their story highlights God’s benevolence, the quickness with which God wishes to forgive people who want to make a genuine change, whatever their motivation.Scheinerman, ibid.
And then there’s Jonah, the prophet of God, who is supposed to be an exemplary person, yet finds repentance nearly impossible. Indeed, he never really repents, just continually runs from his mistakes — even repeatedly preferring death over repentance. Even his forced timeout in the belly of the fish does not affect true repentance. His case is never resolved.
Repentance, you see, is staggeringly hard — but God’s mercy is generous and swift.
The open question at the end of the book is “Will Jonah actually change?” The book doesn’t tie things up in a nice tidy bow, but leaves things hanging with a question that must be answered by both Jonah and also ourselves. God asks us, “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” Are you willing to extend God’s mercy to others, even if they are your enemy?