Why did Jonah flee from the presence of the Lord, refusing to go to Nineveh? Jonah 4:2 makes it clear that he fled because he knew that God is a gracious and merciful God, that He would repent of his wrath if Nineveh turned from her evil ways. Rashi, the famous medieval Jewish commentator adds another component to the explanation provided by Jonah. He writes,
What was it that Jonah apprehended that . . . he did not want to go to Nineveh? He thought, “These idolaters are close to repenting, if I speak to them and they repent, I will have indicted the Israelites who hearken not to the words of the prophets.”
-Rashi in Go to Nineveh: Medieval Jewish Commentaries on the Book of Jonah (p. 9)
Rashi’s comments seem foreign. We often think that Jonah did not desire to go to Nineveh because the Assyrians were Israel’s arch-enemies (Nahum). He loathed the thought of their repentance, because he wanted to see them perish (Jonah 4:2). He did not desire to be viewed as a false prophet because he preached a message of destruction, which ultimately did not come to pass. While all these things are certainly possible explanations, they neglect the role chapter four plays in the book’s overall interpretation. God’s contention with Jonah is over his lack of compassion for human life and his unwillingness to conform to His will (i.e. repent). The book concludes without any resolution. God asks, “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
Though this is a rhetorical question with the implied answer, “Yes,” we have no response from Jonah. Does he ultimately concede? Does he persist in his rebellion? Jonah’s placement among the Twelve causes the reader to extend the question to Israel. Will God’s people repent, or persist in their rebellion? Nineveh serves as a twofold example: 1) Israel has not gone beyond the reach of God’s grace, after all, He spared Nineveh, and 2) If Nineveh repents and Israel does not, how much greater is her condemnation?
Finally, the use of questions in a narrative, even if they are not explicitly directed at the reader, invite the reader into the narrative. They subversively challenge the reader to ask himself that very question. Shouldn’t God have pity on Nineveh? Shouldn’t I have the same pity God has? Will I persist in my rebellion and waywardness?