I am currently reading Barbara Green’s work Jonah’s Journeys in Liturgical Press’s Interfaces series. Green’s work centers around asking and providing some answers for three avenues of studies in Jonah: behind the text (historical considerations), within the text (the literary facets of the text), and in front of the text (an exploration of how readers have interpreted Jonah throughout history). Currently, I am reading about Jerome’s reception of the book. Green notes that Jerome is a generous reader. He attributes gracious motives to all the characters within the book.
According to Jerome, Jonah harbors no ill will towards the the Gentiles, Nineveh. He does not hate them. Instead, Jonah has the foresight to know that God’s redemption of the Gentiles entails the rejection of the Hebrews. This reality drives him to sacrifice himself for the salvation of his people. If this reminds you of something Paul says in Romans, you are right. Hear Jerome’s comments:
Seeing the ‘fullness’ of the gentiles; (Rom. 11:25) enter by stealth, and that fulfilled which is said in Deuteronomy: ‘they have provoked me with these which are not gods, and I will provoke them with a nation which is not, I will rouse them to wrath with a foolish nation’ (Deut. 32:21; Rom. 10:19), he despairs of the salvation of Israel and is agitated with great pain which bursts forth in his voice. And he reveals the reasons for his gloom an says, so to speak: ‘I alone have been chosen out of such a number of prophets to announce disaster to my own people through the salvation of others.’ He is not saddened therefore, as some think, because the multitude of the gentiles is saved, but because Israel is perishing.
Because of this also our Lord wept over Jerusalem (Lk. 19:41) and refused to ‘take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs’ (Mt. 15:26; cf. Mk. 7:27). The apostles also preached first to Israel (Acts 13:46), and Paul wished to be ‘anathema for his brothers, who are Israelites, whose are the adoption, and the glory, and the covenant, and the promises, and the Law, from whom are the fathers, from whom is Christ according to the flesh’. (Rom. 9:3-5) However, the ‘sufferer’ as Jonah is translated is well afflicted with suffering, and his soul is sad even unto death (Mt. 26:38; Mk. 14:34), for he endured many things–as much as was in him–so that the population of the Jews might not perish. The name of sufferer is also very fitting to the history, showing the prophet beset with difficulties and weighed down with the wretchedness of his journey and the shipwreck (p. 57-58).
-translated by Timothy Michael Hegedus in
Jerome’s commentary on Jonah: Translation with introduction and critical notes
What I find most interesting about Jerome’s comments is the parallel he draws with Paul. Paul is, for Christians, an admirable example. Like Paul, Christians are to be broken by unbelief. The spiritual death of family members, friends, neighbors, and our world should make us cry out like Paul, take my life for theirs. I would gladly sacrifice my life if it means the salvation of others. Paul recognizes, however, that this is foolhardy. It cannot be done. The only sacrifice that brings life is Christ’s, and he grants it freely to all. What is key for Paul, and for us, is brokenness for the lost.
Jerome’s connection between Paul and Jonah is a bit disconcerting. Even if we grant Jerome the premise that Jonah acts graciously, he knows God’s sovereign plan to save the Gentiles. Nevertheless, he seeks to thwart him. Jerome’s interpretation forces a host of new questions upon the reader: How wise is it to resist the will of God? How gracious is Jonah truly if he is willing to see the destruction of one people for the preservation of his own? What is the relationship between a merciful disposition and the will of God? I’m sure you can think of a number of other questions.
This is not to say I find no value in Jerome’s exposition. Indeed, he cuts to the heart of the issue. Paul loves enough to sacrifice himself, Jonah loves enough (granting his premise) that he actually sacrifices himself, what about us? How inclined are we to extend the grace God has shown us to his world. Paul says that we have been reconciled to God that we might be ministers of reconciliation. Is this true of me? Is it true of you?