Justice According to Jonah

  • Brian Overholtzer
Old court building

Was Jonah a racist? Teaching Jonah as an example of racism is a new trend among preachers and biblical commentaries and is detrimental to understanding several key theological truths in the book. One of these is the theme of justice. Throughout the book, Jonah’s version of justice runs in contradistinction with God’s justice. Before tackling the issue of justice in the book of Jonah, we need to know how we can know that Jonah was not a racist.

Was Jonah a Racist?

Much can be said regarding the usefulness of the socially constructed term “racism.” I completely agree that the concepts and variety of usages of the “term” racism are unhelpful, flawed and frankly not found in Scripture. However, the fact is that we live in a culture in which this word is imbedded in the lingua franca and is not going away anytime soon. With that being said, it is helpful to define terms when they are used. Here, we are asking if the Bible portrays Jonah as hating another people group based on their ethnicity. Does the Bible say that Jonah hated the Ninevites because they were ethnically Ninevites?

Major evangelical authors tend to quickly answer this question in the affirmative. In an article published by the Gospel Coalition, Tim Keller on a Fishy Story, Keller seems to juxtapose Jonah with racism. Responding to Gospel Coalition’s author Matt Smethurst’s question, “Was Jonah a racist?”, Keller answers, “He refused to treat them as human beings in the image of God, and therefore of equal worth with him and his people.” Rather than breaking down Keller’s interpretive framework or that of others, we will look at the interpretive process of ourselves to test whether racism fits in the book of Jonah. We won’t have to delve far into this study until we realize that racism has no place at all in the book of Jonah.

One of the first steps in studying a text of the Bible is to understand its cultural and historical background. Roy Zuck summarizes this briefly, “secular sources inform us that the Ninevites were atrocious in the way they treated their enemies. They beheaded the leaders of peoples they conquered and piled up those heads…often they impaled their captives, thus giving them an agonizingly painful death…” Zuck goes a step further and relates this cultural and historical background to Jonah’s animosity toward this people group, “No wonder Jonah did not want to preach the message of repentance to the Ninevites! He felt that they deserved judgment for their atrocities.” Nineveh was not a people group victimized by Jonah’s so-called racism; they were the oppressive people group! This aligns more closely with what has been a widely known theme of the book of Jonah: justice and mercy for the Gentiles. Jonah is about justice and mercy for an oppressive Gentile people. The book articulates that Jonah had his own version of justice which is antithetical to God’s justice, love and mercy.

Justice according to Jonah

The LORD’s heart and desire for the nations is a theme which permeates throughout Scripture. In Gen 12:3 and Ex 19 it was made clear that Israel was given the significant task to be a mediator between God and the nations. Israel was not given the command to “go” as Christians are in Matthew 28:19-20 but were to be a sort of stationary missionary-like people. The LORD’s commission to Jonah was slightly different than what prophets were told to do but it was well within the heart of God’s plan for the nations. Jonah’s disdain for these oppresive Gentiles becomes evident in his fleeing to Tarshish after the LORD commanded him to go and preach to Nineveh.

Jonah’s detestation against the oppressive Ninevites wasn’t merely a refusal to go on a humanitarian aid missions trip. The prophet was commissioned by the LORD to bring a message of condemnation and repentance. Jonah was commanded to literally cry out against this nation regarding the sins they were committing against the LORD (Jonah 1:2). What exactly was Jonah to cry out? A surface reading of the phrase “to cry out” may seem vague at first glance. A parallel use of this word occurs in Isaiah 58:2 and helpfully sheds some light on its meaning here. Less than a hundred years after Jonah, the LORD commanded Isaiah to cry out against Israel for their injustice and oppression and intended for this crying out to lead to repentance and their restoration.

Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins…“Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. (Isaiah 58:1,8)

Jonah preached during the reign of Jeroboam II, son of Joash (2 Kings 12:24-25). Jeroboam is described as being an evil, wicked and unjust king. Jonah would have most likely proclaimed messages of condemnation and repentance during this time. It was part of the job description. One of the messages that Jonah preached was that the LORD would restore a significant portion of the land to them.

Jonah happily preached a message of hope to his own people who were being afflicted by oppressing nations. But when he is commissioned with the task to take this message of justice and mercy to the people group that are the oppressors, flees the occasion. Jonah strikes down the gavel to declare them “guilty without hope.” Jonah’s justice was one which showed mercy to the oppressed people group and detestation toward the oppressors. 

The World’s Disdain toward Oppressors

A worldly view of justice celebrates and encourages Jonah’s view of justice toward an oppressive people group. Throughout history the belittling of oppressive people has been applauded. Approval for taking human vengeance against oppressive people can be traced as far back as Lamech in Gen 4:23-24. The early descendant from the line of Adam boasts of his self-proclaimed act of retribution against those who had oppressed him.

Lamech said to his wives, “Adah and Zillah, Listen to my voice, You wives of Lamech, Give heed to my speech, For I have killed a man for wounding me; And a boy for striking me; If Cain is avenged sevenfold, Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (Gen 4:23-24)

While it is difficult to discern it in English, Lamech actually wrote this as a song. Lamech sang a song to his two wives boasting that he took vengeance of a man and a boy who had both offended him. Lamech’s explanation at the end about being avenged seventy-sevenfold compounds the extent to which he celebrates the retribution he enacted for himself.

The Christian’s Love for the Oppressors

Jesus criticized such man-centered approaches to justice, and He used the Law to properly instruct His people on how they are to apply justice to those who oppress them. During Antiquity, the Jewish religious leaders grossly misinterpreted the Old Testament and especially the Law (The first five books of the Bible: Genesis – Deuteronomy). While these Jews were “experts” in the law, they were ignorant of its intended purpose. Jesus spoke of this purpose in Matt 22:36-40 when one of the Pharisees asked Him which was the greatest commandment. To which Jesus replied,

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ “This is the great and foremost commandment. “The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 37-40)

The Law can be mistaken for a book that is only about a lot of rules and stipulations. Jesus knew this wasn’t the case. Jesus knew His Old Testament well and simply told the Pharisee what the entire purpose of the law was. The law was meant to point us to loving God and loving others. The book of Deuteronomy speaks more about the heart and loving God and others than any other book of the Bible. The theme of loving God encapsulates the law.

In Matthew 5:38-39 Jesus makes it clear that upholding justice toward an oppressive person is not incompatible with the commands to love God and love others. In a series of “you have heard It said…but I say to you…” Jesus brings to light the different ways in which the Jewish religious rulers mishandled God’s law and corrected it with the actual meaning of the text. In Matt 5:38-39, it appears as if the Jewish leaders were using the retribution law for justice found in Deuteronomy 19:21 in some kind of negligent manner. What might this incorrect manner be? The retribution law quoted by Jesus “an eye for eye” is actually a direct quote from Deuteronomy. Even when you read the text it seems to be clearly stating the rules and laws for retribution when one person is oppressed by another. Is Jesus re-interpreting the Old Testament, is there a hidden truth in the Old Testament that was unknown to the people it was written to? Neither is the case. Jesus made sure that the whole point of the law, loving God and loving others, was included in the law of retribution. To not connect love and mercy to the oppressor is to miss the whole point of the law.

Demanding retribution for an oppressor without a thought to loving the oppressor is incompatible to God’s definition of justice. Such a justice is man-centered and unbecoming to a Christian. A Christians response to injustice and to oppressors must be in line with what Christ commanded. We must turn the other cheek, give the extra cloak and go the extra mile. We must love the oppressor and at the same time not compromise on God’s standards of righteousness and holiness. A departure on either end will result in a theological obscurity of biblical justice. While we travel through this combative and often oppressive world, may we remember that we must not only wish justice on those who persecute us, but we must also have heart for our oppressors as well. Otherwise, we might find that we too understand justice according to Jonah.