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Forgiveness is only slightly less ancient than sin. While examples of forgiveness are found throughout the Bible, nowhere is forgiveness formally defined. Three episodes in the diminutive book of Jonah pertain: God's salvation of the rebellious prophet, mercy to the wayward Ninevites, and discussion with Jonah concerning universal clemency. Though God models love in each instance, it is not clear that the prophet ever understands divine grace. Indeed, forgiving one's enemies has challenged people throughout time, never more than in recent history.

When my book, Forgiveness in a Wounded World: Jonah's Dilemma, came out in the SBL Studies in Biblical Literature series in 2003, people began to ask me about the advice that Jonah offers. Those victimized by some of history's darkest moments, such as the Holocaust and apartheid, and individuals who grapple with the ordinary lacerations of everyday life seek guidance. Forgiving requires calling forth the strongest love contained within the human soul. As autumn approaches and the memory of September 11th forces itself into our consciousnesses, many are filled with sadness and anger. Images of burning buildings, shattered lives, foreign enemies, and domestic errors are seared into our memories. As we face our grief, are we like Jonah—silent on the issue of forgiveness?

The biblical story is simple. The Lord orders Jonah to faraway Nineveh to tell the sinful people that their days are numbered. Jonah plays the truant, fleeing in the opposite direction and boarding a ship in Tarshish. Just after it embarks, God assails the vessel with a great storm. Jonah finally tells the sailors to throw him overboard so that the ocean will cease raging. Instead of drowning, the prophet is rescued by a divinely appointed fish that swallows him whole. Inside the fish, Jonah prays and apparently receives divine forgiveness for his disobedience, for he is delivered safely back onto dry land and commissioned again. This time Jonah submits to God's command and travels to Nineveh. The people believe the prophet's prediction of doom, and they repent. When the Lord relents and does not execute the intended penalty, a pouting prophet begs God to let him die. Jonah leaves the city and watches at a distance, shaded by a booth and a cooling bush. God commands a worm to attack Jonah's leafy ramada, and the cranky prophet seems to care more for his own comfort than for the city's inhabitants. God speaks to Jonah about universal compassion, but whether the prophet comprehends God's absolution is unresolved.

Within the belly of the great fish and the borders of the enemy city, God's protection comes, perhaps when least expected, freely as a gift from God. Human forgiveness as represented by Jonah is unreliable, but divine pardon is bestowed upon those who repent. While God remains free to execute sovereign will, the Ninevites are not punished for sin when they turn from evil ways.

Jonah's story resonates through the ages because his struggle is archetypal. When God directs him toward Nineveh to condemn its inhabitants, Jonah faces what may seem like an unbearable burden. No Superhero, Jonah is an ordinary human being much like us, who seeks to evade responsibility and duty, and has difficulty accepting his enemies as deserving of forgiveness. The Bible says Jonah "went down" (1:3) to Joppa, thus beginning his descent into the world of noncompliance. From Joppa he goes to Tarshish, an ancient seaport probably on the western coast of Spain, the end of the then-known earth. The city represents the furthermost distance imaginable and demonstrates just how far Jonah is willing to go to avoid God's bidding.

Onboard ship Jonah sleeps and God commands the sea to rage. A symbol both of divine power and human inner turmoil, the storm is dark, violent, and potentially deadly. Ultimately, Jonah's flight will fail, for the Lord's power is inescapable, and Jonah will eventually have to seek forgiveness for his defiance. In the bowels of the ship, a second descent, the prophet escapes into the oblivion and non-accountability that slumber affords. Only when it appears that all is lost does he confess his identity and ask to be hurled into the ocean. Arguably, this is a noble if belated gesture, for Jonah must believe that the ship is in danger of breaking up and that the sailors' lives will be saved if his is lost at sea. When Jonah is thrown overboard, he undergoes a kind of baptism. The waters close around him and wash away his former insubordinate self. Without Jonah's defiance, the story would offer readers little opportunity to learn lessons about love and self-sacrifice.

After being spit up again onto dry land, the prophet is presented with a second opportunity to learn obedience, and the issue of divine forgiveness rises to the surface like sea foam. As soon as Jonah yields to the terror of the deep and the human conscience it represents, both the sea and the prophet are transformed. The trip into the behemoth's innards is a third decent, yet the creature is not simply a monolith of dread. It represents Jonah's monstrous misdeeds, but it is also an instrument of salvation. For three days, Jonah abides on the threshold of self-annihilation, a voyage into his inner being. By "dying" to his physical self, as represented by his disappearance into the fish's belly, Jonah can receive God's forgiveness and be reborn. The prophet never straightforwardly asks for forgiveness. Yet after praying and meditating on the Lord's power to rescue and redeem, Jonah concludes that "Deliverance is the Lord's!" (2:10). Inside the fish Jonah has time to reflect on his perilous situation and change his attitude. God then seems to forgive Jonah, for the previously willful prophet is blown by the winds of promise and wafted back onshore among the living.

After Jonah is released from his aquatic life raft, he obeys God's second command and goes to Nineveh. If Tarshish represents distance from God, Nineveh represents blackest depravity. Ancient Nineveh was well known for its lawlessness and violence. Yet Nineveh also represents second chances to hear and obey the Lord. In Nineveh, Jonah issues a single proclamation that the city "shall be overthrown" (3:4). Miraculously, the people and their king repent, their instantaneous righteousness serving as a stark contrast to Jonah's obdurate refusal to obey God. Though the Ninevites do not know the Israelite God well enough to be certain that the prescribed punishment will be lifted, God decides to save them from destruction. Forgiveness is implied if not specifically mentioned. Surely Jonah should congratulate himself on a job well done. He delivers his message of doom and a guilty people are saved. Mission accomplished. But Jonah is not pleased with the outcome and goes off by himself to brood. God and Jonah must still work things out.

In the book of Jonah, God's loving-kindness is established as universal. What remains to be demonstrated is whether Jonah, himself recently delivered, accepts God's merciful plan for the whole world as symbolized by the Ninevites. In the final chapter, God's conduct is presented as a model for human beings, encouraging the same flexibility as the deity. God remains an inscrutable force: in other stories, God angers quickly and punishes swiftly; but when Jonah sulks, complains, and asks for death rather than watch the deliverance of his enemies, God rhetorically declares at 4:11: "And should not I care about Nineveh...!" The book then abruptly concludes without a reply from the prophet. God has the last word. Why? Because the Lord, not Jonah, is the hero and main character in the story. The tale exemplifies forgiveness and subtly encourages human beings to emulate divine behavior. Jonah's silence constitutes an open ending, inviting readers to question what they would do in a similar situation.

And so we ponder the issue of forgiveness.

God's last statement to Jonah encourages readers to engage in the struggle that grips the prophet. God implies that divine forgiveness should be awarded to the Ninevites, but never suggests that Jonah follow suit: a genuine conundrum. Jonah's story demonstrates that no one in heaven or on earth can force another to forgive; there must be a desire to do so. Jonah is deeply conflicted and seems ambivalent about letting go of his grievances. The Ninevites never directly hurt Jonah or ask for his forgiveness, so he may feel unable to pardon them. He knows God is gracious (4:2), so perhaps he believes that adding his forgiveness would be superfluous. Maybe he hates these foreigners so much that he cannot imagine divine leniency extending to them. Whatever his motivation, many have experienced the same stinginess of spirit at some time, and there can be legitimate reasons to withhold forgiveness. Cheap grace may encourage wrongdoers to victimize others, yet those who let go of disappointment, anger, spite, and desire for vengeance may free themselves from these same emotions. Human forgiveness is not only a gift magnanimously conferred upon others; when bestowed in suitable ways, it lifts the giver to a higher level.

When we look beyond the Bible, there is much to learn about forgiveness. First, forgiving and reconciling are not identical. Forgiveness can be unilateral, but reconciliation is a two-way street. If we have an opportunity for genuine dialogue with people who have wronged us, perhaps we would forgive. It may be inappropriate to absolve those who have not apologized or promised to mend their ways. God forgives offenses against God, but people must make amends for transgressions committed against one another. Further, forgiving and forgetting are not the same thing, for one may forgive an oppressor while remembering the concept of "never again." Also, forgiving people does not necessarily mean that they deserve tender treatment. Admitting guilt and asking to be released from blame are surely components of the process. Punishing wrongdoers remains a way of mending what is broken, and forgiving does not always mean that the penalty should be abrogated.

What Jonah fails to perceive is that forgiveness is love as it is practiced among people who realize that no one behaves perfectly. It is an internal process as much as an external one. In our hearts, we stop holding on to the hurt. If forgiveness does not occur, the wrongdoer will continue to win the power struggle, causing the Jonah within us to remain wounded and unemancipated. For those who suffer, forgiving has advantages. Laying down the burden of wrath can be a relief contributing to emotional well-being. If we withhold pardon, we may lock ourselves in a dark, cold tower we help to perpetuate. And where is God in all of this? The Book of Jonah shows that God chooses to pardon even the most sinful among us, though ordinary people might not. Whether we struggle to forgive misdeeds causing mere personal inconvenience or catastrophes resulting in international trauma, we are Jonahs all.

Janet Howe Gaines,University of New Mexico,


Guelzo, Allen C. "Fear of Forgiving." Christianity Today 37 (February 8, 1993): 42-45.

Rogerson, J.W. "Mercy of God." The Oxford Companion to the Bible. Ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan. New York: Oxford U P, 1993.

Stuart, Douglas. Word Biblical Themes: Hosea-Jonah. Dallas: Word Publishing, 1989.

Stuart, Douglas.Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures. Philadelphia: JPS, 1985.

Citation: Janet Howe Gaines, " Jonah's Message of Forgiveness," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2005]. Online:


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