Jonah 3: The God of Jonah and the God of Nineveh
This piece first appeared in Rabbi Natasha's commentary on the 929 Tanakh project here.
The sudden switch of Nineveh’s spiritual state would be fanciful in many narratives, but works in the weird and wonderful world of Jonah. Jonah, recently spewed upon the land by the giant fish in which he has been living, utters a proclamation (3:4: ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overturned!’). It is four words long, does not mention God or divine prophecy, and is perhaps only uttered once. And yet the city immediately turns on its heel and repents, saving it (for the time-being) from its fate.
Nineveh is a polytheistic city, and Jonah failed to mention that his proclamation was a prophecy from a universal God, but this doesn’t seem to be a problem. Unprompted, the Ninevites refer to God in a monotheistic manner. They use the name ‘E-lohim’. Though ‘E-lohim’ might look plural in number, it is used solely with singular verbs, indicating that it is God (and not a number of gods) to whom the Ninevites appeal. However, interestingly, this is not the way that God is referred to throughout the rest of the book. The narrative voice and Jonah both refer to God using the Name (spelled yud-hey vav-hey, pronounced A-donai). The sailors on the boat also use the Name, but only after they are fed this name from Jonah when he divulges his religious and ethnic background.
We first see God referred to directly and solely as ‘E-lohim’ in 3:5, in which the Ninevites respond to Jonah’s proclamation by ‘believing E-lohim’. (There is perhaps another reference in 3:3, though the meaning of this Hebrew phrase is uncertain.) The Ninevites continue to refer to God this way. Then, in 3:10, we close the chapter with God’s response to the Ninevites. And in this verse, God is referred to solely as E-lohim.
3:10: God [E-lohim] saw what they did, how they were turning back from their evil ways. And God [E-lohim] renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon them, and did not carry it out.
When the text turns back to the debrief between God and Jonah in Chapter 4, God will once again be referred to using the Name (A-donai).
Why do the Ninevites use the name E-lohim, when they were given no theistic language from Jonah? Why does God respond to them as E-lohim, instead of the name used throughout the rest of the book? Perhaps we are given a glimpse into a theological framework here. Behind all of our names for God, and all of our concepts of divinity, there is a basic and universal relationship between humanity and the Divine. The Ninevites, apparently ripe for repentance and perched on the edge of destruction, feel it in their souls when they are finally nudged to the side of the light. And thus God responds, not as a national god with a particular name, but as the life force behind the whole universe.