Formations 05.25.2014: Human Libraries Combat Prejudice

Jonah 4

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Prophet Jonah before the Walls of Nineveh, c. 1655

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Prophet Jonah before the Walls of Nineveh, c. 1655

The Main Branch of the Long Beach (CA) Library will feature a “Human Library” event on May 31.

Such events were first created in Copenhagen in 2000 by Stop the Violence, a team of five activists who were disturbed by the stabbing of a friend and wanted to do something about it. The philosophy behind a Human Library is simple: sit down and talk to people who are different from you.

Organizer Rachel Rifkin is heading up the Long Beach event. “I heard about Human Libraries a couple years ago, and since then have been hoping for another Human Library event in the area,” she says. “After awhile, I got tired of waiting and decided to ask some local organizations if they would be interested in coming together to create one in Long Beach.”

Among the people available to be “checked out” are a retired police officer, a transgender person, an advocate for public breastfeeding, and a formerly incarcerated woman who has used her own experience to help other released women transition back into civic life. The library’s goal is to have a total of fifteen people available for a fifteen-to-twenty-minute check-out.

We can only wonder what Jonah might have learned if given the opportunity to “check out” an ordinary Ninevite and listen to his or her story. Might he have come to see that Israelites and Ninevites are not so different after all? Might he have considered what it would be like to walk a mile in another person’s sandals?

Alas, no such program was available to Jonah, and the prophet is left regretting that he ever journeyed to that notorious, far-flung city.

According to today’s text, the Ninevites’ repentance was “very displeasing” (v. 1) to Jonah. In fact, he leaves the city only to watch it from a distance, apparently challenging God to do something.

God responds not with words but with a series of “object lessons” intended to guide Jonah into seeing the situation from God’s point of view.

The prophet may have never stopped to listen to the story of a Ninevite on the street. In the end, however, he at least learns why these strange outsiders matter to God.

That’s how we know that their modern descendants ought to matter to us.

Brian Addison, “Human Library Lets You ‘Check Out’ Living Storytellers, Not Books,” Long Beach Post, 22 Apr 2014


• What other stories depict God’s people as angry at the grace and forgiveness God shows to “outsiders”?
• Why are we who have experienced God’s grace so often resistant to the idea that God could show the same grace to others?
• What would we have to give up to accept that God even loves the people we think of as “enemies”?

Reference Shelf

A Story of Surprise and Contrast

The story’s elements of surprise and contrast are especially notable. When called to go eastward to Nineveh, Jonah embarks on a ship bound for Tarshish, a location as far west as was known in ancient times (1:1-3). When God unleashes such a storm that even seasoned sailors panic, Jonah first sleeps (1:4-5), then passively allows himself to be thrown into the sea (1:12-15), which immediately becomes calm (1:15). Jonah is then swallowed by a great fish (1:17), but remains healthy and calm enough to compose a psalm of thanksgiving (2:2-9, often thought to be secondary) before being safely deposited on land three days later. When the call to proclaim Nineveh’s destruction is repeated, Jonah reluctantly goes (3:1-3), and does not even reach the heart of the city before the entire metropolis from king to cattle repents in dust and ashes (3:4-9), leading God to have mercy and call off the destruction (3:10). Far from being pleased, Jonah wishes to die because (now we learn!) he really wants these pagans to suffer (4:1-3). After setting up a flimsy booth in which to pout and observe the city, Jonah finds joy in a plant which miraculously grows up in a day (4:5-6), but again he wishes for death when the plant dies just as quickly (4:7-10). God’s concluding question (4:11) seems abrupt, but it is in reality, a masterful stroke, vividly contrasting Jonah’s bitter and selfish attitude with the compassionate nature of God (cf. Exod 34:6). The book thus opposes any attitude of superiority or exclusiveness on Israel’s part, and reminds the nation of God’s universal and redemptive love for all peoples.

Tony W. Cartledge, “Jonah, Book of,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 465.

Embarrassed by God’s Compassion

Jonah’s second prayer (cf. Jonah 2:1f) is narrated not as a typical prophetic prayer but as a confrontational remonstration of God’s compassion for a hated enemy (4:1-3). God asks a rhetorical question that challenges Jonah’s audacity (4:4).

In 4:1, Jonah considers God’s decision to show compassion on Nineveh to be wrong. The extent to which this decision angers Jonah does not come across with the full force of the Hebrew in most English translations. The NRSV uses “displeased” to translate ra’a and “to become angry” to translate harah. The first verb’s basic meaning implies evil or wickedness. The other verb expresses God’s wrath and comes from a root meaning “to glow hot.” A more idiomatic translation shows the powerful connotations of the combination of these verbs: “Jonah considered it a great evil and his anger burned within him.” The Hebrew does not imply that Jonah was merely displeased; Jonah judged God’s mercy as a “great evil.”

In 4:2, Jonah prays to YHWH. The verb for “pray” is the same verb used in 2:2. Here, however, Jonah offers a prayer of complaint that finally reveals why he fled at the beginning of the book. He did not obey YHWH because Jonah knew God would show compassion hesed on Nineveh. Jonah justifies his anger at God’s decision by reformulating the classic confession of Exodus 34:6-7, although the text may be filtered through Joel 2:13.

In 4:3, Jonah asks YHWH to kill him out of frustration with YHWH’s compassion on the Ninevites. Jonah offers a real point of contrast with Moses at this point. The Exodus context portrays Moses as interceding on behalf of Israel because of YHWH’s compassion. Jonah, by contrast, wants to die because YHWH chooses to show compassion upon foreigners. Other biblical figures call on God to take their lives as protest for injustice they perceive at YHWH’s hands. Nowhere else, however, does a biblical figure request that God take his life because he is embarrassed by YHWH’s compassion.

James Nogalski, The Book of the Twelve: Hosea–Jonah, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2011) 445–46.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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  1. John Sulewski says

    Thank you, this was a great description of Jonah. Appreciate the weekly notes to formations.