Jonah chapter 3 raises a lot of questions for me. As I was translating this passage I found myself perplexed in the middle of verse 8. The first word was a verb, "let them cover". The second word was the plural noun "sackcloths". In Hebrew the word following the verb is typically the subject. So I read, "let sackcloths cover". The next word is usually the subject, and in this case it made sense, "men". "Let sackcloths cover the men." The next word was preceded by a conjunctive letter (and) showing either a second thought if it were a verb (for example "let sackcloths cover the men and let them fast) or a relation to "men" if it were a noun (for example ...men and women). The word was a noun, but not the noun I expected. The word was animals. If I understood the passage right, which I am never completely sure at this point, then the first phrase should be read "let sackcloths cover men and animals." I pondered this for a moment and decided to check the professional translations for confirmation. Sure enough, by edict of the king, both man and beast would wear sackcloth.
What a strange thing. Did the animals somehow participate in the sin of the people that they too should repent? This reminds me of the passage in Samuel when Saul is supposed to kill every animal in a city but instead he keeps some so he can "sacrifice them". God was displeased with this because he wanted the entire city destroyed including all the animals (1 Samuel 15:3). What did the animals do there? I am not sure if these passages are related conceptually or not. It appears that there was closer connection between one member of the community and the rest and this connection, on occasion, even extends to the livestock. At the end of chapter 4, the last sentance of the book in fact, God says, "Should I not look compassionately on Nineveh, the great city with one hundred and twenty thousand men (who do not know their right hand from their left) and many animals."
Enough with that, interesting as it is.
God is sometimes described as having a sense of humor, and I could see Jonah making a case. God appoints a plant to grow to give Jonah shade, and then he appoints a worm the next day to "destroy" the plant. This makes Jonah very angry.
I wonder if God is really trying to "teach us something" when things go wrong, or simply expose us. I always thought it a little simplistic (or at least monotonous) to ask "I wonder what God is trying to teach me in this situation." To its credit, this attitude has the humility to acknowledge it is not yet perfect. Nevertheless, I think this is our way of making God manageable and his ways comprehensible. "God, why did that jerk cut me off... maybe to teach me patience. God why did my wife leave me... perhaps to teach me to rely more on you." I don't think things are so simple in either case. When we answer the question "what is he trying to teach me" we are never really learning, but stating what we already know we should be doing. If you think he is trying to teach you patience it is because you already know you are impatient. Do we need to wait for said "lesson" to learn this. No, we knew it already, that is why God's cryptic way of "teaching" us seemed so clear in that instant. However, for more difficult and inexplicable matters I think we use the "teaching" defense because we cannot face the truth. It is easier, spiritually, to say that something terrible has happened to us because of some deficiency in ourselves. "My wife left me because I didn't rely on God enough. He is just trying to teach me." Other people blame the devil for everything bad that happens. I do not deny his involvement in such matters, but I think we let God off the hook too easily, to our own demise. God, as our all-powerful father, is responsible. Job, when he was hurting said, "if not God then who?" That is a good question, who can do these destructive things in our lives outside the watchful eye, outside the authority of God? No one. He is responsible. Does this let us off the hook (or the wife, in this case)? Of course not. But if we push God's involvement in our lives to the fringe we deny his power over all matters. And if we deny his power over all matters how can we ask him to rescue us? Who will justify us if not God? Maybe we are more comfortable with a God on the fringe who is only responsible for the good things that happen and never injustice, but that denies the truth of this world. In a world twisted by sin sometimes the righteous ways of God (for all his ways are righteous) will appear equally twisted, but only He can (and will) make things strait again. (Maybe this example would be easier if it were not so clear that the human element is to blame. But if the human element excludes God from the situation then he is only be responsible for destruction caused by thunderstorms and hail, and I need him more than that.)
So what about Jonah? God killed the plant he caused to grow to give shade to Jonah. Maybe Jonah should blame the devil for the worm that destroyed the plant, I mean, would God really want to cause us discomfort? Yes, God appointed the worm. Why did God do this? Was it to teach Jonah compassion? Maybe. But Jonah already knew he should be compassionate. In very concise words (in the Hebrew, at least) he praises God's qualities. "Was this not why I left to flee to Tarshish? I knew you are a gracious God, compassionate, long suffering and great in loving kindness and forgiving evil." Jonah knew the Lord and he knew what was right. Was God teaching him here, or just exposing him? "Do you have the right to be angry about the plant?" "Yes I have the right, and I want to die." This is the same question God asked when Jonah was mad that fire did not reign down on the people earlier in chapter 4. Jonah was mad at God's compassion, he was mad at his discipline. Did Jonah learn his "lesson". The book does not say.