It's always difficult to try and explain why something's funny, but we'll give it a go. The book of Jonah starts with God calling Jonah to go and prophesy to the Ninevites. It's standard for prophets to um and er a bit, talk about how unworthy they are or say they've got a stutter, but Jonah takes this a step further: God calls him, and he legs it in the opposite direction, as fast as he can. It's as if Moses saw the burning bush and chucked a bucket of water on it, or sold his miraculous staff to the local Del Boy. So God keeps in character and produces a mighty storm, just like he did when Elijah ran away and hid in a cave. But where Elijah sat and listened to the storm, Jonah doesn't even notice it, because he's busy catching some shuteye in the bottom of the boat. When, eventually, he's shaken awake by the terrified sailors, he sighs and says, essentially, 'well, I suppose you'd better chuck me in the sea, then.'
Once in the murky depths, Jonah produces a nice little psalm:
'The engulfing waters threatened me,the deep surrounded me;seaweed was wrapped around my head.To the roots of the mountains I sank down;the earth beneath barred me in forever.'
It's classic psalmic imagery, except that if David said it, he'd be using poetic metaphor, whereas Jonah is literally getting tangled up in seaweed. It's as though Britney Spears wrote Toxic after a nasty encounter with her pet viper. So Job does his best Shakespeare act, and eventually God thinks he'd better listen to Jonah; so 'Yahweh spoke to the fish, which then vomited Jonah up on the shore’. It's hardly a poetic rescue.
Now that Jonah's made it to Ninevah, it's time for him to prophesy. If you're a prophet, this is your big moment: your chance to show off just how articulate you are; how bone-shaking your description of the coming judgement can be, how much emotional force you can pack in. What will Jonah say? What great feat of oratory will he perform? Well, it goes a little something like this:
'Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.'
This, as the writers point out, is 'jejune to the point of banality'. It's the prophetic equivalent of a cross child being forced, against their will to apologise. 'mmyou shd repent.' This would, in most prophetic books, be the point at which the prophetic audience refused to listen, and possibly imposed some sort of punishment on the unappreciated prophet. But, astoundingly, and in the face of possibly the least convincing prophetic warning of all time, Nineveh immediately repents. And they're not half-hearted about it, neither: not only the people, but all the farm animals promptly don sackcloth and cry out for repentance. Weirder still, God listens and calls off the imminent destruction, making Jonah perhaps the only successful prophet in the whole of the Old Testament.
Now, because most prophets are ignored and abused, the next step in the classic prophetic story is for the prophet to go off somewhere and have a good moan to Yahweh about how tough their life is. You'd think that Jonah might skip this bit having, y'know, succeeded; but no, he starts to complain about how merciful God is: 'O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.' And Jonah storms off into the desert to sulk.
And then God makes a plant grow because Jonah's gone to sit out in the sunshine and God wants to give him some shade, but then the plant dies and Jonah, infuriated, screams 'I wish I was dead!' Gently, and probably trying quite hard not to laugh, God speaks to him. 'You care so much about that plant, even though you didn't do anything to make it grow. Shouldn't I also care about the thousands of people in this city? Not to mention all those cows who are wandering round in sackcloth as we speak...'
Photo credit: Tomasz1950.