6 more recently it has been claimed that the big fish

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6 More recently it has been claimed that the "Big Fish" was simply the name of a ship which rescued Jonah, or even the name of a hotel in which he stayed! 7 All this feverish concern to rationalize the miracle stems from excessive preoccupation with its historical plausibility rather than its function within the narrative. In its context the fish episode is merely a device whereby Jonah's final attempt to escape his mission-by drowning-is thwarted. 8 Why did Jonah flee from that mission in the first place? Jonah says he knew God would forgive the Ninevites and cancel their punishment (4:2). But what objection could Jonah possibly have to the forgiveness of the truly penitent? Since ancient times various answers have been suggested. One theory which has been expressed frequently goes back to the early days of the struggle between Judaism and Christianity, when commentators unsympathetic to Jews lost no opportunity to portray them as narrow minded bigots. According to this theory, Jonah wanted to exclude gentiles, such as the Ninevites, from God's compassion. The book was allegedly written to teach the intolerant Jews, whom Jonah represented, that God's mercy applies to all mankind. Another version of this interpretation holds that the Jews were why God had not yet punished the nations which had dealt them so much harm; the book was written to show them that these nations, too, deserved mercy. The fallacy of this line of interpretation is obvious, for nothing is further from
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the author's mind than the sins of Nineveh against Israel. The text makes it clear that the sins of which the Ninevites repent are "each man's evil ways" and "the injustice which is in their hands" (Jonah 3:8), not the oppression of Israel, not even idolatry, which the Ninevites are not asked to abandon. The Ninevites' sins apparently are those committed against each other. The fact that the Ninevites are gentiles is thus not an issue in the story, but the very mention of the "sectarian" interpretation gives us an opportunity to take note of the sympathetic way the book portrays gentiles. At almost every turn they are shown as admirable, decent people. It is true that the Ninevites are guilty of capital crimes, but the speed with which they acknowledge their guilt and heed Jonah's call for repentance is practically unparalleled among the Israelites themselves. In fact some Jewish commentators found in this circumstance the explanation for Jonah's flight: suspecting that the Ninevites would repent quickly, Jonah feared their alacrity would make Israel's stubbornness all the more apparent and increase its punishment. Not only the Ninevites, but the idolatrous passengers on Jonah's boat are portrayed favorably. Their first impulse is to reject throwing Jonah overboard and to try again to row to shore, and when they finally yield they pray to God not to hold them guilty of murder, since He has left them no other choice. The Rabbis were aware of the passengers' reluctance, and in their own midrashic way they magnified it.
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