John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden was published in September 1952; by November, it had skyrocketed to the top of the fiction best-seller list and has never gone out of print. The novel follows three generations of two families, including two brothers whose story parallels the biblical story of Cain and Abel.
In Genesis 3, God sent Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, stationing an angelic sentry with a flaming sword at the east entrance. Since then, moving eastwards signals exile and divine judgment; Cain settled his family east of Eden (see Gen. 4:16).
And where do we find Jonah in our reading for today? Outside the city walls to the east of the city. He had refused to go to Nineveh the first time God called, and though he had obeyed the second time, he had hoped his mission would be unsuccessful. Indeed, just when he should have been celebrating the revival taking place within the Nineveh’s city walls, he was on the outside of the city, sulking. He doesn’t want God to spare this wicked city but destroy it. And if God won’t kill them, Jonah decided, then God should kill him! He would rather be dead than see his enemies saved.
Striking details in this passage (and book) remind us of a greater Jonah. When Jesus was called by His Father to take up the task of human salvation, He offered himself willingly (Heb. 10:5–8). When faced with a suffering, sinful humanity, He experienced not anger but visceral compassion (see Matt. 9:36). When Jesus was nailed to a Roman cross, bearing the weight of human sin, He cried out to the God of abounding love and faithfulness: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
The gospel is outrageous, as Jonah understood: because of His own grace, God promises forgiveness and freedom to the Ninevites, to the Edomites, to the idolatrous Israelites, even to us. To appreciate God’s love, we must see ourselves as Paul did: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst” (1 Tim. 1:15).