What do you know about the book of Jonah? Put up your hands (metaphorically if you are reading this) if you know the name of the city to which God asks Jonah to go? Do likewise if you know the name of the city to which he escapes in order to take a ship going in the opposite direction from the one God asks him to take? Raise your hands if you know what happens to Jonah after he is thrown overboard from the ship in the midst of the storm? I imagine if you can’t answer the first two questions you will get the third right. Because what we all know about the story of Jonah is that he is swallowed by a whale and spends three days cooling his heels in its fishy belly before being vomited up onto the seashore.
In the Bible Challenge, we will arrive at day 246 on Monday having recently read through the entirety of the Book of Isaiah and are now 13 chapters into Jeremiah. Judged by worldly standards of success none of the Major Prophets –Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Amos, Hosea, etc -seem to have been successful. They cry out about backsliding ways and the people refuse to repent. They draw attention to impending crises and the disasters predicted happen anyway. Now, in contrast, the prophet Jonah, a minor prophet if there ever was one, is a rip-roaring success. After some shilly-shallying about, he preaches for only a day to the citizenry of great Nineveh, calling them to turn from their evil ways. Low and behold, they do! At first sight, we might conclude that no one is more surprised than Jonah. But when we look deeper, we notice that Jonah is really pissed off because he knew beforehand what the outcome would be.
He tells God plainly that it was because he knew God would change his mind that he tried to avoid the task in the first place:
That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.
And God asks Jonah – Do you do well to be angry? meaning, Jonah, how does it serve you to be so angry?
This seems a very contradictory way for a prophet to behave and goes to the heart of the conundrum of this book of only four short chapters. When face with conundrum we all experience a strong impulse to cut through the uncertainty and confusion and make it simple anyway, regardless of the consequences.
So the simple interpretation is that the book of Jonah is about racial and religious intolerance and the desire to exclude those who are not members of our tribe from being the recipients of God’s grace. Despite his rip-roaring success with the folk in Nineveh by getting them to repent and thus enabling God to change his mind about wiping them from the face of the earth, Jonah, a good Hebrew, does not like God being merciful to a bunch of heathens. He likes even less being made to be God’s instrument in what appears to him to be a sorry affair.
How’s Jonah’s complaint ringing for you?
Jonah is a short book written sometime between the 5th and 4th- centuries BC during the period of the returning exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem. However, its setting is in an earlier 8th-century time, probably around the 750’s when Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire was at its peak. Recall that it was in 721 that the Assyrians swept down from the North and destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel completely. The book’s plot of sending a Hebrew prophet to win the Assyrians over to God’s favor has some loaded undercurrents.
In reading any scriptural text the first question to ask is what is the purpose of the writer (s)? The book of Jonah, the son of Amitai, meaning son of truth, seems to be an appeal to the returning exilic community, busily rebuilding Jerusalem, warning them against the dangers of retreating into a racial and cultural exclusivism that places limits on God’s mercy and compassion.
Jonah is a warning to our human propensity to limit God’s abounding mercy so as to bolster our own fear and anxiety.
Did you know that Jews read the book of Jonah in the afternoon on the Day of Atonement? Picture this, the drama of the morning liturgy with its solemn chant of the Kol Nidre, the prayer of atonement is now past and the expanse of the afternoon opens before the fasting penitents whose hunger and thirst only increase as the day draws on. Reading Jonah reminds them of the fruitlessness of any attempt to evade the relentless task of examining the unpalatable truths of one’s life – at least in the last 12 months.
Jonah, despite his knowing better, is a model for the fruitlessness of attempting to evade God. Jonah rejects God’s purpose, i.e. God’s desire to pardon and save. Jonah sits in judgment on God by seeking to distance himself from God’s generosity.
How perverse it is that the thing we desire most for ourselves is also the very thing we work so hard to deny to others.
In a recently published book entitled, Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet, Erica Brown, of George Washington University:
Jonah is, in many ways, every man and woman who struggles with inadequacy, who confronts the darkness within and without…. Jonah is every person who has wrestled with insecurity, celebrates second chances and then realizes the path out is never linear. Jonah is the only Biblical Book that ends with a question, because his life became a question: is life worth it? Can we find meaning? Can we find Peace?
My answer for now is that we cannot find meaning or peace without an honest examination of how we, individually and communally have participated in attitudes and actions that have sought to limit the extent of God’s mercy, compassion, and generosity to my/our tribe, my/our community, only to those like me/those like us.
The Lectionary in placing a reading from Jonah alongside Mark’s depiction of Jesus calling his first disciples presents us with an uncomfortable challenge. God is not only more generous and loving towards others who are different from ourselves than we might care for God to be, but God expects us to be her agents, his voice, her hands, his feet in mirroring God’s concern.
God calls us to be prophets, or in the more intimate language of the gospels, Jesus calls us to be his disciples. So what is our response? What kind of prophet, what sort of disciple are we prepared to be?
Jesus echoes God’s call for Jonah to go to Nineveh when he proclaims:
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; [but first, you must] repent and believe in the good news.
The Kingdom is good news in the midst of a world that continues to conform itself to the bad news of business as usual. By contrast, the Kingdom’s expectations of greater inclusion, deeper compassion, and more abundant mercy are realized when repentance as an honest confrontation with the truth of the past enables for a genuine state of reconciliation.
Are we like Jonah, or are we like Andrew and his brother Simon, James and his brother John? To be like Jonah is to sit in judgment on God through second-guessing and seeking to run away from the Kingdom’s expectations? Andrew, Simon, James, and John have little idea of what they are getting themselves into, all they know is it seems worth taking a risk by saying yes.