Jonah 1:1-7, 3:1 – 4:11
When I was growing up, the radio at our house was pretty much on from the time my folks got up until the soaps came on the television at 11:30 in the morning. Then after the soaps were over, it came back on until time for the TV evening news. And when I got older, I would turn it on in my room after supper, and listen until bedtime.
Our local AM station (we didn’t have an FM station until I was in junior high or high school, and it was quite a feat of technology to get the FM stations in Tulsa or Joplin) ran the usual mix of news, lost pet notices, locally-produced ads, and music. Because of that, I grew up fascinated by the popular instrumental music of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, short bits of which the deejays used as “bumper music” to fill the last few seconds before a news break at the top or bottom of the hour.
Nowadays I have got a Pandora station devoted to those instrumentals that were used as bumpers (and sometimes as background music for those locally-produced ads, like Mark Isham’s “On the Threshold of Liberty,” which a local business used in an ad for hot water tanks—I didn’t even know the name of that for years, but just called it “the hot water tank song”).
Most people tune out ads, or if they’re watching on the TV, flip channels or fast-forward through commercials; but I’m sort of fascinated by them and frequently watch, or listen on the radio, if only for a moment. (All bets are off on that “Kars 4 Kids” thing that plays on SiriusXM, or anything featuring heart-wrenching music and pictures of abused or neglected animals.)
There was one ad that was on just about every day for a time…actually, it wasn’t so much one ad as a series of ads in which a fellah from Texas or Oklahoma, I forget which, would briefly rant about something. I’m presuming he was a wealthy man, maybe an oilman, and self-funded these spots, but I don’t know for sure. They were usually on during the “Farm Route,” Bob McBride’s agriculture-focused program that aired just before the noon news. The ads always started the same way, “I’m Eddie Childs, and I’m mad!”
After awhile he, or someone representing him, started selling merch, so you could get a bumper sticker that said, “I’M MAD TOO, EDDIE!” Several people in town had them on their cars.
I have no idea what it was he was mad about. Probably politics, which I didn’t really pay much attention to at that time. But the start of the ads and those bumper stickers are pretty well embedded in my memory.
When you hear the story of Jonah, especially the description in the last chapter of his response to Nineveh’s repentance, do you want to agree with him?
“I’M MAD TOO, JONAH!”
If we were to make a list of Bible stories we want our kids to know, I’d guess the story of “Jonah and the whale” would be on it. I remember learning it in Sunday school when I was really little. It went like this:
Jonah was a prophet, and God told him to go to Nineveh, but he didn’t want to go to Nineveh. So he got on a boat going the other way, but there was a storm, and he was thrown overboard. A big fish (not actually a whale) swallowed him.
While he was in the fish’s belly (and the children’s Bibles always seemed to have Jonah sitting in a pink cavern beside, of all things, a little campfire), he prayed to God, and the fish spit him out on the beach after three days.
Many years later, I read the whole book of Jonah, and discovered a couple things. First, there’s still quite a bit of the book left after the fish spits Jonah out. Second, what comes after the fish spits Jonah out is more important.
I also realized, like many other people have, that if we focus only on questions about the fish—was it a fish or a whale? if it was a fish, what kind? could a fish have really swallowed Jonah whole and held him, undigested, in its stomach for three days, then spit him back out?—we miss the point of the story. But I think focusing on the fish is much earlier than dealing with the real point of Jonah, which is much more challenging, and much more important.
Other than this book, the only other mention of this prophet in the Bible is in 2 Kings 14. He is the court prophet of King Jeroboam II of Israel. That is literally all we know about him, other than the name of his father (Amittai) and his hometown (Gath-hepher).
A lot of scholars think someone, perhaps in the time of the restoration of Jerusalem and the Temple under Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the scribe, spun this tale of the prophet being sent to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, which was one of the most brutal empires in the ancient Near East—but centuries after Assyria itself was no more. It could have been part of a conversation about God’s relationship with non-Jews at a time when racial and ethnic purity were highly valued by the leaders of the people (and led to what I consider to be atrocities, like dependent foreign wives and half-breed children being divorced and sent away, with no recourse and no resources).
This isn’t a simple, objective, historical report of a trip Jonah took. It actually looks more like a parable—like the ones Jesus told, for example the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan—a story told to make a point about God and God’s relationship with the world.
You just heard a bit of the first part of the story, and then the third and fourth chapters, where we find out what happens after the fish spits Jonah out.
God spoke to this prophet named Jonah, who was a real person but a pretty minor player in the story of Israel, and told him to go to Nineveh and proclaim God’s judgment on it. But Jonah instead went down to Joppa (today the seaside town of Jaffa, just outside Tel Aviv) and got on a boat going the other direction.
Imagine someone in Kansas City being told to go to Chicago, but instead getting on a plane heading for Hong Kong. That’s what Jonah was trying to do.
He was on the boat, sleeping, when God hurled a terrible storm at the boat, to the point that the boat was threatening to break apart. Now sailors in those days were superstitious folks, and all cried out to their own gods to calm the storm. Finding Jonah sleeping, they woke him up and asked him to call on his own god, in the hope that it might do some good.
Then they drew lots to figure out who was at fault for some god or another having thrown the storm at them, and Jonah drew the short straw. They have a brief conversation, and Jonah says, yes, it’s because of me; if you throw me overboard you’ll all be find. They don’t want to do it, because it would pretty much be murder; but with the storm getting worse all the time, they finally had no choice. They tossed Jonah over the side of the boat, and God sent a fish to swallow him. And instantly the storm calmed and the boat was able to continue on its way to Tarshish.
Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights, and he prayed to God. Our responsive reading today was the prayer the author of the parable put in Jonah’s mouth. Then God spoke to the fish and it spits him up on dry land.
(When you read Jonah one detail you can’t avoid noticing is that everything that happens to Jonah comes from God’s hand: he sends the storm, he sends the fish, he speaks to the fish; later he grows a castor-bean plant to shade Jonah, and then sends a worm to eat the roots of the plant and kill it and a hot east wind to make Jonah miserable.)
After the fish spits Jonah out, God says to him again, “Go to Nineveh and proclaim my message to it.” At this point Jonah has figured out that resistance to God’s command is futile, so he goes to Nineveh.
The city is described in legendary terms—three days’ walk across—but in reality it was much, much smaller than that; excavations have revealed a city three miles in length and one-and-a-half miles wide. And Jonah walks a little ways into the city—maybe like somebody coming into Butler from I-49 and, instead of going to the square, stops at Don’s shop—and then, no doubt halfheartedly, shares God’s message, just five words in Hebrew: “God is going to destroy this city in 40 days if you don’t straighten up.”
And then, something amazing happens: Nineveh repents! The entire city puts on sackcloth and fasts—both classic signs in the Old Testament of sorrow and repentance. The king gets wind of it, and he puts on sackcloth. He orders that everyone will fast and wear sackcloth, even the animals, in the hope that maybe, just maybe, God’s mind will be changed about destroying the city. And that is exactly what happens.
Notice that the message Jonah has been sent to proclaim to Nineveh says nothing to indicate that the city might not be overthrown if its people repent. But again, just like we saw a few weeks back after the golden calf incident in Exodus 32, God’s mind changes. God decides not to destroy Nineveh after all, because they heard Jonah’s words and repented of their sins in a very dramatic fashion.
It’s hard for me to avoid getting the image in my mind of cows and sheep wrapped in burlap. Now you have it in your mind, too. You can thank me later.
This turn of events is not at all to Jonah’s liking. He has gone out to the city’s edge and sat on a high lookout where he can see what happens to it. And he finally admits why he didn’t want to go to Nineveh, throwing God’s self-revelation from back in Exodus 34 back in God’s face: “I knew you would change your mind about punishing Nineveh if they repented! That’s why I tried to go to Tarshish instead!”
Jonah has a point about Nineveh. It was the capital of Assyria, one of the most brutal empires the world has even known, before or since. In the palace of King Sennacherib, in Nineveh, there was a series of relief carvings that depicted the siege and destruction of the city of Lachish, which was southwest of Jerusalem. Those reliefs, which are now in the British Museum, shows inhabitants of the city being impaled, and the heads of Lachish residents stacked up to be counted—presumably because the soldiers were paid according to the number of enemies they actually killed. Assyria was the nation that, twenty years before the siege of Lachish, had destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, scattering its inhabitants and giving rise to legends about the “Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.”
They were not nice people.
By the time the book of Jonah was written, when the Assyrian Empire was long gone, having been conquered by Babylon, which was in turn conquered by Persia, Nineveh may have come to function as a metaphor, a name that symbolized the enemies of God’s people—just like Babylon functions in the book of Revelation.
But Assyria was brutal, and for God to have an Israelite prophet go to them, and then for God to decide not to destroy them—it was a very big deal.
Jonah says, “See, I knew this would happen if I spoke to them and repented! It’s the kind of God you are—gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, and ready to relent from punishing. But these are bad people, God! They have done horrible things to your people! How can we know this so-called repentance will last? Once your attention is elsewhere and they’ve taken off their sackcloth and broken their fast, who’s to say they won’t go right back to impaling us and piling up our heads to be counted? Can you 100% guarantee they won’t? Can you, God?”
It’s a pretty hard thing to hear. God is not the enemy of God’s people’s enemies. God isn’t the enemy of the ones who imprison, torture, and murder God’s people.
One of the most unsolvable arguments Christians have is over the question of whether we’ll see Adolf Hitler in heaven. He was, after all, baptized as a Christian when he was young, before he did all the monstrous things he did. Is it possible that he could be up there walking the same gold-paved streets as some of the people he killed, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Betsie ten Boom or the millions of Jews, Gypsies, disabled and gay people he decided were less than human?
Do you find that prospect horrifying? If so, then you can understand why Jonah threw such a fit about God forgiving Nineveh. If we put ourselves in the story, I daresay many of us would be sitting up on that outcropping with Jonah, and we’d all be mad right along with him.
But here’s the problem. The decision about who receives God’s grace and forgiveness is not ours. That decision belongs to God, and to God alone.
In the case of Nineveh, God asks Jonah if God shouldn’t be concerned about the huge number of people who didn’t know their right from their left—presumably children, or at the very least people who didn’t know or have any input into the decisions of the king or the army—as well as the many animals in the city.
This is what Abraham argued with God about in Genesis 18 when God was about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah: Is God the kind of God who does collateral damage, sweeping away the innocent along with the guilty? Is it right to lump all the Ninevites together and say they’re all responsible for the atrocities of their king and his army? Is it even true that every single Ninevite—or every single member of whatever group to which people who’ve harmed us, or we fear might harm us, belong—is unworthy of God’s compassion?
Is it right for us, like Jonah, to be angry when God forgives people who have done unforgivable things?
Yeah, it’s a whole lot easier to focus on whether or not that fish really ate Jonah than it is to deal with the actual point of the story: God’s ways are not our ways, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and God does not necessarily count our enemies among God’s enemies, much as we might wish it to be so.