When we are dealing with Jonah we have an additional handicap in our backgrounds; for many of us the story is familiar. Many of us probably heard as children about how Jonah got swallowed by a whale (when the book actually says "a big fish") and there was even some kind of song about it that slips my mind. (Actually there were two songs, one of which could get you in trouble with the teacher. Unfortunately, I can't remember either one!) The trouble is we probably learned about Jonah's time in the fish but not much about mercy, obedience, spite, narrow-mindedness, and other powerful themes this book brings home.
People have tried to fit Jonah into several literary categories. They include:
Jonah follows an unusual outline. There are really two stories in the book which very closely parallel each other. We can see these as chapters 1 & 2 and chapters 3 & 4. Briefly, in the first story, Jonah is called; he tries to flee and repeatedly "goes down." He acts like a real jerk (well, he does!) while the outsiders who should be expected to be coarse and rebellious turn out to be better people than he is. The other people (the sailors) show traits that God desires but which Jonah lacks, like compassion and obedience. They also end up believing, despite having a representative like Jonah (an interesting thought in and of itself.) Finally, Jonah's attitude leaves him isolated and the only way he can get out is by turning to and talking to God.
Chapters 3 & 4 follow a very similar pattern. God calls Jonah; this time he goes, but he goes unwillingly and under duress, so he is still being rebellious. Once there, he does the absolute bare minimum he can get away with. In other words, he acts like a jerk again. And once again, the outsiders show the very traits that God desires and which Jonah lacks: they are open to hearing God's voice, they are willing to listen and change direction, and show repentance. In the meantime, Jonah's attitude once again leaves him isolated, and the only way he can get out of it is by turning to and talking with God. The book ends without ever recording how Jonah decided to handle his isolation.
The author uses several other literary devices besides these. Notice how he makes use of known quotations about God, and turns them against the people. Notice also his use of satire and even that dreaded "S" word, sarcasm. I hesitate to advocate the frequent use of satire and sarcasm but in the right hands and at the right time they are valid literary devices that can bring the message home to people in ways that other forms of communication can't.
The historical context is not really known for sure, although many figure it is postexillic and at least partly a response to the sometimes overzealous nationalism of Ezra and Nehemiah. But actually the message is timeless and universalist (not universalist as in anything is good, but universalist as in God's message is for all.)
I want to start our exploration of Jonah by examining the way the author develops Jonah's character. Very early on we see that Jonah has a clear attitude problem, and that he is a rebellious and sullen sort who repeatedly "goes down" to escape his call. But the author develops it more in the narrative. I find, though, that before I can show how his character is developed I have to go into some of the background context the author uses, starting with the sea.
Those of us who live on the East Coast of the United States have some appreciation of the dangerous power of the sea, as do people who live along the great lakes or other coastal areas. We are aware that a good noreaster or hurricane is not something to be dismissed lightly. They can pose real danger to people, and we are well advised to follow the weather reports closely and take precautions in the face of one of these storms.
While we are aware of the potential for danger, we have lost some of the fear people used to have of the sea. At the time Jonah was written, the sea was a thing to be feared, and with good reason. The storm that is described was something that could, indeed, happen. Even today there are formidable storms on the seas, and we still, on occasion, lose ships despite our much better meteorological instruments and communications (as well as safer ships.)
So while the sea was a valuable resource, it was also something to be feared, and naturally all kinds of legends developed around it. It is in this setting that the author shows us the stuff Jonah was made of and begins his series of striking contrasts and surprise plot developments.
Jonah had tried to flee from his mission, and was currently heading in almost the complete opposite direction of where he was supposed to be going. And now a furious ocean storm was threatening to destroy the ship he was on and everyone aboard.
I'm sure we have all been in unexpected, urgent situations where everyone had to drop what they were doing and pitch in and come to the rescue. I expect we have all been in the situation of being one of the people fighting and working to control the situation and saw there was somebody who just didn't get the idea. There was somebody who wasn't there or wasn't doing his or her fair share (but was willing to enjoy all the later benefits.) Or perhaps we've been one of those people...
We have one of these cases recorded for us in Jonah. A violent storm had risen, and it required the cooperative effort of everybody on board to get through it and get to a safe harbor. So we see the sailors all doing there part, even taking the drastic act of dumping the cargo. All except one -- while everyone else was fighting for their life, Jonah was in his room sleeping, as uninvolved as he could be. Some may object to my calling Jonah, who was after all a prophet of God, a "jerk" in the last post. But here we have somebody who was blithely unconcerned and of no help to his fellows at all (but would probably show up for his next meal if they succeeded.)
If Jonah is an allegorical reference to Israel or the church, this is a very unflattering portrait. And there is more. The captain and the sailors are used for contrast. These were men who could be expected to be hardened and rough, and were certainly unbelieving pagans outside of the elect, chosen people.
And it is the captain who tells Jonah to do what he should have been doing all along when he tells him to get out of his bed and pray. It is the heathen sailors who are at least the first to verbalize the recognition this is no ordinary storm, but is a storm of divine origin. And they recognize that Jonah has done a dreadful thing in trying to run away from God in disobedience.
While it wouldn't be right, I could hardly have blamed the sailors if they had taken matters into their own hands right then and there and tossed Jonah overboard along with the cargo. Instead, more amazing plot twists occur. The sailors show other admirable features that Jonah is notably lacking in, like courage and compassion. They continued to try to get to shore and to save the man who had not only done nothing whatever to help them but had, by his own admission, been the cause of all their problems to begin with.
Finally, of course, they had to do the inevitable and throw Jonah overboard. But even as they do this, we see their reluctance to do it. And we also see that they are fully aware of the gravity of what they are doing in abandoning a man to virtually certain death. They pray for forgiveness for what they are forced to do and even go so far as to call Jonah an innocent man.
I can think of a number of adjectives to describe Jonah at this point, but "innocent" is hardly one of them. By his own admission he was the only one who was guilty; he had been the cause of all their problems; and he had done nothing to help except when compelled. I'm still trying to figure out the theological ramifications of outsiders being so charitable to him.
And finally in chapter one we see the sailors recognizing God, despite having seen such a poor specimen of a follower. In the end it is they, the outsiders, who recognized the power and glory of God and responded appropriately, while Jonah, the professed follower, who is out of order.
This is a very interesting theological turn. On the one hand, it is something of a relief to realize that God does not depend on someone like me, who can get hot tempered and caustic at times, and does not always follow as well as he could. It is also sobering to see such a starkly negative portrayal of someone who was supposed to be a follower, and to see how others with no such profession displayed so many of the traits he lacked, like discernment, courage, compassion, and forgiveness.
In a way, I think this is part of the sign of Jonah Jesus referred to. Those on the inside missed what was going on (or at least many of them did) while those on the outside -- the gentiles, the slaves, etc. -- were the ones to accept the gospel. In fact, the outsiders soon so outnumbered the insiders that Christianity came to lose its Jewish underpinnings (a significant loss, I think) and became, sadly enough, anti-Semitic for much of its sometimes dubious history. And yet there always seemed to be some outsiders willing to accept what the establishment didn't, such as the early Franciscans, the Anabaptists, the Quakers, the early Methodists, to name just a few western groups.
As we look at Jonah today I think we are looking sometimes at ourselves. A question that emerges is, how well can we see? If we see our own image, where do we go from here?
There was a story during one of our killer heat waves last summer (remember complaining about the heat?) from one of the most dangerous and poorest housing projects in Camden, New Jersey, one of our poorest cities. A group of teenagers in the project came together and organized, and went around the project -- not terrorizing the neighbors or selling drugs, but bringing chilled bottles of spring water to the elderly and disabled, checking up on them, and helping out with light housekeeping (like taking out the trash and cleaning the bathroom and the dishes) and running errands to the store. Young people who were themselves poor were recognizing the needs that others were not, and responding in a appropriate way.
But this is not the end of Jonah. While so far, he has not been a very pleasant or cooperative individual, or a very exemplary follower of God. While we may not really wish for his death, we probably wouldn't shed too many tears on reading his obituary.
But now the story takes another masterful twist in a series of masterful twists.
Both the Interpreter's Dictionary Of The Bible and The New Bible Dictionary (and their companion commentaries) seem to view the psalm in chapter 2 as coming from a different source. They are unclear as to whether the author inserted a previously existing psalm in at this point, or whether someone else added it at a later point.
If the psalm is not original to author, I would go with the first option -- the author included it. While it is true that the narrative flows just as smoothly without it, the psalm does contribute to the overall parallelism and symmetry that marks the whole book. It also introduces themes that will come into their own in the second half, such as grace and mercy, repentance, forgiveness, salvation, and thanksgiving.
In this, the second half of the first half of Jonah, the thing that stands out for me is how Jonah's own attitude, his insolence, and his rebelliousness have left him isolated. He is cut off from his own people, and he is cut off from the sailors. No one even knows if he is alive or dead anymore, and few probably even care. And it is hard to feel too much sympathy for him, because it is the result of his own doing.
Despite this, we see God's grace and mercy. The fish was not sent to punish Jonah for his disobedience, but to save him from an otherwise certain death. God is giving someone who did not deserve it a second chance. This, of course, is at the heart of the Christian Gospel: Jesus is our second chance, freely offered to all of us, who are all undeserving and rebellious.
So the first half of the story ends with Jonah in a strange spot: isolated and irrelevant because of his own actions and attitudes and yet saved and thankful for the undeserved grace that came his way.
This was why it was important for us to be prepared, and why we had these drills. It was so we could survive if and when Moscow decided to drop the bomb on Minneapolis.
I suppose readers even a few years younger than me are wondering why I'm bringing up such a quaint and silly memory. Granted, it was silly. We all knew that even if that basement hallway in an already aging school did survive the blast, we would still be up the creek without a paddle. We would be left in a grossly overcrowded situation with hopelessly inadequate food and water, and no sanitation, so even if we survived the bomb we were still goners.
Of course, Moscow never did bomb Minneapolis. Now it seems Moscow can't even control a tiny and obscure region even many Russians had probably never heard of (Chechnya.)
The point is, for several generations we faced a formidable (or so we thought) evil empire, frequently personified and symbolized by its capital city, Moscow. This city represented all that was bad and evil in the world, and stood against everything that we stood for.
For many people in the ancient world, Ninevah occupied a similar place in the collective psyche. Ninevah was much more than the capital city of a collapsed empire; like Sodom of many years earlier, it was the symbolic personification of everything evil and hostile. Ninevah meant oppression, exploitation, wanton cruelty, enforced poverty, cruelty to animals, injustice, you name it. Ninevah threatened families and children. It was a place where wives were taken away and raped at the pleasure of foreign men. It was a place where raw power was exercised over the powerless without any kinds of checks.
Of course, I'm sure there were many kind hearted and decent people in the city, even if they didn't make it into government and the military. But I think our author is referring to more than just Ninevah, the city. He is referring to Ninevah, the symbol of evil. Hence also the exaggeration in size (the city, even in its heyday, was really rather small.)
And this, of course, is where Jonah was required to go with his message of imminent destruction. Think about it. I wouldn't want to do it. But the Lord's call was clear: go.
What do we do when we get such an undesirable order? How do we respond when we are told to leave our home, our security, and set out on an apparent fools errand that takes us right into the heart of enemy territory, whatever the enemy might be?
Everything is so easy and simplistic when we are the good guys and they are the bad guys. It all becomes so much more complicated when the bad guys are suddenly not there anymore. We are in sort of an uncomfortable spot now, since we no longer have a Moscow to spend so much attention on.
Contrary to expections, the world has not become a safer place. If anything, it has become a more dangerous place, and it's harder to sort it all out and predict what will come next.
I wonder if this could have been part of Jonah's hesitation. If the external enemy were removed from the picture, what was an Israel to do? Maybe they would even have to look at their own class structure and mistreatment of foreigners. At any rate it would certainly require some shifting paradigms.
Shifting paradigms is an uncomfortable experience, but sometimes it is what Christ calls us to do, and it is certainly what Jonah is calling us to do.
So far our author has been a master at quietly bringing out his knife by setting us up for one thing, and then twisting the knife in where it can hurt with an unexpected plot development. After part one, I'm sure his readers were hoping for a more normal and conventional second half, where things came to a nice, neat conclusion. But as we turn to the second half of the book, we see instead that part one was just a warmup for part two, and there is no way our author is about to back off.
I tend to be a little slow sometimes in getting a hint, but I think a series of experiences like these would shake me up a little bit. It would appear they shook Jonah up a little bit too -- a very little bit. He seems to be what we might call a slow learner.
So when the call comes again, he does go to Ninevah. But to call his going obedience requires either a greater leap of imagination than I can do, or a more lenient definition of obedience than I can accept. He went, but he went reluctantly, he really didn't follow out his instructions, and his message fell far short of usual prophetic standards.
He only gave his message once. Some prophets, to be sure, were called out on a short term basis for a specific event. But this was ridiculous. A prophet was supposed to stick to his or her task, whether he or she liked it or not and be there for followup, etc.
His message consisted of only one sentence. Brevity can be a virtue (he says in part six :) but not when the necessary information or total quality of the message is sacrificed.
His sentence itself fell far short of usual standards. While impending doom could be and often was part of the message, the reasons were usually spelled out. Whether they acted on the information or not, people at least heard what the charges were, and had been told they were in trouble for oppressing the poor, exploiting the weak, worshiping idols, forming military alliances, or other charges. Jonah did not tell the people of Ninevah what they had done that they needed to repent of.
And while the prophetic word can be very stern and severe, there is usually an out offered. The message goes to the effect of &uot;impending disaster is heading your way because you have (your favorite offense), BUT! if you stop doing it you will be saved". Jonah's message has no such clause.
All he says is the city will be destroyed in forty days. And then he leaves town to wait for his words to come true.
Meanwhile, back in the city...
The fate I would have expected lay in wait for Jonah was to be immediately clapped in irons, beaten up and hauled off to the dungeon, as at the very least a public nuisance and probably a traitor or spy. Based on what I know of Assyrian history, this would not be a whole lot of fun.
Instead...the city repented, starting with the people and working up to the king, suggesting the message took deep root. Apparently the word got around very quickly despite Jonah's half hearted delivery. People were able to figure out what their sins were, even though Jonah hadn't told them. And the Ninevites, evil outsiders that they were, recognized something else Jonah didn't mention to them: God can be flexible in dealing with people, will give a second (and third, and fourth, and fifth...) chance to them, will accept repentance, and show forgiveness.
At the end of chapter three we are back to almost the same position we were in at the end of chapter one: the outsiders had turned to God despite the example they had of a follower, and shown themselves to be better at understanding and obeying God than the prophet.
And the prophet is once again isolated by his own attitudes and actions, and his only chance out of his isolation is turning to and talking with God. The book actually ends with his status unresolved.
Most prophets would have been glad to be successful. Surprised beyond belief, maybe, and at a loss to know what to do next, but still glad.
But not Jonah. He had success that prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel wished for, and how does he respond? By going out into the desert and stewing in anger, saying he wished he was dead, and complaining that he didn't want to do this in the first place because he knew that God was gracious and forgiving.
It's really quite a shock to see this said so openly. I'm rather taken aback by the bluntness of it all. But at least he is honest about it; I'm not so sure I can always say the same thing about myself.
I think we all have at least a little bit of Jonah in us. I'm sure we all have times when we don't want to forgive someone who has done us wrong. We would rather hold on to that grudge, nurse it along, and keep it alive.
There are times when we want to see other people suffer for the things they have done. We confuse mercy with injustice, because there is still that primal desire for an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
And what about those outsiders? Do we really want the poor, the disabled, unwed mothers, and people with AIDS coming into our congregations? I recall a young Christian family of a few years ago who had adopted an infant with AIDS and were driven out of several churches. People were afraid she would give them AIDS when she drooled on them (as infants are known to do) or when they changed her diapers.
It got to the point where the parents wouldn't even go to a church anymore without calling it on the phone first. They finally called Ambler Mennonite Church, which called a special congregational meeting. There were several speakers, much discussion, and many questions. And, I'm glad to say, we took the plunge and said they were welcome.
Who do we want, and who do we not want? And when the call comes to broaden our horizons and realize our message of Jesus is for those outside too (as it will) how do we respond?
(At this point I experienced a case of writer's block trying in trying to produce the final installment. So I posted the following question):The final part of my study of Jonah is not gelling as quickly and easily as I thought it would; some kind of writer's block, I guess. For the people who have been following it, here's a pop quiz question to occupy your minds until it comes together:
What is the most banned anti-war novel of modern times?
The final part of my study of Jonah is not gelling as quickly and easily as I thought it would; some kind of writer's block, I guess. For the people who have been following it, here's a pop quiz question to occupy your minds until it comes together: What is the most banned anti-war novel of modern times?The answer is not one of the gory, graphic novels such as All Quiet On The Western Front or Johnny Got His Gun. Rather, it is the bitingly satirical tale of the bumbling, fumbling, absurdly incompetent Chaplain's Assistant told in The Good Soldier Schweik. The graphic, violent novels detailing senseless death and destruction were banned, to be sure, but this book was too much. It mercilessly ridiculed the absurd, incompetent, preposterously war machine and portrayed not heros and patriots but fools and buffoons who were practically clueless.
We miss a lot if we fail to appreciate Jonah as a masterpiece of satire that ridicules the narrow, provincial, prejudicial thinking popular among many of the period. I think all aspiring satirists would do well to study the techniques used by this author. Mystery writers would do well to study him too; as I'm Chuck Fager can testify (: a good mystery depends on unexpected plot twists. (I mean, if you can figure out whodunit in chapter 1, why bother with the rest of the book?) I can just imagine some of the serious rabbis squirming even as they approved the book's canonical status!
So now, we are left with Jonah sitting out in the scorching desert sun like a fool while the Ninevites are wearing sackcloth and ashes and doing everything they should be doing.
Our author has made his point quite effectively. He has spoken very effectively about the need for Israel to open its collective mind and shed it narrow prejudices about those outsiders. Now, he has just one more point to bring home:
God is also calling to the insiders to come inside.
And to this end we see a very elaborate, and almost bizarre combination of dialogue and object lessons in the final chapter. God is trying now to break through Jonah's thick skin and cold, hard heart.
At this point the people of Ninevah are on the right track. It is Jonah who needs God's attention. And so God sets him up with another completely unmerited act of grace and salvation. He provides a vine or gourd to give the prophet shade so he won't get sunstroke while he is waiting.
Now that Jonah has been properly set up, God turns the tables on him. He yanks the rug, the grace and salvation, out from under Jonah. He provides a worm to kill the vine, leaving Jonah without shade. And then he tops it off by providing a scorching wind, to make sure Jonah knows how isolated and in danger he is. I thought at first this was just God giving Jonah a taste of his own medicine. And I still think that is a part of it. But there is something else going on too. God is calling out to Jonah, asking him to end his isolation and come home.
As the book ends, we do not know what Jonah decides to do. Did he come home? Or is there a pile of bones somewhere in the desert that used to be his?
One thing is that, while he makes use of satire, this is not a mean spirited book. While he has biting social commentary, there is no hint of bitterness. While the author is almost caustic in some of his portrayals of the prophet, he doesn't lapse into being vindictive. The contrasts are sharp and pointed, but our author is not being spiteful. I see someone who is passionately committed to a vision. It is, finally, a passionate work calling both believers and unbelievers to become believers.
There are some other things that are not in the book as well. Take a look; theologically and doctrinally, there is not a new or original thought to be found. The author is very orthodox. We look in vain for any suggestion that he sees alternate ways of reaching salvation. It is clear that the sailors gods were not able to help them. Instead, their ship was going down and going down in a hurry, no matter how much they prayed to their gods. It was only when they recognized Israel's God as the only God that they were saved.
Nor could any of the gods of Ninevah rescue the city. It stands out clearly that the city was saved only when it turned to the only God and came to him on his terms, as best as they could understand that.
So Jonah has a great vision, but it remains a focused vision.
Jesus had, in fact, given any number of signs. He had given sight to the blind, healed the lame, cured more sick people than the gospel author's could count, and raised the dead. He had driven demons out of people, and spoke as one who had authority. There had already been more than enough signs given.
I wonder: would any sign have convinced the people he was criticising? I think probably not; Jesus' opponents had already made up their minds and had rejected him. The only way they would accept him was if he changed to conform to their standards. His message is he would not do this.
Today, many continue to demand some type of sign, or in some other way want God to endorse their own ideologies. Indeed, there are even a few who cannot even bring themselves to spell the word "God." This is not God's place, and Christians can not change their message to meet the demands of those who reject it. The Gospel has, and always has had, offensive elements.
But the Gospel also breaks down barriers and brings people together, because it is universally for all people and speaks to the needs of all people (more than can be said for some of the other thoughts found among Quakers today, which seem to appeal only to a small class that is well educated and well off.)
In Matthew the sign of Jonah is taken a step further. In Matthew Jesus likens his own death and resurrection to the time Jonah spent dead for all practical purposed and the message he delivered afterwards, which was accepted with repentance. The message is that the Ninevites were better than the people who had Jesus with them, or would have Jesus with them after the resurrection in the form of the living Christ who is still present.
Jonah is finally a call to repent from pride and confess Jesus as Lord.