Bible by Request: Jonah
Pentecost XV (O. T. 22); September 2, 2018
Jonah is, to my mind, one of the funniest (if not the funniest) stories in the Bible. Everything about it is overdone; it is filled with exaggeration and irony, and God constantly teases the prophet. I remember my pastor – when I was a teenager – suggesting that the Book of Jonah should be thought of as a parable. There was a prophet named Jonah (II Kings 14:25) and I would not be at all surprised if the story in Jonah's book is based on real events. But the story seems most fruitful if you let it be a comedy, a fish story, that makes a great point about God.
And before I tell the story, I'll go ahead and telegraph the point: God is merciful. When you and I want "those people" to get what they have coming to them, God asks, "Is it right for you to be angry?" God is merciful and part of the comedy of the story is the way God drives the point home. When you and I think that somebody deserves to have a lightning bolt hit their house or a hurricane hit their city, and God doesn't do it, then are we angry that God is merciful to our enemies? And so God asks you and me the question put to Jonah: Is it right for you to be angry?
Now the story. The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai; the Lord told Jonah, "Go to Nineveh and preach to them; I can no longer overlook their wickedness." But Jonah didn't want to go, so he booked passage on a ship going to Tarshish – the other direction – figuring that if he got away from Palestine, then he could hide from God.
You may wonder why he ran away; my first instinct would be to assume that for a Hebrew prophet to go to the capital of the Assyrian Empire would be pretty much a death sentence, and so he ran away out of fear. That's not the reason he gives later in the story, so hold that question. And you may find it absurd to think he could run away from God; he found out how right you are.
The ship to Tarshish was caught in a terrible storm; the storm was so fierce that it threatened to break up the ship. So each sailor cried out to his god, and they threw all the cargo overboard in order to lighten the boat. Jonah was sleeping down in the hold; the captain woke him and told him that he too had better call upon his god. Maybe if they got everybody in heaven pulling for them, they would be saved.
In the meantime, they cast lots to see if the storm was somebody's fault. And the result was that it was Jonah's fault. Now, we don't exactly know what "casting lots" means. It seems generally that it involved taking two things – such as pieces of wood, or stones – that are similar in size and shape, but have different markings. They could say, "Show us who the culprit is" and divide the company into two groups; the way they fell would tell which group. And then they divide them into two groups, and so on until there is only one person left. Anyway, however they did it, Jonah was the culprit, so they asked him, "What have you done?" He said he was a Hebrew, a servant of the creator of heaven and earth, and that he was trying to run away from his God. He added that if they threw him into the sea, then the ship would be saved.
Now, these sailors were good guys; they didn't want to throw him into the sea, so they tried to row to land. They failed. So they prayed to the Lord the God of Jonah, "Please don't hold it against us; he said this is what you wanted." Score one evangelistic point for Jonah: while he's busy running away from his God, he gets a whole shipload of sailors to pray to his God. Anyway, they threw him into the sea, and it grew quiet and the ship was saved.
Meanwhile the Lord God sent a large fish to swallow Jonah. The book says, "big fish," not "whale." Just sayin'.
Jonah spent three days and nights in the belly of the fish, just long enough to give that fish a terrible case of indigestion. Well, as Frederick Buechner put it, Jonah had a disposition that was enough to curdle milk. When the fish got close enough to land, it vomited him up, which was a great relief – to the fish, if not to Jonah. And God reminded Jonah of what he was supposed to do: Go to Nineveh and preach to them.
So this time Jonah went. When he got to Nineveh, he started in. Now, the story says the city was so large that it took three days to walk across it. Well, Nineveh was a large city, but that's another exaggeration. No matter. Jonah started in, and set up his soapbox on a street corner, and got up on it and started shouting at the passersby: Forty days more, and Nineveh is done for! And the people did not laugh at him, or throw rotten produce at him; they believed him, and announced that everyone should fast and pray, and they all took off their nice clothes and put on sackcloth.
Well, word got to the Emperor, who issued a proclamation that everyone, human and animal, was to fast and mourn. They were all to refrain from food and drink, and they should all wear sackcloth. Let me repeat: they should all wear sackcloth. The story-teller wants you to picture the dairy farmer draping all his cows in sackcloth. Anyway, the Emperor said that everyone was to pray to God to change his mind and not destroy the city. Turn from your evil ways, pray for forgiveness, and maybe God will turn from the intention to destroy the city.
The most phenomenally successful preacher in the Bible, and his message was one he did not want to give. God tried to get Jonah to tell the people to repent, and Jonah tried to run away. And then when he finally gave in and proclaimed the message, he was as minimalist as possible: In forty days Nineveh will be destroyed! And this reluctant prophet not only got a shipload of sailors praying to his God, he got an entire city wearing sackcloth – including the livestock – and fasting and praying for mercy.
So what's God to do? Jonah decided to stick around to find out. He picked a spot outside the city, close enough to watch it be destroyed, but far enough away not to be caught in the backlash. And you know what God did: God changed his mind; that's what the book says: "God changed his mind" (3:10) and God did not destroy the city.
Jonah was hopping mad. "I knew this would happen! That's why I tried to run away to Tarshish! Because I knew that 'you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.'" Before I continue, let's pause and stand in awe for a minute at the amazing audacious irony of Jonah's accusation. Jonah is quoting Exodus (34:6), a description of the God of mercy that is intended to be a comfort and encouragement to all. And Jonah is shouting at God his anger that God is merciful! Well, I suppose we can understand; after everything that Nineveh has done to Jonah's homeland, he would want to see Nineveh destroyed. And God didn't do it! So Jonah is up to here with it. "God, I am so ticked at you! How dare you be merciful!"
God isn't done trying to teach Jonah a lesson. While Jonah sits and sulks – still hoping to see fire come out of the sky and burn up Nineveh – God told a castor bean plant to grow real fast and shade the prophet's poor, bald head. Jonah enjoyed the relief. Then when the sun was up, God sent a worm to kill the plant, then a hot east wind to annoy Jonah. So Jonah prayed to die.
God said, "Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?" Jonah said, "Yes, angry enough to die." And here we learn that God is not only merciful, but has a wonderful ability to misunderstand when it suits the divine purpose. You and I know why Jonah is angry about the bush: his bald head is getting sunburned. But God pretends to think Jonah is angry about the bush because it didn't deserve to die. So God says, "You didn't plant the bush, you didn't water it or fertilize it; it came and went. And yet you care about the bush. Should I not care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are many, many people, including more than 120,000 children, and also many animals?"
And that's where the story ends: "and also many animals?" You can come away from this story with any sort of picture you like, but the one I'm carrying with me is God having mercy on all those cows draped in sackcloth.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master