Friday, May 30, 2008

In Wrath, Remember Mercy (Jonah 1-4)


I don’t know how I could possibly do the book of Jonah justice. It seems I ought to devote three or four posts at least to this tiny little book (though I’ll never get through the whole Bible that way). For those of you who don’t remember much besides the whale (and please don’t tell me that 20th century animal naming schemes do not classify whales as “fish” and so the fish couldn’t be a whale), I cannot recommend rereading it highly enough. Heck, go ahead and do it now – it’ll only take 2 minutes.

The message of Jonah is among the most important of the prophets, as it speaks to the heart of Israel’s story. Jonah may very well be Israel himself.

Here we have a man given a vocation by God to proclaim a message before the nations, who then flees to a far country rather than obey the voice of the Lord. When the Lord sends the enveloping waters over him, Jonah thinks it is the end, but then he is saved by being swallowed up by a whale. Once he is vomited up on the shore, Jonah is once again tasked to do his duty, and this time he obeys. It’s the familiar picture of exile and return; judgment and salvation.

But what is really fascinating about Jonah is what happens next. The city in question is Nineveh, and the message he bears might just as well be verbatim from the book of Nahum. It’s a message of unconditional and unavoidable wrath and destruction. It’s a courtesy really – like having the death sentence formally read to the defendant right before carrying it out.

The citizens of Nineveh know what it’s like dealing with wrathful gods. I remember a similar incident in Homer’s Iliad, where Hector urges the women of Troy to pray to Pallas Athena to stay her wrath. They do so:
“Blessed Athena, sacred goddess … pity our city, with the wives and little ones of the Trojans.”

The women prayed. But Pallas Athena refused their prayer
I doubt the citizens of Nineveh expect any different. But apparently it’s worth a try:
Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.
There goes nothing. And then, surprisingly, against all expectation, God actually forgives them. He relents from his promised disaster. The only person not surprised is Jonah:
O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? 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, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.
Jonah was in on the secret: the Lord loves mankind! He doesn’t want even the wicked to perish, but prefers instead that they repent and be made whole. He is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and kindness. He’s such a sap that it’s sickening. God’s response is telling:
Do you do well to be angry?
It’s the same thing he said to Cain when he fumed with jealous anger over the Lord’s acceptance of his younger brother Abel’s sacrifice. Here again is the perennial choice – to “do well”.

Jonah doesn’t want Nineveh to be forgiven. These are the people who have visited cruelty upon the entire world – not the least of which Israel themselves. The salvation Jonah wants is the total destruction of the Assyrians and the triumph and dominion of Israel as God’s chosen and holy people.

When Jonah then complains about the death of a vine which shielded him from the sun, the Lord sets him straight:
You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?
One thing that amazes me is how thoroughly the roles have been reversed. Abraham pleaded with God to save Sodom, Moses begged him not to destroy the Israelites, and David implored him to take his plague out on his house and not the people as a whole. But here it is Jonah, not God, who needs convincing.

Jonah can’t see past his own interests, while the Lord is concerned even about the cows in Nineveh. But it goes deeper than that. Jonah’s vocation was to be a light for the nations, and instead he shrunk from the task. After being forgiven and restored against all odds, he resigned himself to his vocation, but was still convinced that the Lord had chosen him for his own benefit and exaltation. Rather than see a younger brother like Nineveh offer an acceptable sacrifice, Jonah would see him dead – and if this isn’t possible, he’d prefer to die himself.

What a picture of self-righteous Israel! This is precisely what Jesus faults them for – thinking that God gave them the law so that they could look down on all the other nations. Thus the wayward prophet cannot bear to see a people forgiven for their waywardness. The sulking elder brother would rather stay outside than see his younger brother restored to the family. The forgiven adulteress picks up stones to stone another woman caught in the same sin. And the Lord lays upon his Christ the iniquity of them all.

Comments:
Sometimes a story resonnates with you. Not always because you see yourself or your own experience in it, but for some other reason. Whatever the reason is, you come to love the story.

I love this story. I love the reversal that you point out. I love God's response to Jonah. I've been Jonah. I've been in Ninevah. I still love this story.
 

I don't think I go a day without thinking of te Jonah story. Your post reminded me that there are many golden nuggets in the story, but what my mind tends to focus on is Jonah (1) knowing what God's will is, (2) running from it, (3) how running from it only makes things worse.

It happens to me all the time. I firmly believe that God wants me to give money to the homeless on the street here in NYC. Not much, but enough to buy a meal.

But of course, I can't give money to ALL. So, in a way, I rely on God to tell me whom to give it to. Sometimes, when I pass someone without giving anything, I feel an uncontrollable guilt. I might fight and walk on, but eventually I succomb to it. And the longer I fought it, the more city blocks I have to walk to return to the person in need.

The easiest thing would have been to have given money when I passed the first time. But fighting it only makes it worse. That's the lesson of Jonah I take with me every day.

Anyway, just a glimpse into my world.
 

Hi Royale,

I think most any of us who have a sense of God's involvement in our lives can relate to you. Most often it's not a matter of discerning God's will, but rather the simple willingness to do what God asks.

One interesting thing a person might extrapolate is that God could have saved Nineveh without Jonah (presumably) but wanted Jonah's agency involved nonetheless. He likes to work with us, even though we are less than ideal instruments sometimes.
 

Yes yes, the Jonah and the whale, repentance and forgiveness, yes yes, I've heard it a million times!

But now I think I"ve heard the rest of the story for the first time, and to me it has now become the bigger part of the story.

Let me pick out the parts of your commentary that I will take away with me:

But what is really fascinating about Jonah is what happens next. The city in question is Nineveh, and the message... is [sic] a message of unconditional and unavoidable wrath and destruction...

...Jonah doesn’t want Nineveh to be forgiven. These are the people who have visited cruelty upon the entire world... ...Jonah wants [sic] the triumph and dominion of Israel as God’s chosen and holy people... ...Jonah’s vocation was to be a light for the nations... ...but was still convinced that the Lord had chosen him for his own benefit and exaltation....

...What a picture of self-righteous Israel! This is precisely what Jesus faults them for – thinking that God gave them the law so that they could look down on all the other nations....


How often do we do this ourselves, now, in these times, spewing hate in the self-righteous anger and indignation we hide behind to avoid just doing the simple and yet seemingly so difficult task set before us of just doing for others...

...how would this world be different if we did as we have been asked and really helped our neighbor, whether he or she be "good" or not?
 

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