Part 1: The story of Jonah
No one liked a Ninevite. How could they? Nineveh was the largest, most domineering city in the known world and it was the capital of the Assyrian Empire – the very empire that had destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Terrible, horrible people. Even God was angry with this evil sinful city and had them slated for holy bulldozing. The world would finally be rid of Nineveh and all its people. Good riddens!
At least that’s what Jonah thought and any other right minded Hebrew. You can imagine how shocked Jonah was then when God said, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” Why does Jonah have to explain the situation and warn them about their impending doom? God should just send down the fire and brimstone and be done with it. This is the same mistake every villain in every James Bond movie ever made. Sure they want Bond dead, so then why not just kill him? Why the big soliloquy explaining the entire mystery followed by some convoluted, elaborate way for him to die? Just pull the darned trigger for goodness sakes.
Jonah wants nothing to do with God’s plan and so hops the first boat to Tarshish, hoping to escape God and God’s crazy scheme.
Well, as you can imagine, God isn’t quite so easy to trick. He sees his reluctant servant making his get away and so sends a huge storm to rock the boat. The crew of the ship are terrified. Storms can come up on the Mediterranean at the best of times but this was different. This was a storm that was threatening to sink the ship and kill all the crew. Good old Jonah would have slept through the whole thing if the crew didn’t wake him. They decided that someone on the ship had brought a curse upon them so they drew lots to divine who the culprit was. Of course we know, it was all Jonah’s fault
Jonah comes clean and admits that he’s on this ship to flee from his God and tells the crew to save themselves and throw him overboard. Before you start thinking this is such a virtuous thing for him to do, lets not give him too much credit. He could have just jumped but no, he forces the sailors to take responsibility for his death. Eventually, they’re convinced and they give Jonah the heave hoe.
Death would be a far too easy fate for Jonah, who still hasn’t finished the job he was given and so God sends a giant fish to swallow Jonah.
Can you imagine? What would that smell like? It would certainly be cramped and God must have had the fish swallow some ant-acids as well so he wasn’t digested but here, in the belly of the beast, Jonah prayed. It wasn’t a prayer of apology for what he’d done. It wasn’t even a prayer for release from the fish. Instead, it was a prayer of thanksgiving for God’s forgiveness and salvation – ironically, the same forgiveness and salvation Jonah wants to deny the Ninevites.
Now you may have seen some illustrated children’s bible showing a fish parked on the beach, mouth wide open, and Jonah walking out looking no worse for wear but that’s not what happens. Johan is vomited. He’s barfed out of the fish like some undigestible bit of garbage caught in the fishes craw. He’s been tossed overboard, almost died, spent time as fish food and now is on the beach smelling like a long abandoned fish packing plant. In his humiliation, God speaks to him one more time – “Remember that errand I wanted you to run? Now would be a good time.”
So Jonah trots himself over to Nineveh, goes a little ways into the city and gives one of the shortest, least convincing sermons in history, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Come on Jonah, put some effort into this. You could imagine that he mumbled the words, technically doing what God says but really lacking any kind of conviction.
Surprisingly, it’s enough for the Ninevites. It seems that these evil people have more faith in God than the hero of the story. Everyone in the city by decree of the king, dresses in itchy camel hair sackcloth to show how sorry they are. They even sew sackcloth clothing for all the animals, causing all the cattle, birds and mice to feel the itch. Even the camels are complaining of the camel hair jackets they have to wear.
God sees this and sure enough spares the city and it’s people – the power of God’s grace wins the day. This ticks off Jonah to no end. He knew this is what would happen: they’d repent, God would forgive, and the revenge Jonah wanted would be denied. He decides to go and have his own pouting party in the shade of a tree and falls asleep.
God isn’t done with Jonah yet and wants to show why he spared the city. He sends a worm to burry into Jonah’s shade tree which immediately withers dies, leaving Jonah baking in the hot sun. Jonah’s heartbroken about the loss so God explains.
If Jonah is heartbroken over the loss of one little tree, how much more heartbroken would God be with the loss of an entire city, full of God’s children. Do they not deserve the chance to repent and be redeemed? Now the story doesn’t say, but I get the feeling Jonah’s not convinced.
We could end the story there and indeed, this is where the Bible leaves off but if we know the history and context, there’s another story hidden for us to find.
Part 2: The hidden story of Jonah
A very long time ago, the Hebrew people had a problem. Actually, calamity seemed to follow them wherever they went. They would be attacked by this empire and overthrown by that. In a world where it was believed all events were controlled by God, this must have meant that they had lost God’s favour. Most of their prophets had this all figured out – they knew why God was punishing them. Time and time again, the Hebrew people would turn away from worshipping JHYH and instead worship gods of ego and greed, gods or wealth and instant gratification. Eventually, their society would become corrupt, divisions between rich and poor would widen, they’d make more enemies than friends, and then all would fall apart.
There were some though that didn’t believe this could be the problem. You see, if this were true, it would mean that the most rich and powerful were mostly to blame for Judah’s problems. This would never do – it’s always better to find a scapegoat in someone powerless, poor or foreign.
At one time in history, the Hebrew people came back from exile to find Jerusalem destroyed along with their temple and the symbols of their place as God’s people.
God must once again be punishing them for something, but certainly not for the actions of the rich and powerful. An idea started brewing in the minds of some of the leaders. Ezra and Nehemiah told the people that the reason God was displeased was because of racial impurity. Hebrew people had intermarried with foreigners. As is often the case, there was a hidden agenda and this time it was to protect land claims. If land was partially owned by Hebrew’s and Persians, Judah’s claim to the land could be weakened.
It was decided that all people would have to prove the purity of their Hebrew blood and if you couldn’t prove it, our you went. What came next was one of the darkest times in Hebrew history. In a culture where family and community meant everything, families were torn apart. If you were a pure blood mother married to a mixed blood husband, your husband and children were taken away. This widespread, systemic racism was destroying what was left after the exile and so as is often the case, it was artists to the rescue.
While we can’t know for sure, it seems that a very clever author wrote a story anonymously. It was an allegory to show how foolish and destructive their leaders were acting. It was a story where their leaders were represented by a bungling, foolish, and stubborn prophet who refused to listen to what God was saying. In this story, the people of real faith were the foreigners – the ship’s crew and the people of Nineveh who paid more heed to the Hebrew god than this so called prophet. As for following instructions from God, rather than Jonah, it is a fish, a tree eating worm, and even sack cloth wearing cattle that answer God’s call.
The story of Jonah is completely ridiculous because it reflect the ridiculous way they were being led. As silly and far fetched as it is though, there is a truth to this story that applies as much today as it did then, a truth that is just as important to here today as it was then. While humanity has always tried to divide us from them, while we are prone to bigotry and racism, God is not. We do not have the authority to tell God who is and is not worthy of God’s love. We can never decide who is and is not worthy to be an instrument of God’s grace. And maybe, a reassurance that we can all use at some point in our lives, no matter who we are or what we have done or left undone, we are never out of reach of God’s love and forgiveness.