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Reflection July 19, 2020
"A New Look at An Old Fish Story" - Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
The Book of Jonah is one of the strangest, most misunderstood, and ironic books of the Bible. I really like the Book of Jonah. Just four chapters long, it’s packed with insights and humor.
The Book of Jonah is not a book based on any kind of history. The Book of Jonah is an allegory, a parable, a fable if you will. But it’s an amazing allegory, a potent parable, a fabulous fable.
And it’s not primarily about a whale. It’s about how God thinks; how God works in our world. Let me add a stunning claim: I believe the Book of Jonah teaches us more about the nature of God than any other Old Testament Book. I know this is an extraordinary claim yet there it is!
Jonah is listed among the prophets because of its beginning: “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai, saying: ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’”
So what makes a prophet a prophet? What event creates a prophet? To hear God’s call and to answer it! Simply put: a prophet is any person who hears God’s call and responds to that call. Our world is filled with prophets. Our beloved church is filled with prophets. Of course, Jonah is not the most obedient of prophets.
Whoever wrote the Book of Jonah (we don’t know who it was) wrote in Palestine sometime after the Jewish Exiles returned home from the Babylonian Captivity. The anonymous author of Jonah picks the name of a historical figure from 2nd Kings 14:25.
Let me add that it was very common to use the name of a historical figure to write an allegory. Jonah ben Amittai is spoken of as a prophet during the time of King Jeroboam II, who reigned before Assyria came to power, before Assyria destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel.
The Assyrians were considered the most brutal, most cruel conquerors of the ancient world. Their capital was Nineveh. Jonah is ordered by God to go and try to convert them before God destroys them.
What does our intrepid prophet do next? He flees! He boards a ship heading in the opposite direction. Tarshish was a town on the coast of Spain. It was considered the furthest western corner of the known world.
Jonah hears God and promptly heads off in the wrong direction. Not exactly a profile in prophetic obedience! But why does Jonah flee? He flees not because he’s not up to the task. We’ll see later how successful he is. Jonah flees in the opposite direction because he’s afraid if he goes to Assyria, if he preaches to the hated people of Nineveh, then maybe God will have mercy on them.
Jonah wants the people of Nineveh divinely destroyed. He hates them with a deep passion. In the Old Testament, we see the Israelites, the Jews, hating the people of at least four great empires: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Rome. All four (along with others) oppressed the People Israel.
In the Book of Jonah, the people of Nineveh represent all the oppressors, all those who brought violence and war against the Israelites. The people of Nineveh allegorically stand for the most hated enemies of Israel.
Jonah flees. A divine storm is hurled upon the ship. Where is Jonah during this storm? Below deck asleep. Talk about a sound sleeper! In Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s accounts, what is Jesus doing when a storm hit’s the boat he is in with his disciples? He’s asleep in the back of the boat. A page from Jonah’s story!
In Jonah’s storm, the sailors toss dice to see who’s to blame for the storm. God even has a hand in the throw of the dice: a potent Biblical image for all gamblers if there ever was one! (Kidding here!)
Jonah is found out by the toss of the dice. He explains he’s fleeing from God. He tells the sailors to toss him into the sea. The sailors hesitate and try to reach land. But it’s futile. They finally throw Jonah overboard. The sea quiets. The sea calms down and the pagan sailors become ardent believers in the God of Jonah.
Only God has the power to stir up storms and to calm them. See Psalm 107:21 and following. When Jesus is portrayed in the Gospels as calming a storm; he is sharing in the power of God.
So we have Jonah dropping to the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. Suddenly a huge fish swallows Jonah. He remains in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights. The fish brings Jonah back to where he started in Joppa.
If I mention Jonah to any group of people, what would be the first words out of anyone’s mouth? The whale! This image has seeped into our minds and our culture, even into movies like the 1940 Disney classic, Pinocchio.
After three days and nights, Jonah talks to the fish who then vomits Jonah unto dry land. Jonah has learned his lesson. He heads off to Nineveh. There is an exaggeration in the description of Nineveh: no city of that time took three days to walk across.
Here’s Jonah’s simple message: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” The hated people of Nineveh believe Jonah. They proclaim a fast and put on sackcloth (not the most comfortable clothes to wear!).
The king of Nineveh puts on sackcloth and sits in ashes. The king announces: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal shall taste anything. They shall not feed nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
Now this scene is pretty humorous. I’m not sure how I’d get my cat, Donny, to put on sackcloth. Yet every animal is covered in sackcloth. And the animals, along with the humans, all cry out to God. I think it’s pretty funny. Imagine any ancient king turning so quickly from the local gods to the God of this itinerant preacher!
And, lo and behold, God relents. God changes the divine mind. Jonah is fit to be tied. He complains: “O Lord, this is why I fled to Tarshish, for I knew you were a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” In other words, please God kill me. I’m fed up with you!
Jonah then goes and positions himself outside the city, perhaps on a hill, waiting for the fireworks to begin, waiting for the fire and brimstone. God grows a bush to give Noah shade from the sun and the text states: “Jonah was very happy about the busy.” The next morning, God sends a worm to attack the bush. The bush dies and then God sends a hot wind, the sirocco, to torment Jonah. Jonah doesn’t get treated all that well by God. There’s a deep message to be found there!
Again Jonah, like the historical prophet Elijah, asks to die. But God answers Jonah: “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow. It came into being in a night and it perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which they are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Bolding by me)
End of story! In Jonah we have the most successful preaching ever and yet Jonah is unhappy. Jonah wants to die. Why? Because God changed his mind. Because Jonah sees God as unfair! If any people deserved divine punishment, it’s the Assyrians. But God is moved to compassion. God is unfair. Read again the parable of the Prodigal Son and the parable of the workers in the vineyard. God can do whatever God wishes. God is a mystery. God is a profound paradox.
The Book of Jonah proclaims: God can do what God wants - live with it! If God doesn’t want to do battle with your personal enemies - live with it! If God doesn’t bring disaster upon your enemies - live with it!
The message of Jonah is that God is God of all people and all creatures. And God can change the divine mind at any time. God may appear ultimately unfair - live with it! God’s mercy is beyond our paltry ability to grasp - live with it!
God showed mercy to Jonah when he was tossed into the sea. God sends the great fish to keep Jonah from drowning. And yet Jonah did not want God’s mercy to be extended to the hated enemy.
God’s love and mercy override everything else. The Hebrew word we encounter in Jonah 4:2, translated into English as “steadfast love” is Hesed (sometimes Chesed). I believe it’s the most important word in all of Scripture, best translated as “loving kindness.” It appears 248 times in the Hebrew Scriptures
The Book of Jonah, more than any other Old Testament book, looks at the mystery of God’s nature. What lies at the heart of God? Mercy and kindness!
Jonah was written late in the history of Old Testament books, near the end of Hebrew prophecy. The message of Jonah is a very developed piece of Biblical theology. It’s a pity the full story of Jonah is so poorly known. Many of us get trapped in the belly of the whale and we miss the beauty of Jonah’s message.
The name Jonah means Dove in Hebrew. So, Jonah, the Dove, brings us a profound story of who God is and who God will always be. Whenever I’m drawn to despair by the violence and corruption of our world and our world leaders, I am brought back to Jonah and God’s answer to Jonah. As my beloved Vinal, says when things become intolerable: “Get me on the next whale out of here!”
The people of Nineveh are converted by Jonah’s sparse words. Imagine if all the white nationalists in our country were suddenly converted or all the people of Russia, including her leaders, were suddenly converted or the people of Iran: the list goes on and on!
The people of Nineveh were converted in one place only: in the creative imagination of the author of Jonah. If only such conversion was truly possible!
I end with words of Jesus from Matthew 19:26: “For God all things are possible!’ Such is the central message of Jonah. Such is the central message of the Bible. Such is the central message of my 46 plus years of preaching.
Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth, Pastor
Rev. Millie Myren, Support Minister