Jonah has always been one of my favorite books in the bible. Just thinking about it brings back memories of flannel-graphs, paper pictures of x-rayed fish with a man kneeling somewhere near the lower intestine and Sunday school stories about a little man who thought he could disobey God.
I mean, that was the way it was portrayed to me for the most part, don’t disobey God or he will send a big fish. Maybe it was intended to be some glimpse of ‘irresistible grace’, before John Calvin could come along and explain it for the rest of us to understand.
The only problem with that reading of the book of Jonah, is there is no happy ending, at least not as far as Jonah is concerned. There is no reconciliation moment with God and Jonah. The book ends instead with God asking Jonah a question, which is a really odd way to end a story. But then besides the whole big fish thing, this is a really odd book to begin with.
First of all Jonah is inserted in the Old Testament or Tanakh in a collection of books known as ‘the Prophets’, however the narrative itself only contains one small prophecy,
“Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!” (3:4).
It is kind of a pathetic attempt when you compare it with the prophecies in the books surrounding it like Daniel, Isaiah or Amos.
It is also unique among the prophetic books in that it has no real time stamp. Generally the prophetic books give you a hint about what was going on at the time, like the name of the current king, and the year of that king’s reign. Jonah however is silent.
Of course the big question underneath all of this is why does Jonah run? Rather than just assume he is an ‘example of bad behavior’, or object lesson, perhaps we should try and understand the motives behind Jonah’s actions, because the text actually tells us why Jonah runs.
There has to be a reason to tell us that after all, right?
“Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy.” (4:2).
Jonah runs, because he knows that God is merciful and compassionate, patient, full of love and “willing not to destroy.”
Jonah runs because he knows what God is like…
This phrase has been running through my head for the last few weeks, ‘I ran because I know what you are like! I ran because I know you are merciful! I ran because you are compassionate! Because you are full of love! Because you are willing not to destroy!’ I ran because I know you.
Jonah runs because he can’t wait for Nineveh to be destroyed. Jonah runs because he doesn’t want God to be merciful. Usually this is a quality I like that God has. At least when it is directed towards me.
But what about towards my enemies? Maybe then I can be a bit like Jonah…
Nineveh after all was no ordinary city, but rather the capitol of Assyria, and the Assyrians had a reputation in the ancient world. The Assyrians had one of the first great armies in the ancient world and used that to become one of the first great world empires.
It maintained this through reputation through building some of the first siege weapons and through a campaign of sheer terror. This is what one of the Assyrians kings Ashurbanipal once boasted,
“I built a pillar at the city gate and I flayed all the chief men who had revolted and I covered the pillar with their skins; some I walled up inside the pillar, some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes.”
I know, right? You are already putting him down on your Christmas card list, I am sure.
To go further than this Jonah’s people in particular had history with the Assyrians.
Who were the people of Nineveh?
Throughout the 700’s BCE the Assyrian empire made a continuous series of campaigns eventually conquering the entire northern tribes in the nation of Israel as well as many of the cities of Judah in the south.
- Around 740 BCE, the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser started plundering the northern tribes eventually only leaving Samaria the capital intact.
- About five years later the Assyrian king Shalmaneser invaded Samaria, slaughtering its inhabitants after the Israeli king Hosea refused to pay tribute.
- Around 722 BCE the remaining Israelites in the northern kingdoms were forcibly mixed and intermarried with people of other cultures as a means of wiping their tribal/national identity from memory.
- Then in 700 BCE king Sennacherib made his move towards the southern tribe of Judah, claiming to have destroyed 46 walled cities and deported more than 200,000 captives.
Nineveh is not just a random city, it’s the capital of Nineveh. So when we talk about the king of Nineveh, we are not talking about the king of a small isolated nation that is just up to no good.
We are talking about the king of the empire that has been carving up Jonah’s people for nearly fifty years. Jonah doesn’t want mercy. Jonah wants revenge. Jonah runs because he knows God will show the Assyrians, the enemy, mercy.
“I knew what you were like…”
So Jonah reluctantly gives the most half-hearted prophecy in all of scripture, hoping that the Ninevites won’t heed the message and sits up on a hilltop waiting to see God reign down destruction on the city. And when God doesn’t destroy the city Jonah becomes irate.
“Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy.”
“I knew what you were like…”
I will probably never forget the day that I heard Osama Bin Laden had been killed. I heard about it not on the television or the radio, but the quickest and most accurate news source of our day, Facebook. I heard about it when a Christian friend of mine posted the status update, “We got the bastard!”
My feed on Facebook was filled to overflow with people celebrating the death of this man. Granted, the death of a man who instigated an act that has left a deep scar on our nation’s consciousness, but a man nonetheless.
It felt like all of my Christian friends were praising God for this act of retributive justice.
Let’s be honest: an act of vengeance.
Something in my heart ached… and I was drawn to a passage from the book of Ezekiel,
“Do I take pleasure in the death of the wicked? says the Lord God. Certainly not! If they change their ways, they will live.” (18:23).
God didn’t celebrate the death of Osama Bin Laden. I think it grieved God.
And I have to be honest, it wasn’t his death that grieved me… it was the celebrations of his death from people who claim to know God…
You have to wonder… if they do know God like Jonah knew God, would that be their reaction..? Or perhaps they might want to run..? Maybe we do want to run.
Maybe when grace becomes offensive, when God wants us to show compassion and mercy like God shows compassion and mercy, maybe we run to a more comfortable image of God. A God who fights on our behalf, rather than the one who forgives enemies while bleeding out for them.
He ran because he knew God was gracious, compassionate.. Even and especially towards his enemies…This is why grace is such a scandal.
We want grace for ourselves, we celebrate ‘amazing grace’ when it comes to us, but we desperately want to withhold it from those who have hurt us, whether that be nations, religions or individuals.
But Jonah knew God, and he knew that God just desires to pour grace out lavishly again and again.
And God wanted to show grace to Jonah as well. The story doesn’t end with Jonah’s fit but with God reaching out to Jonah in the midst of his tantrum and it ends with a question.
“Can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
It reminds me of another story told in the scripture of a father with two sons; one son who runs off and spends his inheritance on sin, and then comes back and is welcomed, and the ‘good son’ who stayed home and served the father who refuses to enter the welcome back celebration.
That father wanted to show grace to that son too, so he sought that son out and that story ended, like Jonah with a question. Would that son return and join the party or would he remain on the outside.
Jonah is like the ‘good son’ who fled from the party… and we are left to wonder how he responds to God’s question, “can’t I pity Nineveh?”
The unanswered question is the invitation to see ourselves in Jonah’s place, and to learn to look at those who would be our enemies.
We are invited to respond to God’s question, and ultimately to join God in loving our enemies, in being like God, because we know God.
We know what God is like, “a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy.”