Ignoring The Big Fish In The Room
Finishing the book of Jonah for insight into God’s love for humanity.
For a few years now, I’ve followed a “read the Bible in a year” program. Last year, I used the plan from Bible Class Material, which presents the readings in a more-or-less chronological order that I’ve found extremely helpful for following the Old Testament material.
Every year that I have read the Bible, I have gained new insights and different passages have stuck out to me in different ways. It’s been a new experience, each time. Heraclitus said that “a man never stands in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” This has perhaps rarely been more apparent to me than when wading through the river of life-giving waters that is holy scripture. When I bring to the reading fresh experiences from my own life, I see the verses through different eyes.
This year, one of the books I have discovered anew is the book of Jonah. Famous as being one of the most kid-friendly books of the Bible, Jonah has a lot more to it than the children’s adaptations present. Most of us are familiar with this Sunday School depiction of Jonah as the reluctant prophet, called to a foreign city to preach about God, attempting to run away from the task to which he is called and ending up in a “big fish.” After his encounter with the fish, Jonah realizes he can’t escape God’s will for him and does indeed travel on to Nineveh. However, most of the “Jonah and the whale” stories for younger children omit the the fourth and final chapter of the book completely. If you can put aside the whole guy getting swallowed by a big fish and having a change of heart thing, the last chapter is where the book of Jonah really gets interesting.
It is well understood from any reading of the story that Jonah fiercely resisted God’s command to go to Nineveh. If we put ourselves in the place of Jonah, the command from God was like being asked to go to Mosul under ISIS control and preach repentance. In fact, the city of Nineveh, to which Jonah was called, was located in the area of the modern day city of Mosul. The Ninevites had been brutal to the Israelites, as the carvings from Lachish attest (be sure not to miss the guys getting flayed alive). Not only did Jonah not want to go, but, as is revealed in the fourth chapter, Jonah didn’t actually want the Ninevites to repent. He wanted them to end up as toast, deserving recipients of the righteous wrath of God.
However, surprisingly enough, the Ninevites did heed the prophecy from the Lord that their city would be destroyed if they didn’t repent and turn from their ways. Jonah was far from being happy about this outcome. The successful prophet turns his back on God again, this time angry that the citizens of Nineveh actually listened to his warnings and were spared from the punishment they so richly deserved. Jonah’s despair causes him to wish for his life to end, there in the desert, under the hot sun. Instead, in a single day, God makes a tree that grows to a height that shields Jonah from the scorching rays. After having endured the sun’s punishing heat, Jonah is more than happy to accept God’s gift. However, the next day, the tree has withered, causing Jonah to complain bitterly. God responds by reminding Jonah that he has made the people and animals of Nineveh just as he has made the tree.
The message that we can take away from the book of Jonah is that the creator God makes, and yes, even cherishes, our enemies. It’s a bold and disconcerting lesson. It likely brings us no more comfort than it brought Jonah. We should keep the book of Jonah in mind when we read that Jesus taught us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. There is a consistency of thought there stretching from the prophets of the Old Testament to the teachings of the Son of God in the New Testament. It’s almost as if, though not many people, if any at all, can actually follow these teachings, they help us to understand the heart of God. They help to shape our perception of who God is and what He values.
Recently, the hosts of The Bible Project podcast had a question and response episode about the book of Jonah. For a more thorough explanation of this fascinating book and what it has to tell us about God’s love, please check out the podcast.
After I started writing this post, my pastor preached a sermon on the exact same subject, and I knew I had to hurry to finish and publish.