Monday, July 18, 2011

Story of Jonah

This past weekend, my church held its annual summer conference. The theme of the conference was on "calling", as in being "called" by God for a purpose or mission. One of the pastors gave a sermon on the book of Jonah in the Old Testament, which made me remember how much I liked the story of Jonah. This post is a reflection of this affinity..

The book of Jonah revolves the prophet of the same name, who is called by God to the city of Nineveh to proclaim the word of God and call its citizens to repentance. Failure to repent will result in their destruction. Comically, the prophet Jonah does not like the mission he receives and attempts to flee from his duties. This results in him being famously swallowed up by a whale, an entire city in sackcloth and ashes (including animals), and an angry diatribe from the prophet toward the Lord. All the aforementioned are unique to the book of Jonah. Needless to say, of all the books of the Old Testament, Jonah's story is perhaps the most entertaining one.

First off, how could one reasonably expect to escape God, the Creator of the world and ruler of Heaven, by fleeing? Jonah did, or at least tried as hard as possible to run away. The prophet simply did not want to travel to Nineveh and deliver the warning God had for them. It's a complete farce and, as expected, God "catches up" to Jonah and persuades him to fulfill his calling. The interesting thing to point out is that, despite half-heartedness from Jonah in delivering the message, the whole city of Nineveh quickly responds in repentance. Perhaps this is a strong indication that calling is more important than the caller. Furthermore, the final exchange between God and Jonah is also farcical -- Jonah suggests that he understands God's intention all along and whines that his efforts were unnecessary. Jonah obviously has never heard of Job.

Back in college, I took a course on the Old Testament. The professor was a rabbi who definitely knew her (strange, right?) ins and outs of the texts. I had known of the book of Jonah at that point, and therefore wrote an entire essay analyzing the merits and legitimacy of the book itself. Below are certain excerpts I copied from the essay:
  • Various pieces of evidence lend legitimacy to the book of Jonah as biblical text, and to the individual of Jonah as a true prophet. The presence of themes such as universalism, repentance to God, and God’s compassion echoes biblical traditions found in other prior books, such as the book of Isaiah. As exemplified in Isaiah 43:7, the God (Yahweh) worshiped by the Israelites is proclaimed to be same deity worshiped by other peoples. “Everyone” including foreigners and eunuchs are called to partake in God’s “glory”. In calling the inhabitants of Nineveh to repent to “his” God, Jonah expresses the tradition of universalism. God’s own words appear to uphold this tradition at the end of Jonah, when He rhetorically asks Jonah “should I not be concerned about Nineveh?” (Jonah 4:9). Biblical Schlar John Collins notes that the book of Amos also reflects universalism in the prophet’s final vision, which suggests that “Israelites are not favored by God, but that God lords over all people and is responsible for everything that happens” (158).
  • The story of Jonah also depicts a God whose character is consistent with what is revealed to other prophets. God is active and intervening throughout the story, from sending a storm to conversing with Jonah. Just as the Elijah and Elisha narratives contain extraordinary events, like ravens providing bread and meat for the prophet (1 Kings 17:6), so does the book of Jonah, as when the fish “provides transportation” for the prophet and the bush “give[s] shade over [Jonah’s] head, to save him from his discomfort” (Jonah 4:6). Perhaps the best indication of God’s character is His great compassion for the Ninevites. God first offers the opportunity for the Ninevites to repent for their sins –through sending a prophet to deliver the message. Subsequently He relents in the destruction of the city.
  • Jonah is shown to be a very self-centered prophet, even after God offers him a second chance to do God’s work. He expresses little concern for the lives of the Ninevites. Instead, he cares much more for his own reputation and the possibility of being labeled a “false prophet”. This is first evidenced by his terse “cry” to the Ninevites to repent, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4). The terseness of Jonah’s calling may imply of his desire to see the people of Nineveh continue leading their sinful lives, which would ultimately result in their destruction. His selfish desire contrasts the often lengthy and repetitive preaching by other prophets for the people to change their away –examples by Joel and Jeremiah have already been noted. In addition, there is no reference in the narrative to Jonah himself partaking in the repentance rituals. The impassiveness of Jonah is odd in the tradition where prophets were seemingly the first to take action: the prophet Isaiah “walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Ethiopia” (Isaiah 20:3), while Ezekiel laid on his side for 390 days and ate food baked “on human dung” (Ezekiel 4).
  • Throughout Jonah’s interactions with God, examples of his reverence of God are rarely found. His actions and speech towards God contrast with attitudes of adoration and devotion as one expects in response. This is epitomized by the revered reaction towards God by the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel. In contrast to Jonah’s displeasure at God’s work, Isaiah proclaims his unworthiness to stand in His presence. “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips…” (Isaiah 6:5). Ezekiel similarly falls on his face and is “stunned for seven days” following his divine encounter. Isaiah and Ezekiel are both deeply afraid of God’s holiness, which is evidently a fear not shared by Jonah. Aside from referring to God as “Lord” and offering a prayer, Jonah appears to treat God casually –as one treats a human acquaintance. He attempts to run away, becomes angry and, most significantly, believes he can predict God’s character and actions. This sense of arrogance is exemplified by his question “Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country?” (Jonah 4:2). Unlike other prophets, Jonah thinks he has God “figured out”.

I thought the conclusion to this essay was very written and, because it encompasses the purposes of this blog post, I thought I would end with them:

Contrary to popular perception, Jonah is not the main character of the narrative. The story is primarily about God and only secondary about the prophet, since God is the protagonist active in on every occasion. God is the one who: calls Jonah, sends a storm, provides a fish to rescue Jonah, judges Nineveh, and teaches Jonah about His character; His presence is all-encompassing. In the book of Jonah, God is shown to be a personal God. Jonah himself can be interpreted as merely a foil to highlight God’s power and character. As previously shown, the prophet Jonah possesses numerous personal flaws such as deep-seated selfishness and lacking compassion.

The last chapter of the book of Jonah indicates the main theme of the story: God’s boundless compassion. His compassion is available for everyone, regardless of nationality or even former belief. All God requires is repentance from sin, and people can be assured that He will relent when they repent. Like many of the other prophets, Jonah’s calling for the Ninevites to repent implies a need of Israel to repent for her sins. One can argue that the quickness and willingness of Nineveh’s response represents a model for Jerusalem. But God’s mercy sometimes can become the basis for pride and prejudice –which is evident by Jonah’s attitude toward the Ninevites. When Jonah’s selfish concern for the plant (Jonah 4:8) is compared to God’s concern for Nineveh, the sheer absurdity of the comparison testifies of the extent of God’s compassion. God is not limited to humans; He is also compassionate towards animals (Jonah 4:11).

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