Saturday, December 29, 2012

I am Jonah

Jonah is my favorite Old Testament book.  Does that surprise you?  Well, I have my reasons, and I am ready in season and out of season to give a defense of my overlooked and under-appreciated Jonah.

From Jason Davis's website
Even though it’s classified with the "prophets," Jonah is more of a straightforward narrative.  And what a rip-roaringly good tale it is! I love that Jonah starts out right away with his disobedience. That comforts me. Here is Jonah – a prophet of God. He lives in daily communication with the Most High. Yet, when God tells him to do something he doesn't want to do, Jonah runs away like a little monkey boy. Here I am – God’s daughter through Christ. I live in daily communication with the Most High through His Holy Spirit. Yet, when God tells me to do something I do not want to do, seven times out of ten, I cower and whimper and try to avoid Him. But, even I am not so foolish as to think that a sea cruise to Tarshish will get me away from the presence of the Lord. But, Jonah does – which is funny. This is a very funny book.

So, here we have Jonah, riding on a boat to Tarshish, where he has convinced himself that the Lord will never find him. We all know what happens next: God sends out a giant storm; the pagan sailors freak out, start throwing cargo overboard, and pray desperately; their gods do what they can do – which is nothing; Jonah's snoozing down in the cargo hold. The sailors rouse him with cries of "Hey, you! Get up and call on your God that He may consider us, so that we may not perish!" See, God is not only interested in getting through to Jonah, but to these sailors as well.
Jonah arises and plays it cool. The sailors decide to cast lots to see for whose cause the trouble of the storm has come upon them, and the lot falls on Jonah. He sings like a canary. "I am a Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land!" The sailors are even more terrified. As the storm rages, they start haranguing Jonah -- "What should we do with you who have caused this calamity? Why have you done this to us?" So, Jonah tells them to toss him overboard.

 I like that the sailors do not want to do that. They try repeatedly to row toward land in order to save Jonah. They seem like decent fellows.  Finally, they give up and give in, praying that the Lord will not hold Jonah's death against them. They throw him in the sea, and the storm instantly ceases. The men feared the Lord exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice to the Lord and took vows. God uses Jonah's disobedience to draw a whole crew of pagan sailors to Him! What a good and crafty God!

Who doesn't like the next part? Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Three things stand out. First of all, God is so startling and creative. Who else would have thought of a fish? Also, He is kind.  That rascally Jonah, all grumpy and hard of heart, was running away from God and essentially giving Him the raspberry. Does God strike him down and find another prophet to do His bidding? No. God is infinitely patient with Jonah. Patient, but not without delivering a bit of comeuppance to His wayward servant. Jonah was stuck in a fish, after all. Lastly, it is significant that it was for three days. Three days, Jonah sat in that fish’s belly, breathing in the noxious fumes of decaying sea life, bathed in stomach acids, pouting and gnashing his teeth in rebellion. It took Jonah three whole days to decide that God was God and he had some repenting to do. I know I’m stubborn, but I ain’t got nothing on Jonah!

From Ford
At last, the old reprobate decides to call upon the Lord for deliverance. He repents and promises to fulfill his vows and be a good boy from now on. So, the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land. Nice! Of course, there was no hot shower and fresh set of clothes waiting for Jonah on the beach. Picture him with me, will you? Hair and beard plastered with regurgitated stomach acid and half-digested remnants of seafood; his headpiece all askew; his clothing reeking of things too nasty to contemplate. Without skipping a beat, the Lord says, "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you." So, stinky old Jonah trudges his way to the city and walks about it crying, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!"

God, whose wisdom is deeper than anything man can fathom, had a very good reason for not letting Jonah get freshened up after his gastrointestinal sojourn: the pagan people of Nineveh worshipped both the fish goddess, Nanshe, and the fish god, Dagon. They were riveted by the stench and convicted by the revelation of a God who could control so easily the mighty beasts of the sea. Jonah's humiliation was used by God as a vehicle for the Ninevites' salvation. They believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth. The king himself sat in ashes and sent out a decree commanding that everyone turn from wickedness in the hope that God would relent and turn away His fierce anger. Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.

 So far so good -- a nice feel-good story with an amusing fishy twist. But, that is not the end of Jonah. And it is for the end of this book that I hold it in such esteem, because it reveals so fully the long-suffering goodness of God, and, to my discomfort, drives home my own tendency toward hardness of heart. You see, Jonah got angry with God, specifically because of His mercy toward Nineveh. There is a darkness in this that is almost too awful to contemplate, because it is too familiar: I knew that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!

To which the Lord mildly replies: Is it right for you to be angry?

Though I don’t think I’ve ever been this extreme, there is residual hardness in my heart –though I know well my own hopeless cause outside the blood of Christ – that makes me understand Jonah’s words too well. It is a hidden, visceral understanding that I’m ashamed to acknowledge. I know it's there, and God knows it's there. And I praise God mightily when He responds to Jonah (and thus to me) with an incredulous, but gentle, "Is it right for you to be angry?"

What does our prophet do next? He goes up onto a hillside overlooking Nineveh, hoping yet to see the wrath of the Lord consume the evil city. I know God is Spirit, but I still see Him shaking His head at this; don't you? Again, though, instead of smacking Jonah down, God provides mercy. He causes a plant to grow up, shading Jonah's head from the harsh sun. Jonah takes this gift as his due, but it does not cause him to reconsider his hatred of Nineveh. I am convinced that that is the reason that God next prepares a worm to chew up the shading plant and cause it to wither. So, the wind and the sun beat down upon Jonah, nearly causing him to faint.

Jonah begins to whine again: It is better for me to die than to live! God replies, Is it right for you to be angry about the plant? The prophet, clueless as ever, avers, It is right for me to be angry, even to death! I love Jonah’s honesty in recounting to us a story that never casts him in a good light. And, even though he is wrong, wrong, wrong throughout this whole narrative, he never loses faith that he can be completely himself with God and yet still be loved by Him. Jonah keeps up the conversation, and he trusts that God will continue to abide with him.  And so, in the face of Jonah's whining and anger, God delivers His heart's cry:

You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left -- and much livestock?

The end of Jonah always makes me cry with self-awareness of how small I am in stature and spirit. I like to think that Jonah cried, too, at the piercing revelation of his own failings to mirror the great and good heart of the God he served. The narration stops abruptly after God's rebuke. And that is the last reason that I love this book. Because, that is life, isn't it? It does not consist of episodes that end tidily with an over-arching thematic denouement. All each story in a life can end with is the goodness of God proclaimed yet again, because it is the only stable element of the human condition. We are bad people learning to serve a holy, good, and wholly good God. And so, though I believe that Jonah did repent again, because he did, after all, write out this adventure for posterity, I do not know for sure how he replied to God. And, by leaving the story as he did, Jonah was telling us that what he said or did after that was not important. God's love, God's mercy, God's grace -- those were final words of this amazing tale.

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