Jonah’s Answer to Joshua, Judges and Judith
In recent weeks I answered a question about holy war by giving you summaries of Joshua and Judges, books of bloody battle which are in our Protestant versions of the Bible, and a summary of the book of Judith, which is in Catholic Bibles. Some of you liked learning more about those books; a few of you may have found the atrocities and massacres a real test of your patience….but even that may be useful. The wife of Socrates was famous in Athens as a nagging shrew, and when somebody asked the great philosopher one day why he put up with her, he said: “So that I may learn patience.” So if the three “J” sermons taxed your patience, and you won a victory by sticking them out, the rest of us owe you a word of thanks.
There is another book in the Bible whose title starts with a “J” and it just happens to be the Bible’s own repudiation of the arrogant spirit behind holy wars. The name of the book is Jonah and it’s probably the most clever sermon crafted by any Biblical author over a stretch of a thousand years. If you are listening carefully and critically, which ought always to be the case, you realize that I just made a judgment: that Jonah is a sermon, not a piece of solemn history….sacred fiction rather than fact….a deliberately comical piece of satire cast in the form of a parable and told with the touches of irony, hyperbole, and abrupt ending that are typical of that particular narrative form.
It is one of the saddest chapters in Biblical interpretation that people who read all of the Bible literally have spent prodigious amounts of energy and ingenuity trying to prove that a man might actually come out alive after a 3-day visit inside the stomach of a huge fish. I do not expect to find such a story in the National Geographic or the Smithsonian Magazine, but even that would not change the intention of the author of the book of Jonah. There is abundant evidence that forthe author of Jonah, his the little short story is to be taken seriously, but not literally, and the big fish is just as much a part of the fun as several other wild exaggerations that we don’t pay enough attention to when we hear the story. Whoever it was who fashioned this piece of clever satire would be flabbergasted to know that some Christians, over two thousand years later, have made his parable a litmus-test of faith: sign on that you believe that the fish story literally happened on a certain day in history or you cannot claim to take the Bible seriously….and that, my dear friends, is pure nonsense! Some nameless author, centuries ago, sat down one day to construct an entertaining story that would get under people’s skins and make its and make its point before they realized what was happening to them….and we have read it with so little sympathetic imagination that most of us do not even know what the point was! All we take out of the Jonah day in Sunday School is a whale. Offer somebody on a bus to $100 to sum up in one word what they know about Jonah and you’re going to hear “Whale.” Ask for an illustration of the story, and you’ll get a drawing of a whale. Create a piece of blown glass for a preacher’s library and this is what it will look like: a delicate crystal fish with bright blue eyes and a hapless little Jonah rolling around inside.
So why did some nameless Jew write this delightful story and fill it with wild coincidences and bizzare humor and stinging satire? It was written to put an end to the arrogant nationalism that fills the pages of Joshua and Judges. It was written to remind those Jews who had forgotten, that the love of their God embraced the whole world and was not limited to their little country. It was written to make them think again about hate and prejudice and the fanaticism of holy war, that same fanaticism which to this very day, in the name of God, drives Islamic fundamentalists to kill tourists, to kill children, to kill senior citizens away from home on their dream vacation, to kill anybody so long as you are advancing your faith in a holy war. If you are God’s Elect you must not let mercy interfere with your mission. Now, with that spirit on your mind, listen to the story of Jonah for a moment and watch how it makes fun of such ugly feelings.
In the only prophetic book in the Bible that is a narrative,. a story, the protagonist is told to go way off to Nineveh, capital of Assyria, and preach that it would be utterly destroyed if it did not repent. You need to know that Assyria was to the Jews what communist Russia once was to millions of Americans: the most hated and feared nation on the face of the earth. So, not surprisingly, Jonah has no great yearning to be a missionary to these people. He would have gone gladly if he could have been absolutely sure that God would vaporize them with an atomic bomb, but he had a nagging fear deep down that God might go soft on him and show mercy….and the one thing Jonah could not bear was the thought of compassion for his enemies. So off he ran, as fast as he could go, in the opposite direction. If we understand the comedy, we are laughing already at the sight of a prophet of God supposing he could somehow run fast enough and far enough to be beyond the reach of God, but we are so eagerly waiting for the whale to show up that we miss the joke.
Our reluctant prophet is told to go east, so he goes west until he runs out of land and then he books passage on a boat headed still farther west across the Mediterranean Sea. Once on board, smugly glad to have escaped his assignment, he goes down to his cabin and falls asleep. Now the storyteller really gets going. He says God “threw a wind” at the ship, so terrifying that the seasoned sailors are frantic. These pagan crews members do everything they can to make it back to land while Jonah, sealed off from their human fears in what is surely meant to be a symbol of his self-centered life, is snoozing peacefully. The crew realizes from what he has told them that their passenger must have something to do with this terrible storm, but they are touchingly generous…and here is irony in its classic formn: a man who won’t go to Nineveh because the heathen are not worth saving is now treated with extraordinary kindness by the very people he despises. Even when Jonah admits, as the storm grows worse, that they will have to toss him over the side to placate the God he has offended, they try harder than ever to make it back to land. The parable has something else in mind, of course, so finally they ask Jonah’s God to forgive them and reluctantly sacrifice him to the sea.
For them, it works, and the storm is over. For Jonah, who has to be preserved if this story is to have a point, God is represented as preparing a great fish to swallow him up. Three days and nights of that hot and slimy dark, and the prophet repents….as who wouldn’t. A prayer composed in the form of classic Hebrew poetry is either created by the author or borrowed from somewhere else and put into Jonah’s mouth, but any careful reader will notice that it doesn’t fit very well. The author doesn’t worry about incongruities, of course, because he counts on his audience to understand his parable the way a world-famous Jewish scholar named Samuel Sandmel describes it: “Jonah should not be regarded as history, and the incredible whale should not be a barrier to the understanding of a simple but eloquent moral fable.” We should never cut ourselves off from Jewish wisdom when we are reading the Old Testament.
Once our reluctant prophet has been upchucked onto dry land, God tells him a second time to go to Nineveh and preach, and this time he is not in the mood to argue. Nineveh is described as a huge city, some 60 miles wide, which is an incredible exaggeration, but this, too, is part of the fun. The point is that Nineveh is the Big Apple, and just as bad as it is big….no place for an alien prophet with bad news. No wonder Jonah gets on a soapbox in Nineveh’s equivalent of Hyde Park and shouts his ultimatum without out a hint of pity: “Forty days, folks, and the big town is going to be blown sky high!” No mercy, no tenderness, no regrets….just hard, cold judgmewnt. By now Jonah is thinking: “This may not be so bad after all! I get to watch when the bomb drops!”
He cannot bear the thought, of course, that for any reason it might not drop. No way incorrigible sinners would ever repent. Except that this is a sermon, not a historical happening; a parable rather than a piece of realism; and it has a stabbing point to make about self-righteous people like Jonah….so Nineveh does repent! Against all logic, against all the odds in the world, this whole huge heathen town gets down on its knees, from the scabbiest beggar in the street to the great king on his throne, who orders everybody, including sheep and dogs and donkeys, to wrap themselves in sackcloth and fast and pray mightily to God. The irony by now is really rich: God spoke to a prophet of the Elect People, and that prophet raced off in the wrong direction. God speaks now to pagan foreigners, and all of them, including their flocks, turn instantly to do what is right.
If this were history, we might expect Jonah to say. “O my God, I’ve never preached such a sermon in my life! Look at all the lost souls who have fallen on their knees to beg for mercy. It’s wonderful!” That’s how a real person might have reacted, but Jonah is not a real person, of course….he’s a walking symbol of narrowminded prejudice. So he heads out of town to sit down and sulk in his fear that God may be softened up by this repentance and change his mind about wiping wicked Nineveh off the face of the earth.
And sure enough, God turns out to be the sort of soft-headed liberal Jonah had him figured to be, and so he scuttles the whole idea of dropping the bomb. Jonah still has a chance to say, “Well, I guess I’m glad, really….all those little children and the old and sick….it’s better this way!” But this stinging satire, directed at exclusive religion, is not finished yet. Jonah is simply madder than ever. “I knew it,” he complains b itterly. “I knew you’d go soft and give in; that’s exactly why I never wanted to come in the first place!’
Jonah stands for all self-righteous people who think God cares only for them, and so the patient God of this story tries once again to teach Jonah a lesson. To keep his petulant prophet from having a sunstroke, God makes a plant spring up magically overnight, and about noon on the following blistering day Jonah is ecstatic about it. He may not care much for Nineveh and the nursing homes and the innocent children, but he certainly does know how to appreciate a little personal comfort. “Thank you, Lord, thank you!” And just then, as the author piles irony on top of irony, the God of his story appoints a worm to eat the plant…and the cool sweet shade is suddenly gone.
Predictdably, Jonah starts to whine, and the God of this fable lets him have it. The final fist of massive irony comes smashing down out of the sky: “You’re brokenhearted, Jonah, about that gourdvine, something that sprang up in one night, and yet you have no concern at all for the great city of Nineveh with all its innocent people and its children and its huge population of livestock.”
So, what happens next? Is Jonah sorry for being such a fool? Does Nineveh’s conversion last? You lookfor the next sentence, and there isn’tone. You turn the page looking for the end, and there is no end. The story just stops with everything still hanging. The curtain falls on all your unanswered questions. The reason, of course, is that the your questions are logical, and this story is not an exercise in logic. This is a parable, and it ends where parables are supposed to end: at that climactic moment when the point is made….in this case, at the very moment when Jonah’s prejudice looks sillier than it has ever looked at any time in the whole story. It dies almost in mid-thought — to give a reader a chance to wonder, suddenly: “Could this unlovely character possibly stand for me?”
Those holy wars we talked about over the past few weeks? This marvelous moral fable says the love of God extends over the whole world, that if we are Elected for anything, it is to extend that love even to the people we like least. It’s a bitter pill to swallow….and maybe that’s why over the centuries we have preferred to concentrate on the wrong things from this odd little book. Because it’s not about what happened on a ship, or inside a fish, or to the Big Apple of the ancient world. It’s not even about Jonah’s hard heart. It’s about mine…..which means, it’s also about yours.
Make this ingenious parable speak to us, Almighty God, reminding us that there is always a good place to hide if we prefer to limit our love. Amen.