A Fish Story… or Not

December 1st, 2005 by Jeff | 2 Core Dumps

I’ve been studying for my Sunday School lesson for the coming weekend, and I’ve really been enjoying it. So I thought I’d share a bit of it with you.

Anyone who has spent at least a little bit of time in a church–and probably quite a few who haven’t–can give you at least the CliffsNotes version of the story of Jonah. It’s a Sunday School staple, and just about any child could recite it from memory. The Lord orders Jonah, His prophet, to go to the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh and issue a warning that He will destroy the city for its wickedness. Jonah has a completely different idea about things and decides to flee in the exact opposite direction. However, running from God when He’s given you a job to do isn’t the brightest of ideas. The Lord sends a vicious storm against the ship, and the crew throws Jonah overboard when they find out that his disobedience is the cause. Jonah is subsequently swallowed by a “great fish” (or whale in some translations) and remains in its stomach for three days until he repents. The fish pukes Jonah up on shore and he does the job he was originally told to do. End of story. Right?

Not quite. While this is probably as much of the story that most people remember, that only brings us up to the beginning of the third chapter. Jonah does his job quite effectively, and the people of Nineveh themselves repent in sackcloth and ashes. The Lord takes compassion on the people of Nineveh and cancels its impending destruction. But the story still doesn’t end there; there’s still a whole final chapter left to go.

Chapter four of Jonah is the true meat of the tale, and its real message is still very pertinent to today. After Nineveh repents and God spares the city, Jonah is livid. In verses 2 and 3 he says:

“O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

Jonah’s hatred of the Assyrians was absolute. Assyria was a mortal enemy of ancient Israel, a large powerful empire seeming to always cast its oppressive shadow over Jonah’s tiny homeland. In fact, in less than a century, God would use Assyria as His tool of punishment for Israel’s own disobedience and send it to invade and conquer the northern kingdom of Israel and deport ten of the tribes to distant lands and scatter them throughout the empire (see 2 Kings 18:9-12). The Assyrians were considered pagans by the Israelites, with deplorable religious practices and excessive cruelty to the peoples they conquered. The Assyrians themselves left long, boastful inscriptions describing their torture practices, and God uses another Old Testament prophet, Nahum, to list Nineveh’s ruthlessness in detail. By human reckoning, Jonah had every right to hate the Assyrians, and God’s compassion to them made him so angry that was ready to die. But Jonah wasn’t on a mission for himself this time; he was God’s representative. And his reaction was far from appropriate for his position.

God responds with a question Jonah does not answer: “Have you any right to be angry?” In one of several ironic object lessons (I always knew God had a sense of humor), the Lord shows mercy to Jonah by trying to reason with him, while Jonah is furious that He would show mercy toward the Assyrians. In essence, the Lord’s question burns even deeper than a simple query about Jonah’s emotions. Is it right for us to hate those who hate us? Is it right to hate even those who have abused us? Is it right to cherish our hatreds even more than our love for God? As much as Jonah loved God (he was, after all, the Lord’s chosen prophet), he hated the Assyrians more. The thought of God’s compassion went against all of Jonah’s prejudices.

This is perhaps the true heart of the lesson. How many times have we let our prejudices get in the way of accomplishing what is truly right? It is human nature to cling to what is familiar and shun what is different. But that isn’t what God intended for us. Jesus would later tell us in Matthew 5:43-48 and Luke 6:27-36 to love our enemies. God not only loved His chosen people of Israel, but all people, even those who rage against Him, persecute His followers, or claim He doesn’t exist.

This is something non-Christians have trouble comprehending, and sadly a fair number of Christians struggle with it as well. It’s easy to call for vengeance when we are wronged or injured. It’s natural instinct. But when was the last time American Christians out there prayed for Osama Bin Laden’s soul? Or Charles Mason’s? Would World War II have ended differently if more Christians prayed for Adolf Hitler instead of writing him off as unforgivable? There are many “monsters” out there that we often look down upon as less than human, beyond salvation and unpardonable. But in God’s eyes, we are all the same: lost, aimless souls who are fallen from God’s graces, condemned for our transgressions, but redeemable through God’s grace and not our own deeds. It does not matter whether we are a suicide terrorist, genocidal megalomaniac, sadistic murderer, or a kindly old grandmother who would never hurt a fly; we are all the same in God’s eyes. He does not see race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or any other arbitrary human grouping, only lost souls in need of mercy and grace.

(This ties nicely back to my “God’s not ‘politically correct'” post back in April. Give it a read if you haven’t, or a re-read if it’s been a while.)

Continuing on with the passage, the Lord then provides Jonah with another object lesson. In verses 5 through 8, while stubborn Jonah waits ever hopeful to see Nineveh destroyed, the Lord causes a vine to grow overnight, providing the prophet with much needed shade. Jonah takes great delight in this minor comfort (the only time in the entire book that we see him happy). But the following day, God causes a worm to devour the plant and destroy it, then sends a scorching wind to make Jonah miserable. Once again, Jonah is upset and ready to die.

And once again, the Lord asks him a question:

But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?”

“I do,” he said. “I am angry enough to die.”

But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”

The meaning of the “right hand from their left” phrase is debatable. Some scholars believe this refers to Nineveh’s young children, meaning the entire human population of the city could be as great as 600,000. Others believe the phrase is more metaphorical, referencing Nineveh’s spiritual and moral ignorance about God. Regardless of this uncertainty, the Lord places an obvious priority on His creation. Which is more important, a single plant to sprang up and died in a matter of days, or (at least) 120,000 (possibly innocent) human lives? Jonah’s priorities were obviously not God’s. He took greater joy in his own physical comfort than in the mortality and spiritual well-being of an entire city.

Jonah is more than a story about God using a reluctant servant. The Bible is full of those (like Moses or Gideon). It’s really a story about reaching past our prejudices and seeing things from God’s perspective. Wouldn’t the world be a much better place if we all did?

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