I expect many of you know the children’s Sunday School story version of Jonah. I think most people remember the story about Jonah and the whale, or, more properly, big fish. The story about how, like Jonah, we cannot run from God, or perhaps the story about how, if we repent, like Nineveh, God will forgive us. The thing is, there is so much more to this story than that. Jonah is not just a simple story about God’s forgiveness or power.
This is not a story about Nineveh. This is not a story about repentance, though it is important that Nineveh did repent. This is a story about Jonah, and about every person who has hated someone else, a story for everyone who has ever choked on the words of an apology. A story for everyone who has been unable to see the image of God in someone else. This is a story for those who look at someone, or at certain people, and only see the worst. Jonah is a satire about unforgiving, holier-than-thou, people.
Start with the name “Jonah.” Those of you in the Wednesday Book Group might remember that one of the rules for the King James translation was not to translate proper names. This is a rule that later English translations have stuck with. It preserves a certain formality, but it hides things. Following that rule, the Book of Jonah begins “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai.” Names in the Hebrew Bible often matter. In this case, Jonah means “dove” and Amittai means “faithfulness.” If we break the King James’ rule and translate the names, we get: “Now the word of the Lord came to Dove, son of Faithfulness.” This tells you something of the character we are about to meet. The Christian association of the dove with the Holy Spirit is an extension of Hebrew associations of the dove as a divine messenger. It was a dove who brought back the olive branch to Noah’s ark, signaling the end of the flood. And this dove, this is not just any dove, this dove is the son of faithfulness. The first sentence sets up the expectation that, surely, this dove will do God’s bidding.
The text immediately subverts that expectation. This dove will not do what God asks. Jonah has other ideas. Jonah does not want to go to Nineveh. Jonah will go to Tarshish. Or, as the text really says, instead of going to Nineveh, al-Nineveh in the Hebrew, Jonah decides to go towards Tarshish, or, in Hebrew, Tarshishah. The story repeats this three times just to make sure people hear it. Jonah decides to flee towards Tarshish, from the presence of the Lord. Jonah finds a ship going towards Tarshish, so he pays his fare, and gets on board to go towards Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.
God is not so easily evaded. God is not bound by geography. God hurls a storm in front of the ship carrying Jonah. It is a terrible storm, and the crew is throwing cargo overboard to try to save the ship. Meanwhile, Jonah, dove, son of faithfulness, “was fast asleep,” in a way that will be echoed centuries later when the disciples must wake Jesus to get him to calm a storm on the Sea of Galilee. The captain and the crew are not Hebrews. They are not Jewish, they are pagans, so they start to pray to all their other gods and the captain has to go wake Jonah up to ask him to join them. Jonah tells them he is a Hebrew, and worships “the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” This frightens the crew, since Jonah had also told them he was fleeing from God.
Jonah, possibly thinking that drowning is better than Nineveh, tells them to toss him over the side, but the crew does not want to do this, they do not want to kill Jonah, they pray to God “do not make us guilty of innocent blood” but finally, praying to God for forgiveness, they toss Jonah overboard and the storm stops. The formerly pagan crew promptly converts and starts to worship God. Jonah is, despite his best efforts, an incredibly effective missionary.
God is not done with Jonah. God will not be so easily stopped. A large fish comes for Jonah. Jonah’s flight toward Tarshish is at an end, but Jonah does not get to die. Jonah does, however, need to learn a lesson, and so God leaves Jonah in the belly of that fish for three days and three nights.
Finally, after those three days and three nights, not during them, but after them, Jonah prays. After three days sulking in the belly of this fish, Jonah calls out to God. This is what Jonah prays: “I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?’ The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God. As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”
Even in the prayer, even in Jonah’s plea to God, Jonah does not face his role in this. Did you hear the passive voice? Jonah prays “I am driven away from your sight.” Jonah was not driven away. No outside force compelled Jonah to set out toward Tarshish. Jonah was not lost. Jonah ran away and now, from the belly of the fish and the bottom of the sea, Jonah asks for God’s help, but Jonah will not admit to his own role. No, none of this is Jonah’s fault.
But however much we or God might doubt Jonah’s sincerity, God still has a job for Jonah, and so God “spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.” Thus, ends chapter two.
Our lection for today is the bulk of chapter 3. God again tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach. Defeated, Jonah goes. Jonah walks a third of the way into the city and shouts “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”
That is it. That is all Jonah says. That is the entirety of Jonah’s sermon. It is all Nineveh needs to hear. Once again, despite his best efforts, Jonah is a very effective missionary. Jonah does not go through any interrogation. The Ninevites do not question Jonah, this stranger who has just walked in from the desert, possibly still smelling of fish. Jonah does not even need to repeat the message in different parts of the city. Once is enough. The Ninevites repent. They fast, they put on sackcloth. The king hears of Jonah’s message and sits in ashes. They all pray to God.
And God forgives Nineveh. This is where today’s lection and the children’s version of the story end, but we have one more chapter.
Chapter four begins: “But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
Jonah is furious. Nineveh is the capitol of Assyria. We do not know precisely when Jonah was written or when these events are meant to have taken place. I do not know whether this was before or after Assyria destroyed the Northern Kingdom and scattered ten of the twelve tribes of Israel, but it is close to that time. Nineveh is either the capitol city of an invading or an occupying army. Jonah’s hatred for Nineveh is understandable. Many of the people hearing this story would have agreed with Jonah.
Jonah hates Nineveh so much that Jonah does not want to live in a world where God can forgive Nineveh. Just like Jonah asked the sailors to kill him by throwing him into the sea, Jonah now asks God to kill him.
How does God respond? God says, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Jonah does not answer. Jonah storms off. Jonah walks out of the city to the east. Home is to the west. Jonah walks to the east side of the city. Jonah walks into the desert to die, but first, Jonah sits to watch and wait, hoping that God will destroy the city.
God is not done with Jonah. God still has lessons to teach to Jonah.
God causes a plant to grow over Jonah to give him shade. Jonah appreciates the shade.
God sends a worm to kill the plant, then sends a wind out of the desert and the heat of the sun. Jonah again asks to die, saying “‘It is better for me to die than to live.’”
But God gets the final word. God says to Jonah: “‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And [Jonah] said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”’
God’s final word is that Nineveh is also full of God’s children. Whoever it is you hate, whoever it is you want to think the worst of, whoever it is you think is beyond even God’s forgiveness, they are also God’s children, they also are made in the image of God. This story is also a promise because everyone has a little Jonah in them. Everyone, at some point in their life, feels at least a little of what Jonah feels. God does not abandon Jonah. God does not write Jonah off as a lost cause. Despite Jonah’s best efforts, God watches over Jonah just as God watches over the Ninevites. However many times we might try to flee from God’s presence, God pursues us relentlessly.
Thanks be to God.