Amid the panoramic sweep of Jonah’s story, we are still drawn to the alluring details of this flawed man
Knowledge of the Bible is very poor across Britain today, but if I had to guess the three best known stories of the Old Testament they would be (in no particular order): Joseph (because of ‘Any Dream Will Do’), David and Goliath (because of the F.A. Cup) and Jonah and the whale (because it’s such a bizarre story). The whole ‘man bites dog’ feel to a fish swallowing a human being tends to overshadow the more illuminating aspects to the story of Jonah. This is a shame, because it says much about the intricacies of the human heart, the inevitably compromising failures of the messenger of God and the spiritual shallowness of a narrow nationalism.
Like a thriller which starts in the heat of action without any build-up, the Book of Jonah commences with an edict from God to Jonah to go and preach to the foreign city of Nineveh, whose wickedness has become an offence to God. We know nothing about Jonah at this point, but as the narrative develops, it becomes clear that this story is more about the messenger than the message. The text says that, on hearing of his mission, Jonah ran away from the Lord. This is a curious turn of phrase given its impossibility, but it is suggestive of something else.
Although Psalm 139 reminds us that there is nowhere we can escape to from the presence of God, some people nevertheless place themselves physically a long way from where God wants them to be as a way of avoiding his will. And at a subliminal level, some retreat from their relationship with God as a defence against the growing discomfort which truth causes. Usually we think of God’s pervasive presence as an inspiration to faith, but for some people it can take on a more Orwellian feel unless they are reconciled to his purposes.
Rather than go to Nineveh, Jonah booked a ticket to Tarshish instead, and settled down for the crossing. That’s the beauty of a journey – being between two points all the cares and duties pressing down on you are suspended – giving a temporary and illusory sense of freedom and lightness. Many people have escaped to sea to avoid the pressures they face on land, but Jonah had misjudged his God. Soon the sea starts to swell and heave. This is the first clue that the story is about Jonah the man as much as Nineveh the city. After all, God could have turned to someone else to do the job once Jonah had absconded. That he didn’t suggested that Jonah was the object and not the subject of the story.
Many people who work with elements they can’t control develop superstitions as a way of coping with their powerlessness. Sportsmen and women are notorious for this because, despite pre-match bravado, they can’t guarantee the outcome of the match. In a similar way, people who work on the sea are deeply aware of their vulnerability to the most powerful forces of nature, and may grasp hold of anything that makes them feel more secure. Christians should renounce superstition because their lives are in God’s hands and committing themselves in prayer helps them to gain the comfort that they do not face life’s perils alone and without purpose. The sailors in Jonah’s story, when faced with the mountainous waves, don’t resign themselves to their misfortune, but believe someone must be to blame. This looks superstitious from a distance, and yet they were right: Jonah was to blame.
Despite their fear, the crew are generous to Jonah, and don’t take him up on the offer of tossing him overboard until their peril becomes acute. When eventually they do, both parties know it will mean certain death. Jonah probably didn’t care by then anyway. And so begins this epic encounter in the deep. Throughout scripture the metaphor of being overwhelmed by the waves is used to describe the darkest fears of the Israelites. This was the kind of thing that happened to their enemies, most notably Pharaoh in his hot pursuit of the liberated Hebrew slaves. A similar fate visited on an Israelite would be considered a curse.
Jonah’s journey into the deep and his prayer for deliverance onto the dry land speak powerfully to people who feel they are being swept away. Sometimes we are overwhelmed by circumstances in life, sometimes by our own foolishness. Occasionally we are confronted by adversaries who mean us harm. Many people face moments in life when it feels like they are drowning slowly in the sea. Jonah shows us that there can be deliverance and that, like him, we should pray for it. This deliverance isn’t necessarily a comfortable ride. Jonah spent three days in the fish – a place of stifling claustrophobia and terror – but like the man he prefigured and whom we worship tonight, he emerged three days later to live again. And kicking and screaming to do God’s will.
I don’t think there are many people after an experience like that would decline God’s second invitation to work for him. Reluctantly, Jonah heads for Nineveh to preach a message of repentance or destruction to a city mired in sin. We think in highly individualistic terms today, and find it hard to grasp the concept of corporate responsibility. And yet it is something we should reclaim because our destiny is bound up with others in a world of overlapping choices and obligations which impinge on countless other people. When Nineveh repents we learn the real reason for Jonah’s reluctance to go there. He wasn’t disobedient because he didn’t know God, he was disobedient because he knew him all too well:
‘This is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish’ says Jonah, ‘I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God….a God who relents from sending calamity.’
So there we have it: Jonah wanted God to reduce Nineveh to rubble like Sodom and Gomorrah and he couldn’t face being a party to their salvation instead. And in this Jonah stands for something inside the human race. He didn’t want to see others forgiven – he wanted judgment without mercy. The instinct to judge others as harshly as possible runs deeply within us, and we can only thank God that his heart beats to a different tune.
Jonah also stands for humanity in his vindictive nationalism. He didn’t care for Ninevans – they were foreigners. They could go to hell, pretty much literally according to this story. And so the book of Jonah is a seminal text on the nature of God. He is not a petty tribal god whom people can co-opt to justify xenophobia and the abuse of others. It is no Orthodox God who blesses Serbians in the murder of Muslims, and no Roman Catholic God who excuses Hutu in the Rwandan genocide of Tutsi. It is wrong for the Church anywhere to justify, without prayerful reflection, action taken in a country’s national interest as if there were no question that it must carry with it God’s permissive sanction. Nations across the world are called to bow the knee, confess Jesus as Lord and as Psalm 46 instructs, keep silence in the sight of God’s awesome holiness before they can ever presume to act in his name.
This is the panoramic sweep of Jonah’s story, and yet in the end we are still drawn to the personal details of this flawed man. The human heart is a complex place, and in this narrative we are paradoxically both reassured and disturbed. Reassured that someone can be as heartless as Jonah and yet still be used by God to effect dramatic spiritual change; but also disturbed that in shining a light into the heart of one man who lived so long ago we should see our own outline so searchingly and brutally drawn.
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