Beyond the Lectionary Text: Jonah 1-4

by Joel Schreurs

Some years ago, Will Smith played a character named Robert Dean in the movie Enemy of the State.  Dean unwittingly ends up possessing a surveillance tape that a high ranking government official does not want him to have.  This official is not sure who Robert Dean is, or how he ended up with the tape.  But he is determined to do all he can in those pre-iPhone days to find out.  He taps Dean’s phones, puts bugs in his blender and alarm clocks and light fixtures, hacks into his computer so that he can peek at every email he sends and every website he visits, and puts tracking devices on his vehicle and in his shoes, wristwatch, and belt buckle. Robert Dean is caught in his own Orwellian nightmare.  When he finally tries to shake off the men who are hunting him, it seems they know every move he makes the moment he makes it (which, of course, they do!).  For the desperate Robert Dean, it seems that there can be no escape. There is nowhere he can run.  Nowhere he can hide.

To Jonah, it’s a plot-line that would have sounded all too familiar.

Of course, Jonah should have known better than to try and escape his Pursuer in the first place. As chapter 2 demonstrates, he clearly knows his Psalter well.  So we can presume that he’s read Psalm 139 a time or two.  He knows–or at least, he should know–that there is no escaping the presence of the one who is not only the God of Israel, but the God of land and the sea (1:9).  But that doesn’t stop him from trying.  When God tells him to get up and go to Nineveh, he immediately turns on his heel and stomps off down to Joppa so that he can buy a ticket for a ship headed to Tarshish–a city twenty-five hundred miles in the opposite direction.  Jonah flees to the margins of the map–even when he knows that his odds of escape are not good–because he also knows that God he who wants to send him to Nineveh is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (4:1-2) and he cannot stand the thought of God using him to extend that compassion, grace, and abounding love to the people Nineveh. Undoubtedly, if God had given him the same assignment he gave to Nahum (see Nahum 1:1-2), Jonah would have leapt at the chance.  But when Jonah senses that he is being sent to Nineveh on a mission of mercy, he wants nothing to do with God–or his plans.

Not that most of us would blame him. After all, as the capital city of Israel’s greatest enemy, Nineveh was the heart of a ferocious beast. The Assyrians had never heard of the Geneva Conventions.  Their armies (who would eventually conquer the Israelites and drag them into exile) were infamous for the cruel and grisly treatment of their enemies. When they captured people in war, they were known to gouge out eyes and tongues and sever hands and fillet and burn people alive.  They were an evil and violent people–and everybody knew it.  God knew it (1:2).  Their king knew it (3:8).  And the people of Israel knew it—first-hand.  So it is no wonder that Jonah resisted his assignment. It is no wonder that he wanted to see Nineveh reduced to a pile of smoldering rubble. It is no wonder he wanted to see them get a taste of their own medicine.  These people were his enemies–and he wanted to see God give them what they deserved.

In the end, “what they deserve” is exactly what God will not give to the people Nineveh.  But the delicious irony of the story is that it is also God refuses to give to Jonah.  Even when Jonah flatly disobeys the call of God on his life, even when he refuses to extend God’s love and grace to his enemies, even then, God refuses to give him what he deserves.  Instead, the God who refuses to give up on Nineveh refuses to give up on Jonah.  He pursues his rebellious child into the depths of the sea and into the belly of the whaleHe is is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, …[and] relents from sending calamity”–to Nineveh, and to Jonah.

For those of us who are too often like Jonah, for those of us who find ourselves resisting Jesus’ call to “love our enemies” and to forgive those who hurt us, not just seven times, but seventy times seven, this is powerfully good news. The One who died for us while we were still sinners–while we were still his enemies–continues to pursue us with his grace again, and again, and again.

As people who have been pursued–and captured!–by grace, may our prayer be that we will learn to extend that grace to others!

Textual considerations

Some things just belong together.  Peas and carrots.  Cookies and milk.  Batman and Robin.  And, in the Hebrew Scriptures, a divine command and a report of human obedience.  Consider the following examples (provided by CTS professor Carl Bosma):

  • And the Lord said to Abram: “Leave your country…So Abram left as the Lord had said to him. (Genesis 12:1-4)
  • And God said to Noah: “…Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and outside with pitch.…”Thus Noah did; according to all that God commanded him, so he did. (Genesis 6:13-22)
  • Then the word of the Lord came to [Elijah], saying, “Arise, go to Zarephath…” So he arose and went to Zarephath.” (I Kings 17:8-10)

When God gives a command, a report of human obedience (often in vocabulary that mirrors the original command) usually follows right on its heels.  The pattern is so formulaic that scholars even have a name for it: “The Command-Fulfillment Sequence.”’  It happens again and again throughout the Hebrew scriptures.  And we expect it to happen once more in Jonah 1 when God appears to Jonah and tells him to go to Nineveh.  Only, it doesn’t.  Instead of telling us that Jonah “Got up and went to Nineveh”, the narrator reports–at unusually great length!–that Jonah instead got up and went to Tarshish.  This break in the usual formula, along with the threefold repetition of Jonah’s preferred destination, serve to highlight Jonah’s audacity disobedience.

Questions to Ponder:

Scholars often present Jonah as a representative of the people of Israel–a sort of microcosm of his nation and, more specifically, his nation’s failures.  According to this line of thinking, God called both Jonah and Israel to be a blessing to the nations (see Genesis 12:1-3).  Both Jonah and Israel, however, resisted this call.  Instead of seeing themselves as conduits for God’s blessing, they began to clutch God’s blessings to their chests and refused to share with the nations around them.  They became myopic and self-centered, insisting that YHWH was their God and was (or at least should be) interested only their good–and not the good of their neighbors.

This understanding of Jonah is compelling both because it ties the book into a foundational text in the Old Testament and because it gives preachers an opportunity to address a perennial problem for God’s people.  The challenge, however, is that this interpretation only seems address half of God’s words in Genesis 12:1-3.  It’s true: God’s plan for his chosen people was to “bless all nations”’ through them.  But God also made promises to Abram and his descendants.  He promised Abram that he would “bless those who blessed him [and his family]” and that he would “curse those who cursed him.”  If the historical analysis above is correct, is it possible that Jonah had a “right” to be angry?  Is it possible that, when God sent Jonah to Nineveh, he wasn’t keeping his part of the bargain with the children of Israel?

Illustration Ideas

In an episode of CBS’s hit sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, a character named Sheldon (who comes off as meaner, more cynical version of Steve Urkel)–is mad at his best friend, Leonard. The reason for the conflict?  Leonard accepted an invitation to a party that is being hosted by someone Sheldon has declared his “mortal enemy.”  When Sheldon makes his reasons known, another friend in the room is, quite understandably, caught off guard by his declaration. “Wait” she says, “you have a mortal enemy?”  And Sheldon replies, ever-so-matter of factly: “Oh yes.  I have sixty-one of them.  Would you like to see the list?”  Sheldon then plops down behind his computer, pulls out a massive 5 ½ inch floppy drive (which he apparently needs since he hasn’t had a chance to update his technology since beginning his list at age nine), and produces an actual list of people who he has declared his enemies.

It’s more than a bit overblown, of course.  Few of us (hopefully, none of us!) have an actual list of enemies in our desk drawers.  But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a file tucked away in our minds of the people we have labeled “enemies.”  Some of these people have hurt us.  Others have simply annoyed us.  There is the neighbor whose dogs howl late into the night.  The co-worker who manages to take credit for every good thing we do.  The guy at school who knows how to magnify every already embarrassing moment.  These “enemies” may not have committed atrocities on the scale of the Assyrians.  But that doesn’t mean that we are any more eager to extend to them the love, mercy, and compassion of Jesus.  So how do we begin?  Well, maybe by doing as Jesus instructed us in Matthew 5 and by turning our enemies list into our prayer list!

Rev. Joel Schreurs is the pastor of First Christian Reformed Church, Denver, CO.