Wondering about Jonah

“Wondering About Jonah”

Rachel Coleman

Recently I had the privilege of preaching twice during a sermon series on the Book of Jonah. Although it is hard to pick a favorite book of the Bible (the #1 slot usually goes to whichever book I’m studying at any given moment), Jonah would probably show up consistently in my “top five” for the Old Testament. It’s a dramatic story, in which the “word of God for the people of God” isn’t really the words at all, but rather the prophet himself. Jonah’s actions, attitudes, and theology serve as an embodied parable—one with as much gut-punch impact as any of Jesus’ kingdom stories. It’s a suspense-filled story–as Jonah waits to see what Yahweh will do with Nineveh, we the readers wait to see what Yahweh will do with his prophet. And it’s a discomforting story, with its open ending that leaves the key plot thread hanging—what will Jonah do with Yahweh? When we realize that we are Jonah, that open ending presses hard upon us.

You’re probably familiar with the outline of Jonah’s story, but here’s a quick review. The book opens with a call from God to Jonah: “Go to Nineveh.” It ends with a question from God to Jonah: “May I not care about Nineveh?” (4:11, CSB). That ultimate question lingers unanswered, far beyond the prophet’s obstinate silence, to echo in the hearts of every reader. Between the call and the question, we have a series of episodes that we can summarize in terms of the title character: a big flight, a big storm, a big fish, a big second chance, a big stomp through enemy territory, a big pout, and a big silence.

This time as I was doing the deep dive into Jonah’s story in preparation for preaching, I was left wondering about Jonah, this recalcitrant, reluctant prophet. Lots of little questions niggled at my mind, but they mostly resolve into one big question: What made Jonah so different from other 8th-century prophets of Israel like Hosea and Amos?

The Book of Jonah itself demonstrates how Jonah is different from his prophetic contemporaries, but we have to go elsewhere to catch of glimpse of possible reasons for why he was so unlike them. The only other place this Jonah son of Amittai shows up in Scripture is 2 Kings 14:25, where we learn that he is a prophet of Israel, the northern kingdom. He has the ear of King Jeroboam II, who is among the worst of a line of very bad kings. While our prophet’s contemporaries, Hosea and Amos, are delivering scathing indictments of Jeroboam’s corruption and idolatry, Jonah gets a very different assignment. He gets to go to the palace to deliver a message that would have tickled the ears of that power-hungry monarch. Jeroboam’s nationalist and expansionist zeal was going to temporarily intersect with the larger purposes of Yahweh, and the territory under his control would be enlarged for a season. In the early 8th century BC, Israel was about to experience a brief period of economic and military flourishing, made possible by a simultaneous temporary decline in the power of the Assyrian Empire. And Jonah gets to deliver this good news! Speaking truth to power never had it this good!

As the book bearing his name unfolds, Jonah is revealed as someone who has seemingly absorbed Jeroboam’s zeal for “Israel first, last, and only”; he appears to be quite comfortable with the king’s worldview. We begin to suspect that Jonah did not just deliver his message and head home to Gath-Hepher; he must have hung around Samaria long enough to allow “word of the king” to drown out “word of the Lord,” even though that king stood clearly indicted by the divine word (Hosea, Amos). Jonah’s behavior and attitudes reveal the dangerous and seemingly inevitable result when the people of God allow themselves cozy proximity to the ideology of empire and its seductive narratives of power and glory—he ends up behaving like a functional pagan.

There is reason for supposing that Jonah has become intimately attached to Jeroboam’s court, enmeshed in the king’s idolatrous worldview. This possibility shouts at us from the very first lines of the book, where Jonah’s actions and rationale in response to his call reveal that our prophet is thinking like a pagan, not like an Israelite. Ancient Near Eastern polytheism conceived of lots of local gods with localized power—Marduk governs Babylon, Ba’al is the god of the Canaanite coasts and highlands, Osiris controls Egypt—and therefore, in the pagan mind, Yahweh must be the ruler of the little strip of land that makes up Israel and Judah. You only have to worry about the power of a particular deity when you find yourself in the geographical territory ruled by that god. Yahweh’s people, however—and most certainly his prophets!—know better. They know that Yahweh is not only the Creator of the heavens and the earth, he is the King over all nations (see Psalm 2, for instance). But the storyteller emphasizes in an unmistakable way that our prophet has opted for a pagan view. When the divine call is spoken, “Get up and go to Nineveh,” the expected next line is “so Jonah got up and went to Nineveh.” Instead, we are told three times in quick succession that Jonah headed for Tarshish (as far in the opposite direction as he could get); twice we are told that he did it purposely to “flee from the presence of the Lord.” In other words, Jonah seems to think, like a pagan, that if he can just get out of Yahweh’s geographical sphere of influence, the divine call will no longer be operative in his life. That is a far cry from Psalm 139: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there (as Jonah would soon be reminded!). If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea (Tarshish!), even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast” (vs. 7–10, NIV).

At the same time, we wonder about this flight. Jonah has likely not forgotten the well-received divine message he had delivered to Jeroboam, and if he’s been hanging around Samaria for any length of time, he’s probably as delighted as any other member of the royal court with the news out of Assyria. Things are not going well for the super-power—they are experiencing military losses abroad, famine, popular uprisings, and unrest at home. A solar eclipse and a massive earthquake near Nineveh—a fearful pairing of natural omens—has left the Ninevites rocked with dread. This will prove to be just a temporary blip in a 450-year reign of terror, but in that moment, think about the relief and giddy celebrations of Assyria’s enemies and vassal states. They surely love envisioning Nineveh looking as devastated as modern-day Mosul! So why isn’t Jonah happy to get up and go to “that great city and cry against it”? Shouldn’t he be rubbing his hands gleefully and putting on his running shoes to head east, maybe borrowing some of Jeroboam’s guards to accompany him? The answer lies in what Jonah knows to be true about the main character in this story.

Despite his apparently unchecked slide into the nationalistic militarism and greed that characterized Jeroboam’s circle, Jonah has not completely lost track of Yahweh, the God of Israel. And it is Yahweh who is the main actor in this drama. What happens to Jonah and to Nineveh, happens because of who Yahweh is, and Jonah’s choices are based upon his knowledge of Yahweh’s character. When Jonah hears the Lord say, “Go to Nineveh and cry out against it (or warn it),” what is the sub-text that sends him fleeing to the west instead of running to the east? Jonah knows that packed inside a message of warning is the possibility of grace and mercy. He doesn’t want to warn Nineveh of coming judgment—because between warning and fulfillment there might be space for repentance. And oh, how Israel’s God delights in meeting repentance with mercy! Hear it in Jonah’s own words, as he confesses the very essence of Israelite faith: “That is why I fled to Tarshish—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” (4:2). Despite the creeping corruption of his faith from his proximity to Jeroboam’s court, Jonah still knows this fundamental truth about Yahweh—and he is not taking any chance that the geographical reach of divine grace, mercy, and compassion will extend as far as Nineveh!

And so I continue to wonder. . . . What allowed Jonah to slide into easy fellowship with Jeroboam’s circle? After all, he was a prophet of Yahweh, attuned sufficiently to the voice of the Spirit to hear and obey his initial call. What contributed to making his subsequent prophetic response so different? What might have prevented the corruption of his faith by ideological claims that ran counter to the values and character of the God whose call was upon his life? Being a good Wesleyan, I have to wonder, was it because he was a loner, trying to carry out his prophetic gig all by himself? What if, rather than being a “lone ranger” kind of guy, Jonah had been in a “discipleship band” with other prophets? What if he had had the space for regular, intentional, brutally honest self-examination in the company of trusted fellow prophets? What if Jonah had had a group of friends that prayerfully sent him off to Samaria to deliver the divine word, with their strong exhortation ringing in his ears, “Say what God sent you to say—and then get yourself back here as fast as you can”? What if there had been enough trust and vulnerability among that group of brothers for the others to call Jonah out if he returned from Samaria with hints of the palace clinging to his mind and heart? What if they persistently and compassionately pressed him to stay attuned to the voice of the Spirit and invited him to do the same for them? I wonder. . . .  

And I wonder about us. Just as Jonah’s story was an embodied parable that confronted his fellow Israelites, so it continues to confront God’s people in every time and every context. It is Jonah’s blatant refusal of God’s call that pushes us to examine the self-determined limits of our own obedience. It is Jonah’s experience of a gracious imprisonment inside the big fish that makes us pause and consider which of our darkest valleys have been God’s most gracious protection in disguise. It is Jonah’s self-focused plea from inside the fish, empty of any evidence of true confession and repentance, that forces us to consider the ways we have failed to confront sin in our own lives and to what extent excuses have replaced repentance. Most of all, it is Jonah’s ungracious, reluctant, second-chance obedience and his anger at God’s mercy that calls us to self-examination in the company of the Holy Spirit. And I wonder. . . . How much more effective is such necessary self-examination and how much more likely are we to respond to the Spirit’s correction, if we are willingly exposing ourselves to the process of divine discipline in the company of trusted brothers and sisters?

I’m teaching a group of non-Wesleyan undergrads right now, and a recent discussion led to an opening for introducing them to Wesley’s concept of discipleship bands. I asked one student what she thought the potential impact of the practice might be on local congregations. Here are some of her insights: “Dr. Coleman, thank you for this new insight! I didn’t know this was a thing. I really like it and I think that it would help people be open and honest about the struggles of this world. If our churches would start to have these ‘bands’ and answer these questions, I think we would have a congregation of people truly seeking God. We are to help each other, and I think these questions help us to want to seek repentance before God and have accountability.” Openness, honesty, genuine seeking after God, accountability, repentance—perhaps it is the lack of those very things that led Jonah from an obedient trek to Samaria to a rebellious run to Joppa and finally to a petulant pout on a hillside overlooking Nineveh. What might the lack of those things be producing in our own lives? Could we be on a path that leads to looking more like Jonah than Hosea or Amos? And if we were to submit ourselves to the gracious discipline of discipleship bands, what unexpected growth in holiness might reshape our lives and our churches? I wonder. . . .

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