Our three-week overview of the Hebrew Bible was like the view from a plane. We were able to see the topography of God's promise, our purpose, and our rebellion from our altitude. But to really know the story, you need to travel through it at a walking pace, maybe even more slowly. Only then do your surroundings become more than postcard-potential scenery. Only then does the dirt cling to your skin and the events seep into your blood.
So for the next four weeks, we slowed down. We camped out with a prophet. We journeyed with Jonah.
If you grew up in churches like I did, you heard the story of Jonah from early on. It's a story made for children's books: wonderful illustrations, a good moral (especially if we only mind the first three chapters). I think the moral my Sunday School teachers drew from the prophet's story was usually along the lines of "Obey God" or "Don't run away from God." These are fine takes on the story as far as they go, but if we listen a bit more closely, we'll find the story is much, much richer.
A lot of people get hung up on whether Jonah is a true story or not. Was the prophet actually swallowed by a huge fish? Did an Assyrian emperor ever reign from Nineveh? I think there are good, biblical cases to be made for both sides: Jonah, the book, may be a prophetic biography or a prophetic parable. Either way, it's true to what God intends it to be.
(There are also bad cases made for both sides. For example, the fact that being swallowed by a fish alive is unlikely or even impossible is not a good reason to reject the story as historically reliable. If God can raise a dead man to life, certainly God can preserve the life of a prophet within a fish. On the other hand, just because a book is in the canon, it doesn't mean it's a history book. No one looks askance at Jesus' parables because they're fictitious.)
I think Jonah's story parallels the story of the kingdom of Israel (where he worked, see 2 Ki 14.25) to an uncanny degree. Just like the Israelites corporately, Jonah was given a purpose by God (Jnh 1.2), and just like the Israelites, he rejected it because he thought he knew better than God.
Jonah, as we learn in 4.2, believed he knew more about who deserved punishment and blessing than God did. In 2 Ki 14.23-27, we hear that in Jonah's days, Israel was sitting pretty on the international scene because of God's blessing. A bit of historical digging (shout out to K. Lawson Younger, who taught me a lot about Jonah's context) turns up the fact that the world empire, Assyria, was in something of political recession. The kingdom of Urartu to the mountainous north of Nineveh, one of Assyria's powerhouse cities, was distracting the Assyrian emperor's empire-building troops from the backwaters of Israel and Judah. My guess is that Jonah the prophet interpreted these events as blessings for God's chosen and punishment on their oppressors. So when God's message came to warn Nineveh about it's impending judgment, Jonah thought God must be confused.
The Israelites made the same kind of high-handed judgments about God's purpose for them over and over again in their history. Even before the tribes split into competing kingdoms, David interpreted blessing on his reign as license to throw around kingly weight (skim the progression of events form 2 Sam ch 5 to ch 12; see also 2 Sam 24). It was this same ego/ethno-centric outlook that led to the split of the kingdoms. Rehoboam saw his father Solomon's wealth as proof that oppressive taxation, forced labor, and imperial aspirations were the way to go. With his announcement in 1 Ki 12.13-14 leads to mass rebellion and civil war. Similarly (and key to the northern Israel-ite Jonah's story), when the tribes of the agriculturally-rich north chose Jeroboam as rebel leader, fulfiling God's promise (1 Ki 11.26-40; 12.2, 20), Jeroboam took it as justification to shore up his political position by displacing the Jerusalem temple with two golden bulls as sites to worship Yahweh.
Everywhere in the Israelites' story we have see people thinking their plans are better than God's. And that's what Jonah does. Rather than traveling east to preach repentance to the Assyrians, he boards a ship headed west to the end of the earth.
But God doesn't simply let him go. Nor does God wipe him out. God sends a furious storm, but the storm never sinks the boat. Surely the God who split the Red Sea would have no trouble capsizing a ship.
No, instead God sends the storm as discipline, as a painful and costly reminder of Jonah's purpose in God's plans. This is a tactic we watch God employing over and over again, beginning in Judges. In Jdg 2.13-14, we hear,
[The Israelites] aroused Yahweh's anger because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths. In his anger against Israel Yahweh gave them into the hands of raiders who plundered them. He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist.But as Heb 12.4-11 explains, discipline is not destruction. Discipline is the way a loving God calls us back to our senses. The letter to the Hebrews quotes Prov 3.11-12 in this passage: My son, do not despise Yahweh's discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because Yahweh disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in. Discipline for the Israelites was a sign of God's devotion to them, of God's refusal to let them walk away from their purpose. The storm, as surely as the fish, was a means of salvation for Jonah.
If we remember Jonah's story at all, we know that Jonah eventually admits his miscalculation (But does he admit his fault?) and is thrown into the raging waters. If the storm is one picture of God's ferocious love for us, the great fish is another. The fish saves Jonah from drowning.
The hymn Jonah sings in the fish shows that Jonah still understands himself to be part of God's chosen people. Even though Jonah rebels against God's reason for choosing a people, Jonah is still part of it. Yahweh is the God he calls to for help (Jnh 2.2). In the same way, even though Jeroboam set up idols to replace God's temple, he still understood the northern Israelites to be worshiping Yahweh.
(There's a lesson in this for us today: We worship Jesus in name, but is our worship the kind of worship God desires, the kind that Jesus lived and died and rose again to make possible, see Jn 4.21-24. There's a difference betweens sing about Jesus and singing with Jesus on the way.)
In ch 3, Jonah knows he can't escape God. He puts his hand over his mouth and complies with God's (wrong-headed, in his opinion) desire to warn the Assyrians about divine punishment. Jonah travels the 500 plus miles to Nineveh. When he preaches, the people amazingly repent.
This is perhaps the most profound wonder in the story! Why should the great and powerful Assyrians fear the wrath of a god who was once their vassal? Yet they do, with a fervor that sets them up as a model of repentance even for God's people. (Jonah is read in the afternoon prayer service in some synagogues on Yom Kippur.)
Jonah disappears from the story for a while. Strangely enough, when Jesus talks about the sign of Jonah in Lk 11.29-32, he singles out the repentance of the people of Nineveh. I've often heard that passage taught as drawing a parallel between Jonah's three days in the fish and Jesus' days in the tomb (which Jesus does mention in Mt 12). But here, the lesson for the sign-seekers seems lies in the repentance of the people of Nineveh. Whatever the Ninevehites learned from Jonah, that is what people in Jesus' day and in our day need to learn from Jesus.
Back in Jnh 4, the focus shifts to what Jonah failed to learn from Nineveh (and also from the storm, the sailors, and the fish). This is a lesson about God's mercy--something Jonah confesses quite orthodoxly in 4.2. Yahweh, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity, is something of a creedal statement in the Hebrew Bible (see Ex 34.6-7, Ps 145.8, Joel 2.13). Jonah gets his theology right, but he misunderstands his place in that theology.
If the OT is about God calling (anointing?) a chosen few to help God keep the original promise despite our rebellion, then Jonah stands as a foil, a counterexample that shows how we, then and now, so often misunderstand God's plans. God called and commissioned Abraham to be blessed and to be a blessing, that through his and Sarah's family, all the families of the world would be blessed. By the time we hear Jonah's story, the prophetic representative of the people balks at God's question, "Should I not have concern for the great city Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left--and also many animals?" (4.11).
The question for our band of believers whether we'll follow Jonah or Jesus. Jesus is the first shining narrative example in scripture of someone giving away every blessing they receive for the benefit of others. The Spirit is poured into Jesus as baptism, and after resurrection, he pours the Spirit out on his followers, telling them to pour out that same Spirit on all flesh (see Jn 20 and Acts 2). Jonah understood salvation and election to be a matter of personal gain; Jesus shows it to be one first and foremost of generosity and love, even love unto death.
That's where our fellowship went next: to Jesus's death and glorious reward.