The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2“Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
5And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. 6When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” 10When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
When I decided that this week I’d preach on the book of Jonah I immediately started to think of fish stories that I could introduce my reflection with, and the only one I could think of is one I fear I’ve already mentioned.
It concerns a guy going fishing at his favourite spot by the river, but when he gets there he realises that he’s forgotten his bait, but he notices a lovely fat looking tree frog sunning himself on a lily pad, so he decides to stalk the frog and capture it and use it for bait. And he’s just about to grab the frog when he realises that there’s a brown snake alongside him who also has his eyes on the frog, and before he can do anything else, the snake has leapt forward and swallowed the frog whole!
Not thinking about what he was doing, but angry as hell at the snake, the guy leaps forward and grabs the snake around the throat and yanks the frog out of its mouth and drops the frog in his bait box. It’s then that it really strikes him that he has an angry, snapping venomous snake in his hand that he can’t simply pat on the head and let go.
Thinking quickly, he grabs his hip-flask with his free hand (which is full of whiskey), opens it, and pours a goodly amount into the open mouth of the snake. The snake goes limp and the fisherman places it on the ground and walks away to get on with his day’s fishing.
About twenty minutes later he feels a tapping at his shoe. He looks down and sees it’s the snake, with two more frogs!
It’s not really a brilliant joke, but what was less brilliant really was my knee-jerk reaction to the mention of Jonah – thinking that I needed to come up with a fish story. I hear the word ‘Jonah’ I think ‘fish’, which really only reflects my historic failure to really grasp what the book is about!
For the fish in the book of Jonah is only mentioned in three of the forty-seven verses of the book, which is in itself a solid indication of the fact that the fish is a minor character in the drama, and hardly the central theme of the book!
I’m not going to beat myself up about this, as Jonah’s under-water antics are indeed the only part of the prophet’s career that are generally remembered in our culture.
I still remember being introduced to the story of the prophet as a child by means of a picture book that had an image of Jonah and his fishy friend on the front cover – a book that I seem to remember was entitled, “Jonah and the Great Big Fish!”
Moreover, the association of Jonah with his scaly friend has so penetrated Western history that the pair long ago became a part of a distinctively maritime lingua-franca! I have read, at least, that the term used by sailors of the under-water grave, “Davey Jones’ Locker” does in fact go back to the book of Jonah!
Apparently there never was any famous underwater character named ‘Davey Jones’ (the lead singer of The Monkeys included). The name is rather a bastardisation of the Western Indian words, ‘Duffy Jonah’ (meaning ‘prophet Jonah’), which means that ‘Davey Jones’ Locker’ is in fact another reference to the fish!
Even so, as I say, the Book of Jonah is not really a book about fish (nor about whales for that matter [for those who feel a need to point out that if Jonah had been swallowed by a whale, a whale is not actually a fish, technically speaking]).
Let’s just clear the deck (so to speak) of fish and whales – neither of which are really significant themes in the book of Jonah. But if the maritime adventure of Jonah is not the key theme of the book, what is it all about? That is the question!
Personally, I stopped seeing Jonah as a fish story once I gave my life to Christ as a teenager and joined a youth group, for it was there that I learned that the book of Jonah was not really a book about fish but was rather a book about priorities and about obedience, and about the importance of submitting ourselves to the will of God, even when God’s plans for our lives conflict with our own personal agendas.
God had a plan for Jonah’s life. Jonah had other plans. Jonah had to learn that in the end it is God’s will that has to be done rather than your own. The book of Jonah, when seen from this perspective, is a challenge to each of us to submit ourselves to the will of God, lest we find ourselves thrown off a boat, drowning in the water, swallowed by a great fish, and spat out in the direction that submission to the will of God would have originally taken us anyway.
We might refer to this interpretation of the Book of Jonah as the pious interpretation, and there’s obviously a lot of value in this ‘Thy will be done’ application of this book, but in my view now, as an adult now, the pious interpretation of Jonah is as far removed from the central message of the book as is the maritime adventure theme!
In truth, I think it is very hard for us Sydney-siders of the 21st Century to grasp the central message of the Book of Jonah for one very simple reason: we just don’t harbor any real hatred towards the Assyrians!
The Book of Jonah was written a long time ago in a culture far removed from our own, and the issue that upsets Jonah in the book and the issue that would have upset most of the original readers of the book was not simply that God had a plan for Jonah’s life (in some a general sort of way) but that God called Jonah to prophesy in Nineveh, which was the capital of Assyria, and both Jonah and the Book of Jonah’s original readers hated Assyrians!
And the Jews didn’t just hate the Assyrians because they looked different either. They hated the Assyrians because the Assyrians had a history of killing them!
Assyria was once the world’s most fearsome superpower! From the middle of the tenth century B.C. right through to the end of the seventh, the Neo-Assyrian Empire dominated the Middle East, and, during the 8th century reign of Tiglath-Pileaser III most especially, their empire was vast – covering all of what is modern-day Iraq and Syria, and covering enormous chunks of what is today Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, and, of course, it covered all of Israel and Palestine!
And it was an Empire built on violence! That in itself is in no way unique, of course, as indeed all the world’s empires have been built on violence, and yet the stories of the savagery of the Assyrian armies do seem particularly horrible.
Nineveh’s military machine was renowned for being sadistic. If enemies resisted surrender during the siege of their city, once defeated, the whole population would be horribly mutilated and slaughtered. Their houses and towns would be torn down and burned, and the flayed skins of their corpses prominently displayed on stakes as a warning to others who might have been considering resistance.
After their battles, public amusement would be provided for the people of Nineveh via a victory procession wherein enemy survivors were led down the city streets by leashes attached to rings inserted through their lips, with the vanquished nobles wearing the decapitated heads of their princes hanging around their necks. And all of this fun was accompanied by music from bands of minstrels playing merry tunes! Oh, the people of Nineveh knew how to enjoy themselves!
And they enjoyed themselves like this for more than 300 years! It must have seemed as if the arrogant might of Nineveh would never fade and that their power-hungry god, Assur, was unbeatable. The Assyrian war-machine enjoyed so many bloody victories over their enemies in those 300 plus years between the 934 and 609 B.C., but none was remembered in the Bible more clearly and more bitterly than the sacking of Samaria and the destruction of Northern Israel in 721.
The Jews did not hate the Assyrians because they looked funny or ate strange foods or just didn’t make an effort to mix in with the locals. They hated the Assyrians for far more obvious (and surely far more valid) reasons.
They hated them because the Assyrians had destroyed more than half of their country. They hated them because of the countless number of their kinsfolk who had been slaughtered, imprisoned, enslaved and/or humiliated by the Assyrians. And they hated the Assyrians because in 721 B.C. it seemed that their god, Assur, had been victorious over the God of Israel.
That day in 721 B.C. would forever be remembered by the people of Israel, not just as a day of mourning, but as a day of national humiliation. Their people had been butchered, half their country destroyed, and their temples desecrated.
It was all done by the Ninevites, and so Jonah hated the Ninevites as the readers of Jonah hated the Ninevites. And now God asks Jonah to go to Ninevah to preach to the people there, and call on them to repent! And Jonah did not want to go there. Why would he? The only Jews that went to Ninevah were dragged there in chains!
And yet it’s not only because he hates their city and might well fear for his life in such a place, but most of all because he feared that if he went to Ninevah, God might use him to do something good for the people of Ninevah, and in as much as Jonah might have feared that the people of Nineveh might do him some evil, his far greater fear was that he (Jonah) might be for the people of Nineveh the instrument of some good!
National hatred of an enemy race is a terrible thing, but something we are all familiar with.
I remember being told of a Jewish man and a Chinese man who, amongst others, are sitting at a bar, slowly drinking away the night. There were plenty of others perched between these two at the bar but the Jewish guy kept looking over at the Chinese guy with a surly expression on his face and was mumbling curses at him that got increasingly louder with each beer he consumed!
Eventually the Jewish guy gets up and walks over to the Chinese guy and pours his beer over the poor guy’s head! The Chinese guy says, “What’s that for?” The Jewish guy says, “That’s for Pearl Harbour! My uncle was killed at Pearl Harbour!” The Chinese guy says, “I’m Chinese. That was the Japanese, you fool!” The Jewish guy says, “Chinese, Japanese … what’s the difference?” and he returns to his stool.
Two minutes later the Chinese guy walks over to the Jewish guy and pours the contents of his beer over the Jewish guy’s head. “What’s that for?” asks the Jewish guy. The Chinese guy says, “That’s for the Titanic! My grandfather died on the Titanic!” The Jewish guy says, “What’s that got to do with me?” The Chinese guy says, “Steinberg, Goldberg, iceberg … what’s the difference?”
Humour can be an effective way of confronting racial prejudice. So can stories such as we find in the Book of Jonah.
The Book of Jonah is a book that is written with a purpose, and it’s purpose is not to encourage us to submit ourselves to the will of God (as important as that is) any more than it is to chronicle an ancient yarn concerning ‘the one that got away!’ It’s purpose is in fact summed up very succinctly in the final verse of the book of Jonah (chapter 4, verse 11) which I will read to you, but not just yet!
Before I do read it, I want to raise the question with you, very briefly, as to who might have been the original audience that the Book of Jonah was addressed to?
For the book is set in the 8th century B.C., but most Biblical scholars assume that the book wasn’t actually written till a great deal later – most probably in the post-exilic period, late in the 6th century.
If so, it is quite possible that it was published at around the same time that Ezra and Nehemiah were active in trying to rebuild the ancient city of Jerusalem – a city that had been lying in ruins since the Babylonians had destroyed it 50 years earlier.
And if you are familiar with the history of that time you will know that it was a time of great nationalistic fervour.
The Jews were returning to their homeland and they were rebuilding their ancient city and they were rebuilding their temple, and all of a sudden, for the first time in a great many years, it felt good to be a Jew again!
And leaders like Ezra and Nehemiah did a great deal to encourage the patriotic fervour of the returning Jews and to get them excited again about their city, about their religion and about their God.
And in the process of doing that the issue of racial purity became a sticking point for a lot of people, and indeed both those leaders – Ezra and Nehemiah – became very upset over the issue of inter-marriage between Jews and non-Jews.
Ezra indeed accused the men of mixing their ‘holy seed’ with the people of the lands (Ezra 9:2) and he encouraged large numbers of Jewish men to divorce their foreign wives and to send them away, along with the children of their mixed marriages!
And I’m not saying that the Book of Jonah was written specifically as a response to the nationalistic ‘reforms’ of Ezra (though a lot of scholars have suggested exactly that) but I am suggesting that at around the same time all that was happening, a little tract was certainly circulating that told a story of how God had called one of His prophets to minister in the land of the Assyrians, because the God of Israel loved and respected foreigners too – even the people of Nineveh!
In Jonah 4:11 – the final verse of the Book of Jonah – God says to Jonah “And should I not spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons that cannot discern their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
Jonah is a remarkable book. Indeed, perhaps the only thing more remarkable than the book itself is the fact that our Jewish fathers and mothers, when it came time to put together the collection of books that have become known as our ‘Old Testament’ recognised that this book – the Book of Jonah – deserved to be included too, as one of the inspired works of God!
It is a book that strikes at the heart of every manifestation of religious nationalism, as indeed it is a book that confronts religious arrogance in all its forms, for it a book that reminds us that the God of Israel, the God of the faithful and the God of the upright, is also the God of the Assyrian, of the unfaithful and of the not-so-upright too!
And that’s why the Book of Jonah is a book our world needs to hear right now.
- As our political leaders and media beaver away at dehumanising Arabs and Iranians and Muslim people in general, to prepare us for further bloodshed.
- When being Christian has somehow once again become associated with being white!
- And when refugees of all kinds are being treated with suspicion and contempt because of their strange foreign habits and strange foreign gods.
It’s time to once again hear the message of the Book of Jonah.
“And should I not spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than six score thousand persons that cannot discern their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:11)