Judaism is strictly monotheistic. God is an absolute one, indivisible, and incomparable being who is the ultimate cause of all existence. It follows that so called “foreign gods,” according to the Babylonian Talmud, simply don’t exist. The story of Jonah is grounded in the belief in the imminent God of creation. The story of Jonah is an elaborate presentation of the ethical implications of monotheism. It is a story that leveraged the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob out of the limits of their tribalism by learning the meaning of monotheism. On its surface, it is a simple story. It is that of a reluctant Old Testament prophet who is first tossed out of Israel by God then tossed over the railings of a ship by sailors, tossed up on the shore by the big fish and then tossed into the city of Nineveh.
To create the necessary tension, the author of the story has God calling the reluctant prophet to the most pagan places in the whole ancient world, a place well known to all Judeans. That place was Nineveh, the Capitol city of Assyria, the location of King Sennacherib’s palace, home to some six hundred thousand inhabitants. It boasted of the most powerful military force of its day and was a constant threat not only to Israel and Judah but to every other nation of its time. Today, the site of Nineveh is Mosul.
History tells us that the Assyrians worshiped Ishtar: the goddess of fertility, love, sex, war and power. The British Museum displays a spectacular wall relief of the Assyrian siege of Lachesis, arguably Jerusalem at the time of Hezekiah. It shows multiple images of Judeans being impaled and piles of Judean heads – ample evidence that the Assyrian soldiers were paid on a piece work basis. That should make it a bit more understandable that when Jonah received a call from God to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh, instead of obeying and going straight to Nineveh, he went to Joppa and booked passage on a ship heading the absolute opposite way. Who could blame him.
In delving into the story of Jonah I found myself wanting to know what, in the middle of this violent and oppressive culture, enabled its King and the people to hear the message of judgment and grace that Jonah offered?
Along with worshiping Ishtar, the Assyrians also worshiped the goddess Nanshe. She was the goddess of social justice. She nurtured orphans, provided for widows and took in refugees from war torn areas. She guaranteed boundaries, standardized weights and sizes of reed baskets and silver. One hymn about her says: “She is concerned for the orphan and concerned for the widow. She does not forget the man who helps others, she is a mother for the orphan; Nance, a carer for the widow, who always finds advice for the debt-slave; the lady who gives protection for refugees. She seeks out a place for the weak. She swells his collecting basket for him; she makes his collecting vessel profitable for him. For the righteous maiden who has taken her path, Nance chooses a young man of means. Nance raises a secure house like a roof over the widow who could not remarry.
Even among such a near diabolical people there already existed a voice of compassion, a conscience that called Assyrians to the best in themselves. It is so easy for us to dehumanize a people by focusing only on the worst. As ethical monotheists we understand that regardless of whatever a people might call their God, there is only one. And part of that Good News is that the one God, regardless of what name people use for God, God calls each of us to treat each other with love and compassion.
In the first chapter our hero, in disobedience to God’s direction, books passage on a ship going the opposite way that God called him to go. On board ship a great storm rose up. The sailors were afraid and began calling upon their idols to deliver them. They woke Jonah where they found him asleep in the bottom of the ship and asked him to pray to his God to protect them.
Though the sailors cast lots to see who had brought this disastrous storm upon them and the lot fell upon Jonah, he had already admitted that he was a Hebrew and was running away from the Creator God. Jonah asked the men to throw him overboard. At first they resisted and instead they tried harder to bring the ship to land. Finally Jonah convinced them that he was the one whose disobedience had brought punishment upon himself and others around him. Reluctantly the sailors agreed to throw him into the sea.
As soon as Jonah was tossed into the raging sea the storm broke and everything was calm. Chapter two tells us that instead of drowning he was swallowed by a great fish in whose belly he spent three days and nights. When Jonah had had his fill of seaweed and fishy captivity he cried out to God “Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty.” God spoke to the fish who promptly vomited Jonah out onto dry ground.
Being alive and on dry land Chapter three has God repeating Jonah’s commission. He made his way to the city of Nineveh where he declared the judgment of God on the residents. After that he climbed to the top of a mountain to watch the Lord destroy them.
But here’s the problem. The king and people of Nineveh took Jonah seriously. They put on sackcloth and ashes and showed that they truly repented of their wickedness. But now we need to focus on Jonah rather than the people of Nineveh. I harbor a suspension that Jonah feared all along that that would the case? He knew that God is merciful and offers grace to all who ask. For most of the Jewish Scriptures God is understood as a tribal God — The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God of Israel, our God. This is the God who actively fights for the tribe, as in the story of the Exodus. But over time the people’s understanding of God matured.
The Jews come to re-understand God as much more than a tribal God, they begin to grasp that God as, well, God, wasn’t just the God of Israel but of all creation. And I have to believe that they begin to see others in a different way. This isn’t as difficult for us because we have Jesus saying: You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matthew 5:43-47)
Jonah wasn’t there. He loathed these people to whom he was sent to declare judgment and mercy. He decided that his role was to make the necessary pronouncements and then sit back and watch the destruction these people rightfully deserved. And then when it doesn’t play out the way he’d hoped and expected, that is these, oh, what’s the recent appellation, oh yes, these ‘deplorables’ actually turn their lives around and receive grace from almighty God– Jonah is dismayed. Imagine. Preaching Good News, having it received by open hearts and not celebrating. “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; 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. 3And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
No, he had the quintessential pity party, worms and all. God had to teach Jonah a lesson, a lesson that is for us as well. Where he went to watch the imminent destruction God let a bush grow up to protect Jonah from the hot sun. And then, just as unceremoniously, God commissioned a worm to killed it. Jonah again wanted to die. was more concerned about the injustice of God killing an innocent plant than for the untold thousands who where spared God’s punishment. “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
Can that be us? Finally, God had Jonah’s attention. The concluding story about the bush is a wonderful illustration of what it looks like to put our trust in politics rather than God. Jonah is obsessed with the inanimate and temporary plant while God has been busy saving a city full of people about which Jonah doesn’t give a rip. God showed Jonah the foolishness of the fact that he was more concerned for the gourd than he was for the people. The gourd, which had no soul, received more attention from the prophet Jonah than thousands of people who were destined to eternal punishment.
Even though these Assyrians were clearly Gentiles, we learn, along with Jonah, that all the earth belongs to God; that God isn’t blind to corruption and oppression and all forms of evil where ever it is occurring; and God cares for all the people Gentile and Jew alike. God is merciful, not just to his chosen but even to worst of humanity you can imagine.
In literature the term everyman has come to mean an ordinary individual who is placed in extraordinary circumstances and with whom the audience or reader is able to easily identify. Jonah is our everyman. What lessons do we learn about ourselves from him? Right now, hours away from counting votes, I think there are people on both sides of the fray who have taken a page from Jonah and expect to sit back and watch people get what they deserve. It’s not a pretty picture.
How do we move past a tribal God? How do we love our enemies and accept that God also loves them? Once we see that God is not just the God of our tribe, our people, the God of those who are like us then we are forced to admit that maybe we should love them. Even if for no other reason than God loves them. When we recall the horrible cost of hatred and fear of the other, it is good to remind ourselves that we have moved past a tribal God. And that God calls us to a higher way of living.