Jonah Series – Week 1
Teaching notes by Nick Schuurman
January 10th, 2016
Scripture Passage: Jonah 1
When I was in elementary school, we used to get these little pamphlets every month or so, and they would have all sorts of different books and things that you could order if your folks sent it back to school with you, along with some money or a cheque. Scholastic Book Orders I think they were called. I asked for things that I saw occasionally, and I didn’t always get them, but sometimes I did. I’m sure I must have ordered more, but the only books I can actually remember receiving were Calvin and Hobbes comic books. I thought, and still think most of the cartoons I see in the newspaper are stupid, but I loved Calvin and Hobbes comic books, and, by the time I had graduated, had a whole pile of them.
Some of those books grew tattered, some of them I cut up to make displays when I decided to do my grade six public speaking assignment on the topic, and the rest I think I’ve either given away or lost in the shuffle as I’ve moved over the years.
But I found myself remembering Calvin and Hobbes, of all things, when I was thinking about this chapter of Jonah this week. In one of the series’ many storylines, Calvin, an exceptionally imaginative and often easily-frustrated kid, decides that he is going to run away.
“This is the last straw,” he exclaims, having been asked by his mother to clean his room. “I don’t have to put up with this totalitarianism,” he continues, venting to his tiger companion, Hobbes. He then decides, in his words, to “secede” from his family and run away to the Canadian far north.
The episodic adventure was eventually published in one of cartoonist Bill Watterson’s many books, titled Yukon Ho! And the joke, of course, is that Calvin, despite his determination, is, at least at first, hilariously ignorant to where and how far away the Yukon is from his comfortable home somewhere in middle America (he ends up looking at a globe to try to figure out the way), what it would take to get there (he decides to walk, assuming it would take a day at most), and the actual significance of committing to leave his parents’ care (after he and Hobbes run out of food he realizes that he can’t just ask his mother for more, having decided to run away).
It’s funny and it works not because it tries to make light of the fact that there are kids that actually do run away, but because, as adults reading this thing, we can probably remember times in our childhood lives when things weren’t actually that bad at all, but, frustrated or emotional, we melodramatically imagined, or threatened to leave home.
I won’t ruin the entire story, but the two end up returning home soon after they left, having dealt with some difficulty and come to some sort of realization of things, and how good they have it at home.
But back to the story at hand.
Jonah may be known as a few things, but he is perhaps most well known as a runaway.
And so I want to explore some of the possibilities for why Jonah ran away, why he decided to not go to Ninevah as directed, but rather head towards Tarshish – a city that, while we are not sure of its exact location, is, by all Old Testament accounts, a long distance away from Israel and always requiring voyage by sea to get there.
I also want to explore what Jonah’s running away might have meant for the people of Israel who first heard and read this story, and what it might mean for us today, especially considering the various interpretive traditions of reading his story as an example for contemporary readers of how not to run away from God, or how to come back to what God has called someone to after a period of hesitation, reluctance or resistance.
And so we ask ourselves: why did Jonah run away?
We do not know much about Jonah, son of Amittai. His name means “dove,” which would probably have summoned all sorts of associations for the story’s Hebrew, and later, Christian audiences. Noah, we remember, set loose a dove while adrift on the ark during the flood. In Israel’s prophetic literature, the dove is a symbol of mourning and lamentation, and within the Hebrew temple tradition, doves were frequently offered as sacrifices. A dove is also said to have descended at the time of Jesus’ baptism.
Jonah is also mentioned in 2 Kings as a prophet working within Israel during the time of Jeraboam. The author there records him as having announced to the king that God would expand Israel’s borders, having seen that the distress of Israel was “very bitter.”
Aside from that, we do not know much about this Jonah, son of Amittai, and we do not know much, upon first glance, about what was going on inside of his head as his rushed off to the port in the town of Joppa to hitch a ride out of that place.
Unlike Calvin the cartoon child, whose motivation for running away was clear (being fed up with his mother’s requests, which were to his mind nothing short of tyrannical), we do not really know what Jonah was thinking – at least not at this point in the book. We are left to speculate when it comes to the reason for his flight, having not been provided any description of Jonah’s inner thoughts by the book’s narrator.
One possibility we might initially consider, though, is that the would-be messenger responded the way he did because of a sense of limitation, smallness or self-doubt in the face of what seemed like an enormous or perhaps even impossible challenge.
The message Jonah was commissioned to deliver was, after all, by no means an easy one.
He is told to leave his home, travel to the heart of Ninevah and, in language that to our ears perhaps sounds quite severe, “preach against it,” because of the wickedness God has witnessed there. And unlike other Israelite prophets, who were generally tasked with presenting messages to their own people on their own land, Jonah is directed to leave all of that familiarity and travel, on his own, to a foreign place, and speak to a foreign people.
He might very well have asked God, “who on earth do you think I am, that you would ask me, of all people, to do this thing?”
In his commentary on the book of Jonah, Eugene Roop, a scholar and pastor with the Church of the Brethren, notes that, within the broader context of the Hebrew Scriptures, it is not uncommon for individuals whom God chooses to serve as leaders within the Israelite community to express reluctance or even resistance to a set of directions given to them by God, especially on the basis of a sense of perceived personal inadequacy.
Roop notes, for example, that when told that he is to confront Pharaoh and lead the people of Israel out of Egypt, Moses protests, saying, if you’ll allow me to paraphrase, “Me? Really? Capable of doing that?” Gideon, when faced with the task set before him, likewise resists, asking God, “Seriously? How can I rescue Israel? My clan is the weakest tribe of Manassah, and I am the least in my entire family.” Jeremiah, when told that he has been chosen to serve as a prophet to the nations, tells God, “You’re kidding me. I can’t speak for you! I am too young.”
In all of these accounts, this initial fear and hesitation is met with reassurance from God that all that is needed to complete the task will be provided for, and the unlikely leader God has chosen comes around.
The story of Jonah is unique, however, in that the unlikely leader doesn’t say a word at all and simply runs for it.
Perhaps, then, this is why Jonah ran away – because of how small he felt in the face of so large a task.
Or perhaps he ran away for another reason as well.
The people of Ninevah, we read, did “not know their right hand from their left” – an Ancient Hebrew idiom, common to the Old Testament, that conveys a loss of moral and spiritual bearing so severe and to such a fundamental level it would seem to completely overwhelm the most basic awareness, sensitivity and humanity of this people. The depth of this collective loss would lead this great city, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, to become renowned within that area as a concentrated centre of violence and terror.
Ninevah, to put it simply, was the sort of place you ran away from if you had any sort of sense about you, which is exactly what Jonah at first did. We might conclude that this prophet’s flight was perhaps then also driven, at least in part, by an initial and overwhelming desire for self-preservation, a desire that many people then and many people now would say is, in fact, quite reasonable.
Think of the last place you would want to go, a place you would be most afraid for your personal safety and well-being. Or think of a place where terrible, atrocious, violent actions have taken place on a massive scale. Think of going there, even if you did not feel your life was in danger, and facing the people who have done, and continue to do those terrible things.
Even if he somehow managed to summon what it would take to get past his hatred for this awful, violent society, Jonah would, to put it crudely, likely have rather not wanted to end up executed, dismembered and placed on display, and so he caught the first ride he could heading the other way.
Perhaps, then, this is why Jonah ran away – because of how he felt in the face of so terrifying a people.
Or perhaps he ran away for another reason as well.
As the story continues it becomes evident that in addition to the possibilities that have already been mentioned, Jonah is in fact resistant to the call to go to Ninevah in large part because he is resistant to the possibility of the people of that city actually hearing the words he was told to bring and be spared.
He was resistant to he possibility that these people might actually respond to his announcement, change their ways, experience forgiveness and go on to live God-fearing lives.
The message Jonah was called to bring was, to be clear, a message of judgment (“forty more days and Ninevah will be overthrown,” he later proclaims, from within the city). But as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that there is a mercy, albeit a severe mercy, in those words, or perhaps in spite of those words.
The prophetic proclamation this runaway is entrusted with carries with it, or maybe alongside it the very real possibility that an utterly senseless people might in fact be brought to their senses and be transformed by the grace of God.
Jonah did not want to go and stand before this people, because he did not want to allow the possibility that they might actually renounce their way of living and be spared judgment. Jonah wants his enemies to remain enemies, and for them to suffer, for all the suffering they have caused. Jonah wants his enemies to be subject to judgment, to a punitive response, rather than be allowed an opportunity to repent.
Jonah would, simply put, rather that the people of Ninevah be destroyed than have to speak to them about God’s mercy-made-possible if they would turn from their wickedness.
I hope I’m not ruining the end of the story for you when I say that that is precisely what happens, and that when it happens – when the people of Ninevah repent, put on sackcloth and ultimately believe in the God of Israel – this source of Jonah’s resistance becomes fully evident as he bitterly accuses God for forgiving this wretched bunch.
“Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, LORD?” Jonah complains in chapter four of the book, “That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn your back from destroying people.”
And so perhaps this is why Jonah ran away as well.
We know that, whatever it may have been that caused him to run, he ran.
He ran down to the waterfront, paid the fare, and boarded a ship that was headed towards distant Tarshish.
Soon after they set sail, God causes a storm to strike the sea. The winds, we are told, were so severe that they threatened to tear the ship apart.
The sailors are terrified, and start calling out to their gods. It helps to understand that, “it is normal,” as Eugene Roop writes, “for ancient mariners to attribute the weather to direct divine action, whether that weather be calm or storm.” In addition to these panicked prayers, they start to toss the vessel’s cargo into the sea, in the hopes that it would lighten the ship, which might then be able to float atop the wild waves, rather than sink beneath them.
In the midst of all of this, we find Jonah, lying below deck, somehow asleep in spite of it all. The ship’s increasingly terrified captain grabs him and orders him to say his prayers, to his God, like the others had to theirs, because maybe then their lives would be spared.
They crew then casts lots, somehow determining that this whole mess was because of their until-that-point deep-sleeping, Israelite tagalong, and proceed to barrage Jonah with a rapid-fire series of questions, trying to get to the bottom of why this was happening: “Who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is country? From what people are you?”
Jonah – complicated, hapless, foolhardy Jonah – offers his response, a response that constitutes an altogether unlikely and difficult-to-believe confession of faith given that just a few verses earlier he is described as wanting to run away from not only his mission, but wanting to running away from God’s presence altogether.
“I am a Hebrew,” he tells them, “and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”
This causes the sailors even more fear, who, now having some sense of the spiritual gravity of what Jonah has done, ask him what they should do to make this all go away. He tells them to toss him overboard, like they tossed the cargo earlier. They refuse, and try, without success, to row back to shore.
At this point, an even more unlikely confession of faith is seen, when the pagan sailors – pagan sailors in foxholes, as the saying goes, that they might be – call out to the LORD, to Israel’s God. They plead that they not be punished for doing as Jonah suggested, then they toss him over the sea, and everything returns to calm.
Having been spared, the crew of this ship is said to have “greatly feared the LORD”, and offered sacrifices and vows to God.
And so as we come to the end of chapter one, we see Jonah slowly sinking down beneath the now-stilled surface of the water. Then, all of the sudden, as if things had not been unexpected enough to this point in the narrative, a fish – a big fish – appears, opens its mouth, and swallows our runaway up.
Jonah is known as a few things, but he is perhaps most well-known as a runaway.
It is, I believe, important not to dismiss or judge Jonah so quickly for his resistance to this call, or for his running away.
For centuries, the people of Israel saw themselves in the story Jonah as they held in tension the God’s grace and judgment when it came to their own history and identity, and as they wrestled with what it meant to be a nation set apart by God to exist for the good of all nations – including nations filled with awful, violent, oppressive, backwards people.
And similarly, followers of Jesus have seen themselves in this text as well as they struggle to understand what it means to extend a message of mercy and the possibility of repentance to those both inside and outside the boundaries of their communities, and to those who are their enemies.
Were we in Jonah’s place, we might, in theory, be at peace with the idea of extending a message of mercy, and of the possibility of repentance, to someone who has done wrong, even someone who has done terrible, unthinkable wrong. But what if that wrong was done to your people, to your neighbors, to your family, to your friends, or to you?
Can we really, honestly blame Jonah?
Even those of us who are committed to principles and ideals of nonviolence and restorative justice are not immune to the impulse to at times want to simply repay evil with evil, to see those who have robbed life be robbed of life, to see those who have caused suffering in turn be subject to terrible suffering themselves. Even the most charitable of us have days where we would simply wish judgment on someone. I think it is important to acknowledge these impulses and be honest about them as we negotiate what it means to resist evil, work for justice and extend God’s grace in our world.
And so, we ask ourselves once again, can we really, honestly blame Jonah?
If there is anything in the story of Jonah for us, then, perhaps it is that if we really desire to listen for or to God in a way that is open to the possibility of being moved towards new places in the world, and being moved towards new ways of living in those places, we must also be open to the possibility that we might react with an initial response of resistance to such Divine direction.
That resistance, like Jonah’s, might be rooted in any number of things: our desires for security and comfort, the difficulty of a task or tasks that is or are presented to us, the sorts of people that we would be required to brush shoulders with, the requirement of bringing good news to people we hate.
As a word of warning, it ought to be noted, but should go without saying, that it would of course be ridiculous and reckless to simply try to do the things you don’t want to do all of the time. To take any impulse of resistance or hesitation on our part as a sign that the task we are considering is something we therefore must do is a dangerous, and sadly not uncommon misreading of the message of Jonah’s journey.
Part of the challenge of discernment is the fact that there are all sorts of things that we are not drawn to that we actually shouldn’t try to do. There is a good sort of resistance to things as well – a resistance to do things we really ought not do, or a resistance to do things that we are not gifted or called to do.
But there is also Jonah’s resistance, which is what we are now left with. And so part of listening to God, then, is to pay attention to the points of resistance in our own lives as we seek to discern what it means to be a people called by God in a situational and vocational sense.
The good news in the story of Jonah, though, is that despite it all, this resistance can be overcome over the course of unlikely journeys involving unlikely people and unlikely places, and plenty of patience, mercy and provision on God’s part.
Fish Story: the tale of Jonah