Saturday, 31 May 2014

Jonah - a journey to enlightenment

The Book of Jonah is one of the great works of Hebrew literature. But it has been ruined, for me, by a Sunday School Song, a controversy and a misunderstanding.

The song will be familiar to many –

Come listen to my tale
Of Jonah and the whale
Way down in the middle of the ocean
Oh how did he get there?
Whatever did he wear?
Way down in the middle of the ocean
A preacher he should be
At Nineveh you see
Then he had a very foolish notion,
But God forgave his sin
Salvation entered in
Way down in the middle of the ocean, ocean, ocean

For most of us that is the book means to us. It is about someone who runs away and gets eaten by a whale – even though it is in fact a big fish! Unless we see this book as a complete narrative we have no hope of getting its true meaning.

The controversy is all about whether it is a book of factual history or a parable. This goes back centuries. In 409 AD St Augustine wrote – ‘What are we to believe concerning Jonah who is said to have been 3 days in a whale’s belly. The thing is utterly improbably and incredible…that a man swallowed with this clothes on should have existed in the inside of a fish…such questions I have seen discussed by pagans amidst loud laughter and with great scorn.’

For many others it has to be accurate history because it is in the bible. It is also said to be factually accurate because Jesus spoke of the story on more than one occasion. The reality is that we don’t know. It seems highly unlikely that it all happened exactly as it is written. More of that shortly. The fact that Jesus referred to it does help one way or the other as we would then have to believe that there was really a sower or a prodigal son. Stories formed an important part of Jesus’ teaching and his emphasis is more on the truth behind those stories. And that has to be the case here.

My own preference is to see Jonah as a piece of literature which may be based loosely on real events. It is a structured piece of writing that is full of imagery and poetry. I think that it is far more important to see the profound and timeless truths behind the story than to worry about whether every word has to be factually literal.

The misunderstanding is that the story of Jonah is all about God punishing us if we make wrong choices. How often have people felt that they have chosen the wrong career or made the wrong decision. When things go wrong they go through the pain of wondering whether they are a ‘Jonah’.

We need to look at Jonah with a clean slate and see it for what it is – one man’s road to enlightenment. So let’s look at it with fresh eyes.

The book tells us little about the man himself. All we know is that he is the son of Ammittai. There is probably help in the book of 2 Kings where we are told that God spoke through his prophet Jonah, son of Ammittai and from Gath Hepher (2 Kings 14 v 25). So assuming this is the same person, this places him in Galilee during the reign of Jeroboam 11 sometime between about 786 and 746 BCE. So he is in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, a few years before the Assyrians came and virtually wiped out that kingdom. The capital of Assyria was Nineveh.

Nearly everything about the book is counter-intuitive and subversive. It cuts across most of our conventional thinking, a bit like the teachings of Jesus.

(i)                 Firstly he is unlike any other prophet. He is called to take a message of judgment; not to the nation of Israel but to Nineveh. The capital city of the growing threat that was Assyria. Other prophets do what they are told – see Isaiah, Samuel and Jeremiah. Jonah heads in the opposite direction. Rather than going east to Nineveh he heads west to Tarshish which was somewhere in the South West of Spain.  So that makes him one of the first people to head to Marbella in order to get away from things! It was as far away from Nineveh as you could imagine. So right away our expected ideas are challenged. The rest of the story is about his journey to finding true enlightenment or wisdom.
(ii)               Jonah is often thought of as being a coward but his decision seems to make sense to our normal way of thinking. It was a long and hazardous journey that would have taken him days or weeks across hostile terrain. He was being asked to take a message of judgment to a powerful enemy nation that would soon overrun Israel. So he would be placing himself in great personal danger. But he would also be putting himself in great social danger. Why would a prophet of Israel go the heart of a powerful and frightening enemy? So he risked becoming a social outcast.

Most sensible people would have advised him not to go. That is quite consistent with conventional wisdom or common sense.

So he finds himself on a ship heading for Tarshish when – ‘such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up’. This is far more than simply a punishment for running away. It is a direct encounter with God; similar to those of Moses and Elijah. In the bible, the sea is a powerful image for God. So readers of this story would have been able to identify with the crossing of the Red Sea during the Exodus. The psalms are full of references – ‘You rule over the surging sea, when its waves mount up you still them.’ (Ps 89) and ‘The sea is his for he made it.’ (Ps 95). In the story of Job there is the magnificent language of chapter 38 as he is shown things in perspective. Concerning the waves – ‘Thus far shall you come and no further, here shall your proud waves be stopped.’ All of this prepares the way for the story where Jesus calms the storm – ‘Who is this – even the winds and waves obey him.’ (Mark 4).

So Jonah begins to see things in perspective. Conventional wisdom sees the size of the task and the danger. He is shown the power of the sea in order to see where true power and authority lie. Even the great fish – not whale (!) – adds to this imagery. As Jonah is thrown over board he finds himself in the belly of a great fish. In Psalm 104 we read – ‘There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number – living things both large and small, where the ships go to and fro and Leviathan that you formed frolic there…’

So we Jonah learning to see things clearly; to see things in a way that subverts conventional ways of thinking.
Next we come to the part which convinces me that this is predominantly a parable. If I were to find myself in the belly of a fish I would either –

(a)    Die or
(b)   Panic and gasp for breath or
(c)    Be sick

What I would certainly not do is write a psalm. Which is what comes next. This adds to the sense of Jonah’s journey to wisdom. He has seen the power of God and this is reflected in a song of praise. He acknowledges that he has been banished from the sight of God but then says – ‘…you brought my life up from the pit’ (cf Psalm 40, Psalm 103). He is rescued, not so much from the sea and the big fish, but from his wrong way of thinking.

We also see here a common biblical theme of down and up. Joseph is thrown into a pit and is raised up, Jeremiah goes into a cistern, Jesus dies and rises – and likened his story to that of Jonah (see Matthew 12). Time and again, hopeless situations are turned around.

And so to Nineveh. This is certainly subversive. Jonah goes to this massive, scary city filled with terrifying enemies. Guess what happens. They listen to him. The king covers himself in ashes and calls on his nation to repent. What do we know about prophets? No one ever listened or took any notice. Time and time we read of their efforts to get the people of God to change their ways. But the Ninevehns, the Assyrians, the enemy …. Listen! This again cuts across all expectations, just like the Good Samaritan who is the example of a good neighbour.

God listens and has mercy. So we come to the final step on Jonah’s road to wisdom. He has seen the power of God that’s puts things in perspective. Now he sees the heart of God.

Jonah gets a sulk on when God shows mercy to the people of Nineveh. And why not? This undermined him and his authority. Why would any Israelite want a powerful Nineveh? Why not just wipe them out with a thunderbolt or a few storms and floods? This again is counter-intuitive. Why should God show mercy to those we do not like, to those who are socially and culturally different from us, who threaten us? Why should he by good to those who do not deserve it? How dare God show grace to them. It isn't fair. He feels like the Prodigal’s older brother.

God firstly shows his power and authority then he shows his love.

Jonah finally gets to the truth. He finally finds enlightenment under a tree. How very philosophical! He is given a beautiful vine that shades him from the burning heat. Ten is shrivels and is gone and Jonah is sad. God shows him that he is sad because he lost the shade of a tree for which he had done nothing – ‘But Nineveh has 120,000 people who cannot tell their right from their left… should I not be concerned about that great city.’

So here is final piece of the jig saw. No one is outside of the love of God. However different they may be, God cares about them. Jonah finally gets it. He encounters God – both his power and authority but also his love and mercy. That is why we need to see this as a book of wisdom more than simply an eccentric story about a man and a whale. It is about nurturing a different way of thinking. As with the book of Job it is about seeing things as they are. About seeing the power of god and his love for those who, we think, do not deserve it. Most of that time the one we think is least deserving is our self. 

This blog is a summary of a talk I gave at St Lukes, Crosby on 25th May 2014

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