Of the few memories I have from my brief attendance at Sunday school when I was a kid, one is of the story of Jonah. (I have few memories because we didn’t go to church for very long back then!) Our teacher, a nice old lady named Mrs. Williams, was fond of using those figures that adhere to a felt backboard. Seeing the figures of the prophet and the whale floating on that two-dimensional sea of felt inspired all kinds of questions within me. How could Jonah possibly survive inside that creature? How could he breathe? Why didn’t the animal’s digestive juices go to work on him?
Something I never learned in Sunday school was what an angry fellow Jonah is! That’s something to notice about him: the book bearing his name goes to great effort to point out what a grouch he is. He is sent to call the people of Nineveh to repent—they are part of the Assyrian Empire, enemies of Israel. Can we appreciate the depth of Jonah’s anger? Does his rage make any sense to us? Can we understand why the prophet would be so upset at having to watch his God forego punishing the enemy of his people? And I do intend to stress that pronoun: “his God.”
There’s a very loose consensus that the book of Jonah was written after the Jews returned from exile in Babylon, in either the 5th or 4th century B. C. The idea is that the book was written as a kind of satire, a kind of political joke, intended to warn the Jews about being too inward-looking. By this time, prophets have been saying that they are to be a light to the nations. The hatred that comes from nationalism and hyper-patriotism no longer has a place among the people of God. The awareness is beginning to dawn that they have a responsibility to all the world, including their enemies.
Maybe we can see in Jonah the contradictions in all of us. Indeed, even as the book is drawing to a close, Jonah still has his priorities messed up. He’s upset because the plant that gave him shade from the hot sun has dried up, but he couldn’t care less what happens to the people in the city. Can we see ourselves in that bone-headed prophet, caring more for our own comfort than for the welfare of those in desperate need? With all the recent sound and fury over health care, maybe it’s a question we should ask ourselves.
The image is “Jonah Awaits the Destruction of Nineveh.”