2013 01 20 Sermon on Jonah, Part One: An Epiphany Rejected
(A NRSV translation of the Book is attached at the bottom of this sermon.)
First, I want to share with you some thoughts about misunderstanding the Book of Jonah. Jonah is well worth some study because most of us do not have a clue as to what God is trying to teach us in this book, and what he is trying to teach us is both applicable and important to us. The book is simple and straight forward which makes it a bit astonishing that so few practicing Christians or Jews actually understand it. Hopefully, this brief series will put an end to that for you.
Unfortunately, if you are anything like me and the hundreds of students and parishioners I have taught about Jonah through the years, your ideas about Jonah have been warped by an almost exclusive focus on the first half of the book, and particularly by the idea that Jonah was swallowed by a "whale." And that particular understanding has been further distorted by Walt Disney's "Pinochio" and that very scary scene where the puppet-boy is chased and swallowed by a very menacing whale. So you may not know that the Bible says nothing about a whale that chased and swallowed Jonah, but the story actually tells of a "giant fish" that was sent by God to rescue Jonah!
And you may well have been subjected to one of those boring arguments about whether or not Jonah actually could have been swallowed by a whale, or whether or not that part of the story was a metaphor, or hyperbole, or fantasy: all of which are possible. But there is no critical agreement on those options, so the spectrum runs from literally true to pure fantasy and picking one leads you no closer to understanding Jonah than you were when the argument started.
It usually helps to understand a story by having an idea about who wrote it, when, for whom, where, and others basic things that give us the sitz im liben, the "setting in life," of the story. For better or worse we don't know much about Jonah, but what we don't know helps because we have been mislead by well meaning scholars who did a lot of guessing about Jonah and forgot to tell us they were guessing. We will straighten that out now.
We do know, from 2 Kings 14:25, that there actually was a prophet named "Jonah, the son of Amittai," who was active during the reign of King Jeroboam II. And we know that Jeroboam II ruled early in the 8th Century, BC, from 786 to 746. The Jonah in our story has exactly the same name as the prophet during Jeroboam's reign so we know the writer of the Book of Jonah wants us to believe the exploits of the Jonah in the story is the same man who served King Jeroboam II. The problem is that we know next to nothing about the 40 year reign of Jeroboam II. 2 Kings tells us, "Jeroboam II restored the border of Israel from Lebo-Hamath as far as the sea of Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant, Jonah, son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-Heper."
From that we can infer that Jonah was in favor with the King to the point of being allowed to speak for the Lord during his reign. So Jonah was a royal prophet, not some wandering prophet who was out of favor with the reigning monarch. We know essentially nothing about when it was written. It is written in the third person so, regardless what the author would like us to believe he is not Jonah, but someone writing about Jonah. and scholars have said it was written in the 8th, 7th, 6th, 5th, 4th and 3rd centuries, BC, so you can take you pick and not be "wrong." What you can know is that at least one Biblical scholar got his PhD writing his dissertation defending each of those rough dates.
Perhaps more importantly, we don't know who did write the book, or why. Nor do we know if it was written all at once by one author or a group of authors, or whether it was patched together from bits and pieces, perhaps over several centuries. A good example of that question involves the prayer that Jonah prays to God while he is in the fish. It is prayed in the form of a psalm, a poetic writing, wholly unlike the prose narrative of the rest of the book. In the prayer Jonah is both thankful and pious, completely different than the man described in the rest of the book. And once Jonah is spit out of the mouth of the fish Jonah becomes once again the familiar old grouchy, negative, defiant Jonah we have come to know, if not love. This has led some to say that this prayer was inserted at a later date to make Jonah look a bit more orthodox, and a whole lot more likable.
We can say something pretty definitive about is who it was written for. We know that the author was an Israelite writing for other Israelites. In other words, and this is important, the Book of Jonah was written by an insider for other insiders. And as it has been handed down through the ages it is also written for today's insiders – us. Of course others can learn much from it as well, but it is addressed to insiders and how those insiders feel when God chooses to treat even hated outsiders with compassion and mercy! Let me reiterate that: it addresses the question of how Insiders react when God decides to show compassion and mercy to Outsiders!
One of the ways we can be sure that this writer was an Israelite, and insider, is that the God referred to here is Yahweh, the God of Israel. And when you know when God is called yahweh in a Biblical text you also know that the center of the story is NEVER about the human actors in the story; rather it is about God. So, if you were to count the references to God in this short book you would find that God is mentioned 39 time in its 44 verses. God is the center of this story from beginning to end. God starts the story by calling Jonah, and ends it by telling Jonah what he already should have known: that God is a God of compassion and mercy, so get used to it!
We do know quite a bit about Nineveh. It was located on the Tigris River in what is now northern Iraq. It was truly a great city, large and prosperous long before most of the other cities of the middle east were important. Under King Sennacherib it became the capital of Assyria at the end of the 8th century BC and remained so until the fall of that nation in 612 BC.
Israel hated the far superior military might of Assyria which ultimately conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC, leaving only Judah, and carrying most of the leaders of the northern kingdom off in chains to Ninevah. This goes a long way towards understanding how the prophet could hate Ninevah. Ninevah was infamous in the eyes of the Israelites for its evil, debauchery, whoredom, thievery, treachery and cruelty.
The deep and bitter hatred of the Assyrians by the Israelites after the fall of the Northern Kingdom is why many scholars date the writing of the book as later than 722 BC, at least a third of a century after Jonah prophesied. There is no proof of this, but it is widely accepted as making sense. Of course it is also likely that the Israelites had hated the Assyrians long before they invaded Israel. Generally speaking, throughout Israel's history Israelites hated all nations that were bigger and stronger than little Israel and that sought to subjugate that tiny nation, either through war or by the insistence on the payment of tribute to avoid war. Regardless, what is very clear is that Jonah hated Ninevah and was none too happy with his God who had the audacity to ask Jonah to preach to them and warn them that God was about to punish them. And, as we will see, Jonah would rather go to the end of the earth than to obey that instruction of God.
Next time we will look closely at the first two chapters of the book, the first half of the book actually, and begin to answer that great theological question that I insist we all ask: "So what?" "So what? What can Jonah and Ninevah possibly have to do with me over 2700 years later?" The answer is, "A whole lot more than you may realize." God bless.
The Book of Jonah, NRSV translation
1:1 Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, 2 "Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me." 3 But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.
4 But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. 5 Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. 6 The captain came and said to him, "What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish." 7 The sailors said to one another, "Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us." So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah.
8 Then they said to him, "Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?" 9 "I am a Hebrew," he replied. "I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land." 10 Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, "What is this that you have done!" For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them so. 11 Then they said to him, "What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?" For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. 12 He said to them, "Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you."
13 Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them. 14 Then they cried out to the LORD, "Please, O LORD, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man's life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you." 15 So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. 16 Then the men feared the LORD even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.
17 But the LORD provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
2:1 Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, 2 saying, "I called to the LORD out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. 3 You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. 4 Then I said, 'I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?' 5 The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head 6 at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O LORD my God.
7 As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the LORD; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. 8 Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty. 9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the LORD!"
10 Then the LORD spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.
3:1 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." 3 So 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.
4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's walk. And he cried out, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. 6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 Then 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. 8 Human 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. 9 Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish."
10 When 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.
4:1 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the LORD and said, "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. 3 And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live."
4 And the LORD said, "Is it right for you to be angry?" 5 Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. 6 The LORD God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, "It is better for me to die than to live." 9 But God said to Jonah, "Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?" And he said, "Yes, angry enough to die."
10 Then the LORD said, "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. 11 And 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?"