Friday, June 26, 2020

Questions from Jonah

The book of Jonah raises a lot of questions for most of us, and they are questions worth asking. After all, if we don't ask the questions, how will we ever know the answers? (Spoiler alert: sometimes, we don't get to know the answers anyway.) 

Here's a question this little book of the Bible raises for me: on what basis did Jonah so certainly believe that God was going to redeem and restore Nineveh? The Israelites have spent much of their history marching through the Promised Land and destroying the nations that lived in the land. They have been cautioned again and again against adopting the wicked ways of any of these peoples. And not once did God say to them, "You know what? Maybe we ought to give these Amalekites a second chance. I bet the Canaanites would repent if you told them about Me." The army of Israel doesn't stop outside of Jericho as God says, "Let's give them a chance to repent." No. The people march around the city and the walls fall and the people are defeated. 

Yet Jonah sits on the hill and grumbles that he knew this is exactly what would happen to Nineveh - they would hear the word of the Lord, turn from their wicked ways, and be redeemed. Whose story is this? How did Jonah think this was not only possible, but probable? Remember, Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, a kingdom that defeated and enslaved and ruled the Israelites. It's just plain weird to see Jonah so sure that God wants to save the enemy of His people. 

Here's another question Jonah raises for me: why did the prophet think he had to run away? When God tells him to go to Nineveh, he doesn't want to go. He probably said no. And he was already not in Nineveh. It's not as if he would magically find himself in the city he doesn't want to go to if he just stayed where he was, but for some reason, he thinks the best plan is to hop on a ship and sail somewhere in the other direction. I can just imagine him saying, "Gee, God, you know, I'd love to go to Nineveh for you, but I already have this ticket to Tarshish and well, golly, the boat is leaving right now. Gotta go. Bye!" I'm very busy, Lord. Very busy. 

But seriously - what is it that makes us unafraid to run when we are, it seems, very afraid to stay? Jonah no doubt thought that if he stayed where he was, God was going to keep hounding him about this Nineveh thing. He wouldn't be able to keep saying no. He wouldn't be able to stay in not Nineveh for long. But he thinks that somehow, if he's not home, God will just keep knocking on his door and not notice that he's gone? I have questions. 

Here's yet another question I have: does Jonah not know his own heart? Jonah is a man who cares deeply about others. He has a heart that recognizes trouble and does what it can to resolve the situation. Just look at him on the ship. The storms are raging and a bunch of innocent lives are in danger, and Jonah not only recognizes this, but he is willing to sacrifice his own life to save theirs. He is not a selfish man. He's not someone who thinks only of himself. He gave up himself to save is he not the right guy to go to Nineveh? He doesn't know what will happen to him, but he knows what can happen to the sailors if he confesses or if he doesn't, and he chooses for their good. He doesn't know what will happen to him in Nineveh, but he knows what can happen to the people there. 

This is one of those very human things about Jonah that we can relate to all too well. He loves others; he truly does. But there are some he just doesn't love. There are some persons he doesn't want to touch. Some he thinks detestable. He has his out-group, just like we have ours. But still, does he not know why God has chosen him? Does he not see his own heart? Even on his way away from Nineveh, he's exactly the guy that Nineveh needs.

And finally (for today's list), how does Jonah not have any questions of his own? He doesn't ask God a single thing about this giant fish that has come up and swallowed him and spit him out on the shore. Not one. Sorry, but put me in the belly of a beast, and I'm going to have questions. Jonah never mentions it again. He's talking with God about a skinny little plant that grows and withers, talking to God about mercy, but not talking to God about a giant fish. Not even to say, "Thanks for that one, God." It looks to us like probably the biggest thing in Jonah's life, but for Jonah, it doesn't even seem to register. Perhaps he realized it was not, in fact, the biggest thing after all. Who knows? I'm just curious. 

There are all kinds of questions that come out of Jonah, some more pressing than others. Some about our human nature, some about our faith. Some about who God is and some about who we are and still some about other peoples or those we are tempted to not love as much. It's okay - in fact, it is good - to read the testimony of the Scripture and to think there must be more to the story. In the case of Jonah, we know for certain that there is. Remember, his story starts with, "And then...." But no written word can capture every little detail, and that's why we need our sanctified imaginations to help us wonder about the rest. What we don't know may just illuminate in a new light what God is trying to show us. 

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