Thursday, July 30, 2009

Unlearning the Half-Truths of Sunday School, Pt. 1

There are a lot of stories in the Bible, that, when we talk about them in church, we seem to entirely change their meaning and intended message. In an attempt to undo some of this damage, I'd like to take a look at some of these stories, and talk about what they're actually trying to say, beginning with Jonah.

Jonah is one of my absolute favorite stories in the entire bible. However, if you think the story of Jonah is about a fish (or a whale), then you are sorely mistaken.

Usually, when people hear the story of Jonah, they only hear about the first two out of four chapters. The first two chapters cover the part of the story that most people are familiar with: God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah runs in the opposite direction, God makes a storm, Jonah convinces the sailors he is with to throw him overboard, and a fish swallows him. After spending three days in the fish, it coughs him up on the shore, and Jonah goes to do what God tells him.

If the story were to stop here, then you would probably say that the story of Jonah is about having the courage to do what God tells us. And, while this is part of the message of Jonah, this is by no means what the story of Jonah is really about. To figure that out, we have to look at the last two chapters.

In chapter three, Jonah goes and tells the people of Nineveh that in forty days God will destroy Nineveh. Without any sort of call to repentance or assurance that this will stop God's wrath, Nineveh repents, and God decides not to destroy the city. Again, if it were to stop here, you might say that this is a story about how obedience to the will of God brings about good things. however, the real meat of the story of Jonah is in chapter four.

At the beginning of chapter four, Jonah is furious. He prays this prayer to God, "O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live."

At this point, we could probably uses some context to explain why Jonah is so upset. To understand his rage, you need to understand who Jonah is, and who the Assyrians are. The Assyrians (whose capital city was Nineveh) were some of the most brutal, vicious, and violent conquerors to ever rule the Middle East. Some common practices of the Assyrians to inflict upon their captives were to skin their prisoners alive, cut off various body parts to inspire terror in their enemies, pull out tongues, and display mounds of human skulls. And, in the eight century BCE, The Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel. So, in all likelihood, they skinned Israelites alive, maimed and dismembered them, and proudly displayed their skulls for all to see before dragging them off to the four corners of their empire, never to return. The Assyrians are solely responsible for the decimation of ten of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Now, one would think that the opportunity to bring tidings of destruction and wrath against the city responsible for the deaths of countless Hebrews would be a joyful task for Jonah. However, Jonah runs away because he knows God. He knows that if he goes and delivers this message, the people will have a chance to repent and be saved. The fact that this is the absolute last thing that Jonah wants is the exact reason he runs in the first place.

After Jonah tells God how he feels, God asks him if he has any right to be angry. Jonah (conspicuously lacking a response to God's question) leaves the city and goes to see what will happen to it, probably hoping that God will change his mind again and Sodom and Gomorrah it to the ground. While he waits, God provides a vine for shade. However, a worm eats the vine, it gets hot, and Jonah is again furious. So furious, in fact, that he states death would be preferable to his current situation.

And then, in verses 9-11, the last verses of the last chapter of the book, we find the true meaning of the book of Jonah. "But God said to Jonah, 'Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?' 'I do', he said. 'I am angry enough to die.' But the LORD said, 'You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?'"

This is the heart of the message of the story of Jonah: forgiveness, even to the point of being able to forgive those who have wrong us in unspeakable ways. I hope you understand how profound Jonah's ability to forgive in order to forgive the Assyrians would have to be. Jonah forgive the Assyrians would be like Jews forgiving Nazis. It would be like the Tutsis forgiving the Hutu. Forgiveness on that level is rarely seen in our world.

The book of Jonah ends unresolved. We don't know from this book if Jonah ever forgave the Assyrians; we don't know from this book how long Nineveh's repentance lasted. All we do know is that God cares about all peoples, even those we might call monsters, and that God is willing to forgive all peoples, even those we might not think deserve forgiveness.

“The Promised Land always lies on the other side of a wilderness.”


Anonymous said...

Well, this is indeed a story, something told around camp-fires to either entertain one another between sheep-herding times or to initiate children into the tribal history and morality.

Apparently religious people think that a particular piece of cultural literature written over two-thousand, five-hundred years ago can so easily be adapted to tell us something about today's morality. I doubt it, and even if it can, it tells us very little.

Fortunately, civilized governments have in recent times spelled out issues called human rights, so we don't need Hebrew fairy tales (or fairy tales from any ancient culture) to let us know when those have been violated, or how to handle after-the-fact social behaviors. We need vigilance for self-correcting political processes.

You think the heart of the message of the story of Jonah is "forgiveness." You are mistaken. The heart of the message is cooperation. If those Assyrians had said no to Jonah's message, there's a pretty clear history of them claiming God would wipe them out. (Case in point: What ever happen to the Cananites? God--i.e his self-proclaiming people--genocided them. The same one's who presume to give us moral advice with fish-and-prophet tales.)

REAL forgiveness would have been a message that claimed even without cooperation God wouldn't wipe the Assyrians out. At least the Christians got that angle right--even when the (so-alleged) son of God himself gets off-ed, God doesn't retaliate. So, I'm greatly UNDERWHELMED by this silly little story.

You are too easily taken in by simplistic readings of ancient literature. But that's the heart of being a religious person, isn't it? Being simplistic but feeling somehow deeply insightful.

even to the point of being able to forgive those who have wrong us in unspeakable ways. I hope you understand how profound Jonah's ability to forgive in order to forgive the Assyrians would have to be. Jonah forgive the Assyrians would be like Jews forgiving Nazis. It would be like the Tutsis forgiving the Hutu. Forgiveness on that level is rarely seen in our world.

Shane S. said...

I agree that this story is a lot more interesting when you read it in its entirety!

I also find it interesting how Anonymous seems to think that our moral norms and social rights exist only because they have been graciously gifted to us by "civilized governments in recent times." A historical perspective makes it clear that the concepts of equality and forgiveness undergirding recently established "human rights" can be traced back to "fish-and-prophet tales" such as Jonah's. Modern governments may have "spelled out" such ideas, but the ideas themselves have long been a part of the value system surrounding stories such as this one.

The Wanderer said...

Anonymous, I honestly don't understand why people feel the need to leave these sorts of hateful comments from behind a safe and comfortable veil of anonymity. If you have a reason, I'd love to hear it.

Are you somehow under the impression that your singular comment on my blog is going to be so profound and insightful that it will undo my years of religious brainwashing at the hands of evil and ignorant clergymen? Do you not know enough religious people you can argue with face to face? Are you so desperate for attention that you seek it regardless of whether people respond in anger or agreement? Don't you have anything better to do with your day than to try and get people worked up and angry about nothing?