My last post was on the Prodigal Son, so obviously this one is going to be about Jonah. I never said this blog was going to make any chronological sense.
But there is a connection between the two. In my last post I looked at how the Prodigal Son’s brother was angry and bitter about his sibling’s return to the family home. And who can blame him? The elder son was the faithful one, the prodigal was nothing but trouble. The family was better off without him, right?
Well, no, but that was the attitude that Jesus was confronting through his parable. That judgementalism is nothing new, and it’s the key driving force behind events that took place centuries before Jesus started his storytelling career. Cue Jonah and a certain aquatic mammal.
Only it’s not really about the whale.
The story: Jonah is a prophet who receives message from God – Go tell Ninevah to turn from its brutal, expansionist ways before it met with some serious divine retribution. Now, Ninevah, now in modern Iraq, was the capital of the Assyrian empire, the biggest baddest superpower of the time and a clear and present danger to the kingdom of Israel.
That’s why Jonah runs away from doing God’s will. It’s not so much out of fear or lazy disobedience, it’s because Jonah wants Ninevah to get wiped out. God should be calling down the fire and brimstone. Jonah’s not going to give the Assyrians the chance to repent – after all, they might take it.
And so he runs in the opposite direction, heading towards Europe rather than towards Iraq. His ship runs into a storm, Jonah gets thrown overboard, is swallowed by a whale and is taken… Where?
See, I always got the impression that the whale took Jonah to Ninevah.
The whale didn’t.
Ninevah is landlocked.
Yes, I know this is an epic geography fail on my part. I can only apologise to Miss Oakley, my old teacher.
The whale deposits Jonah back on dry land, presumably where he started from. And there, smelling of whale puke, he receives the same command from God – Go tell Ninevah to change its ways. This time Jonah goes (although he sounds pretty grouchy from now on) the inhabitants of the city repent and God relents from sending judgement.
And yet, like the story of the Prodigal Son, it ends on an ambiguous note that’s more about challenging the attitudes of those hearing the story. “Why shouldn’t I be concerned about the thousands of people who live in Ninevah?” God asks a furious Jonah.
And it’s a fair question. After all, we all fall short of the glory. Why do people like Jonah and the elder son get to be forgiven while the prodigal and the entire population of Ninevah deserve to be damned? Maybe we think it’s fair because they are worse than us, but we don’t get to draw that line – that’s God’s job, and he errs on the side of mercy and forgiveness. That’s the central story of Jonah.
Not the whale.