Jonah is one of the most miserable, disobedient, ungrateful, graceless people in the Bible. That is quite a series of judgements on someone I can’t be totally fair about, because my understanding of him is limited to the scarce information given; yet it appears fair. Throughout the book of Jonah, all we see is Jonah running from obeying the Lord, being forgiven and glued back together, then he responds with the kind of character that we find appalling.
This change of plans greatly upset Jonah, and he became very angry. So he complained to the LORD about it: “Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, LORD? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people. Just kill me now, LORD! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen.”
The LORD replied, “Is it right for you to be angry about this?” Jonah 4:1-4
I can’t defend Jonah, I am not even going to try to. We’re all familiar with the story and some of us, relate to it a little too well. What I do want to focus on is when you take into account the culture of the time, (which includes attitudes that last pasted Jesus’ time, and some are still in evidence among the Ultra Orthodox Jews today), the story takes on a whole new dimension. You can understand Jonah’s feelings and motivations at a greater depth. (Whale and sea puns are not intended.)
Acts 10:28a starts to explain part of Jonah’s repulsion at going to Ninevah, a godless city, outside of Isra’el’s borders. “Peter told them, “You know it is against our laws for a Jewish man to enter a Gentile home like this or to associate with you.” [Cross reference: Leviticus 7:21]
Now we know Peter is one of the godly, good guys, so why would he baulk at visiting Cornelius in his home? Because Cornelius is a Gentile: a foreigner and an unbeliever. This is a really big deal. Throughout the Torah, Moses repeatedly tells the nation of Isra’el: “Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God.” Deuteronomy 20:17-18 [Also Numbers 33:50-56, Deuteronomy 7:6]
“Be very strong; be careful to obey all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, without turning aside to the right or to the left. Do not associate with these nations that remain among you; do not invoke the names of their gods or swear by them. You must not serve them or bow down to them. But you are to hold fast to the Lord your God, as you have until now.
“The Lord has driven out before you great and powerful nations; to this day no one has been able to withstand you. One of you routs a thousand, because the Lord your God fights for you, just as he promised. So be very careful to love the Lord your God.
“But if you turn away and ally yourselves with the survivors of these nations that remain among you and if you intermarry with them and associate with them, then you may be sure that the Lord your God will no longer drive out these nations before you. Instead, they will become snares and traps for you, whips on your backs and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from this good land, which the Lord your God has given you. Joshua 23:6-13
The greatest risk to Isra’el’s people was other gods, and the quickest route to them was through the company of foreigners and/or marrying foreign wives. This occurred at one stage on the way to the Promised Land, and those guilty were put to death, to save the rest of the young nation from their hazardous influence.
While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate the sacrificial meal and bowed down before these gods. So Israel yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor. And the Lord’s anger burned against them.
The Lord said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of these people, kill them and expose them in broad daylight before the Lord, so that the Lord’s fierce anger may turn away from Israel.”
So Moses said to Israel’s judges, “Each of you must put to death those of your people who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.” Numbers 25:1-5
Worshipping these gods involved human sacrifice, ritual prostitution, self-mutilation and other acts, that even our permissive western society, would baulk at. Apart from taking the hearts of the people away from the One true God, Yahweh, there were serious consequences to the liberal sexual worship which seduced the Israelites. Sexually transmitted diseases are an obvious one, but there were traumatic consequences of this type of worship on people’s self-esteem, emotions and peace of mind. So when you look at that aspect, it’s clear why the Israelites stayed on their side of the border and carefully obeyed God’s command to stay away! There was no room for tolerance. The people were commanded to obey Yahweh, no other, for their protection.
Now put yourself in Jonah’s position. He is an Orthodox Jew, being asked to break that rule. He is called to go to the biggest economic centre in that part of the world, and help people he is forbidden to associate with. This goes against everything he believes and of course, he “…ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.” Jonah 1:3
Within that is one of the keys as to why the Lord was so incredibly patient with Jonah. The Lord knew that He was asking the impossible. He knew that when Jonah succeeded and went back to his people in Isra’el, he would be an outcast, not allowed to worship within the community and it was possible he would have been put to death by his own people. Thus Jonah says, “Just kill me now, LORD! I’d rather be dead than alive…”
Jonah risked losing his family, friends and everything he ever knew, to help a people he shouldn’t help, knowing full well that God would do what Jonah personally believed that his God should never do. Enemies were to be destroyed, but God, oh that God who just couldn’t help but be merciful! He had quite a history of it! Where would that leave Jonah? It was a hard road, but God needed Jonah to walk it. Who knows what the consequences of Ninevah’s continual sin would have been, had God not stepped in? Plus to this day it teaches us to take on a greater worldview, outside our own narrow borders.
“Rescue others by snatching them from the flames of judgment. Show mercy to still others, but do so with great caution, hating the sins that contaminate their lives.” Jude 1:23
Knowing more background makes me feel compassionate towards Jonah. He did make a massive sacrifice, no matter how much he limped, resisted and howled along the way. However, his attitude was still way off base, no matter what the cultural circumstances were. We have a great God, “who is able, through His mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.” Ephesians 3:20
Would the Lord have taken care of Jonah? Yes, He would. God would never have asked Jonah to sacrifice all in the service of God, without the Lord having an amazing plan for him. However, we don’t see Jonah pursuing that new plan with hope, and that is the most tragic part of the story.
“Now all glory to God, who is able to keep you from falling away and will bring you with great joy into his glorious presence without a single fault. All glory to him who alone is God, our Saviour through Jesus Christ our Lord. All glory, majesty, power, and authority are his before all time, and in the present, and beyond all time! Amen.” Jude 1:24-25
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