And Also Many Animals

The final piece in my 5 day devotional for Our Bible App on the Book of Jonah.

Read Jonah 4

Like any great satire, Jonah consistently breaks the audience’s expectations through role reversal (Jonah becomes the bad guy while the Ninevites are shown to be holy), and as we’ll see today, by exaggerating characters’ responses. When they hear Jonah’s bare-bones sermon, all the Ninevites immediately cover themselves and their animals in sackcloth, then all (humans and animals) fast from food and drink. When the prophet realizes he’s accidentally instigated the world’s most successful altar-call, he storms out of the city, telling God he would rather die than see mercy shown to his enemies.

And if that wasn’t enough, what’s a story without a magic bean plant?

Much has changed in the millennia since Jonah was first told, but faith-filled people largely have not. Jonah himself displays the mindset perfectly when he recites the chief characteristics of Israel’s God: “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” (4:2). Yet such knowledge has done nothing to soften this Man of God’s heart so that it might reflect that God. Rather than bringing life, it left him asking for death (4:3). Believing God to be his people’s exclusive property, his knowledge – unaccompanied by a “heart of flesh” – could not lead to true Life, whatever its subject.

As previously discussed, one of the primary points of this story is to upend the assumptions of Israel regarding their God and the Other; to open their eyes to the trajectories of inclusivity within their own tradition they have overlooked. As we in our turn look to this tale, we have to ask what assumptions of ours it’s trying to flip. What fatal flaws in our faith system is it trying to illuminate? One of the primary functions of such works is to draw out the inconsistencies and failings of the audience without beating them over the head, entering through the back door when the front is locked. And isn’t the front door of good people of faith always locked? How else are we to keep out corrupting influences? How else to differentiate between us and them?

But whether we like it or not, the wide world of the Divine will always break down our doors, showering mercy upon those we deem unfit, whose personal flaws are only matched by their wrongs against us. Who is God to forgive those who have treated us so?

It is hard to love those you would like to condemn.

As we come to the end of this story, we are not provided resolution but left in the very thick of the tension: which will prevail? Jonah’s hot anger (Heb. rah, used 11x in Jonah; “heat,” “evil,” “angry”), or God’s cool tears (hüs, “the eye flows”; “compassion” in v11)? Jonah is so rah, so literally hot and bothered that, when God gently asks a question, Is it right for you to be angry? he storms off the set. The next we see of the thick-headed prophet, he’s setting up shop on a hillside in order to watch (from a safe distance) the impending destruction of the city. It is so inconceivable that these pagans could ever truly repent, so impossible that God could make space within the Divine mercy for Nineveh, that he assumes judgment has simply been deferred. All he needs to do is wait. While the King of Nineveh is down in the city daring to hope in their salvation, Jonah sits aloof, patiently awaiting the resounding “No” he believes is coming.

Contrast that with God’s tender, compassionate hüs. In this scene we discover a God so holistically pro-life, so unlike Jonah and his people, that even the animals are within the scope of salvation.

This is played out almost comically in the affair of the plant when Jonah, who cares not for the plant beyond what it can do for him, is moved to hot anger (rah) by its sudden death. God doesn’t laugh, but is moved to tears because of Jonah’s short-sightedness and the fate of the Ninevites – not because they can offer any sort of service to the Divine, as though God were incomplete, but because they are not complete. As Charles Pegúy said, “We must be saved together. We cannot go to God alone; else he would ask, ‘Where are the others?’ ”

God is so fundamentally for the universe and all it contains that when one part is out of sync, all parts are diminished. This is why The Christ calls “blessed” the peacemakers; why the meek inherit the earth, and why to even be angry with another is murder; why we quite literally cannot be God’s people until every last enemy has been conquered through love (Matt. 5-7). For when even one enemy remains to us, one Other for whom we refuse to weep and offer the right hand of fellowship, we ourselves are the ones who suffer. You see, this story was never about saving Nineveh from a terrible fate,

It was about saving Jonah.

And Israel.

And me.

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