This week in our family Bible study we studied the story of Jonah. Since this is very familiar territory, we were looking for new insights into the story. We came up with a few, with a little help from the ESV Study Bible.
There is a great deal of bigotry that plays into this story, but not in the way we often think. We tend to assume that Jonah simply didn’t like the people of Nineveh and simply didn’t want to go on that basis. But it’s more accurate to say that Jonah was afraid of the success of his mission. Do we do that?
- What if that terrible family down the street become Christians and start going to our church?
- What if that guy where I work became a believer and started expecting me to mentor him in his faith journey?
- What if so-and-so in our extended family got serious about reading the Bible and started asking me why, if I’m also a Christ-follower, have I done some of the things I’ve done?
- What if those poor people I prayed with downtown and left my phone number expect us to help them out?
- What if all the people who put up their hands at the movie our church showed start coming ever week… there would be more of them than us?
- Everybody knows the terrible things that _____ did; now that he’s been a believer for two years, is he going to expect a leadership position?
- That’s the woman who hit our car in the parking lot last Christmas. What’s she doing at our small group meeting?
The ESV Study describes the four chapters of Jonah as containing seven episodes, with the first three paralleling the second three. Jonah speaks to two similar audiences in the story. The crew on the boat heading for Tarshish were each praying to their own God, but then after Jonah explained to them what was causing the terrible storm, they prayed to Jonah’s God. Success! Just as he will experience in Nineveh. His ministry as a prophet was constantly bearing fruit. But inside the great fish, Jonah’s prayer is mostly thankfulness for his own safety and deliverance. There’s no mention of the sailors or the people who he was originally sent to. A rather egocentric prophet, don’t you think?
Jonah shows up several days (or weeks) late for his assignment and delivers his message, albeit halfheartedly. Today we have preachers who read powerful scriptures and then deliver messages containing great truths — even if ‘borrowed’ from the internet — and yet don’t realize the power of the Word they are handling. It’s just a job. The people of Ninevah may matter to God but don’t matter to Jonah. He’s apparently quite disappointed that God doesn’t destroy the city.
Maybe God will destroy the city after all. He’s already changed his mind once. So instead of taking the first train, boat or great fish out of town, Jonah hangs around to see if anything develops. The closing phrase of the story shows how out-to-lunch his priorities are, as God’s final appeal is basically, “If I destroy the city, think of all the animals that would perish.” Since Jonah has a thing for houseplants, God figures he’ll appeal to Jonah’s sense of nature. Not a good ending for Jonah really. Final score: Ship passengers and crew – 1; People of Nineveh – 1; Jonah – 0.
We ended our week reading the story from The Street Bible by Rob Lacey, known in North America as The Word on The Street. He devotes almost half of his writing to Chapter Four. Maybe someone should re-tell this story for kids, using the last chapter as the basis for the story, and then recreate the opening scenes backwards in light of the closing. Call it “Jonah and the Plant;” or “Jonah and the Worm.” Or instead of pitching this story for kids, it should really be part of Church Leadership Lessons 101.
Graphic: Stephen Rue, Jonah in the Whale, oil on canvas, 26.25″x25″, 2006; from the website Artist Trust. Say what you will about Jonah, packing the waterproof matches was good foresight.