Bible Stories You Didn't Outgrow

III: Jonah


This is my third and last week telling you Bible stories. Before I start, let me tell you why I have been doing that.

We live in a post-Christian society. Many Bible stories are no longer well known. Yet a few live on. Even many people who aren't all that familiar with the Bible or interested in Christianity know them. Jay Leno may still be able to embarrass people who don't know the name of Adam's wife, but he probably has to work a little harder than usual.

I'm glad these stories are still well known. But when the broader context of these stories is no longer well known, the stories themselves lose their place in the larger story. They float free, becoming little self-contained fairy tales, and start meaning something new. (And, in particular, they start meaning something less.) They also get left behind with the other stories of our childhood.

By contrast, the writers of the New Testament saw these stories as little pieces of a big picture. We have spent three weeks looking at this, but we could have spent fifty-two, because the big picture is still the same. After a year worth of detailing, you'd still see the same thing. But it would be exquisitely detailed, vibrantly colored, and deeper than anything you've ever known.

That big picture is the good news of Jesus Christ. At football games, it is often summarized in the words of John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him" (John 3:16-17).

But some people don't buy John 3:16. It all sounds too easy. What about Timothy McVeigh? What about Osama bin Laden? "God so loved Al-Qaeda that he gave his only Son?" If you're one of those critics, I think you have a good point.


One last Bible story "for kids" will fill in some details that show us John 3:16 really isn't too easy to be true. It's the story of Jonah.

Maybe you know the story. Jonah gets a word from God: "Go at once to Ninevah, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before me." Ninevah is an ancient and powerful enemy of Israel. Jonah makes a beeline in the opposite direction (the story doesn't say why yet) and sails away from the city. God raises a storm that endangers the whole crew. Jonah has them throw him overboard.

Now this would normally kill Jonah. But God sends a fish to swallow him, and Jonah remains in its belly for three days and nights. Jonah prays for deliverance, and God commands the fish to spit Jonah onto dry land.

Most people tune out here. But this is Jonah, not Pinocchio. We're only halfway through the story. God reiterates the command. Jonah obeys this time. He goes and proclaims, "Forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overthrown." The king, too theologically naive to know that an immutable God can't take things back, advises everyone, "Who knows? Maybe God will take it back," and the people repent. And guess what! God takes it back.

Happy ending? Not for Jonah! He's ticked. He prays – actually, he vents: "This is why I fled! For I know you're a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment. Kill me now – I'd rather die than live." Jonah stalks out of the city and waits, hoping something bad will happen to Ninevah. Nothing does. Instead, God starts sending new things to Jonah – little irritating things: Providing a plant for shade, then sending a worm to kill the plant. Sending a pleasant wind, then a punishingly hot sun. The story has become a farce.

The book ends with God lecturing Jonah like a spoiled child: "You care about some stupid plant that you didn't even grow. Am I not supposed to care about Ninevah, and its innocent animals, and its 120,000 clueless people?" The moral of this story is basically that God loves the enemies of his people Israel, whether Israel likes it or not.

Greater Than Whom?

It's amazing enough that Israel would be telling this humiliating story. That shows its people's remarkable character. It's downright phenomenal that it would end up in its own Bible. And it's just incredible where Jonah shows up in the New Testament: "Some of the scribes and Pharisees said to [Jesus], 'Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.' But he answered them, 'An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth'" (Matt. 12:38-40).

Wait a minute! Is Jesus really comparing himself to Jonah, the whiny runaway? Why reach down to just about the sorriest excuse for a prophet? Why not pick Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel? In prophet school, they don't teach you to be like Jonah.

Jesus is of course predicting his death and resurrection. But why cast it in terms of Jonah? Why take an impressive sign like resurrection and sully it with Jonah the loser? That's like Jesus doing signs and wonders and then comparing himself to Penn and Teller.

Here's what I think is going on. It will require that we overturn two common misonceptions of God.

God So Loved

First, you often hear that people are loving and God is strict, especially in the Old Testament. That's why belief in God is an obstacle to world peace. But think about it: Aren't we pretty harsh on those who oppress us? Like Jonah wanted to be? Jonah runs away because he knows that if Ninevah repents, God is too compassionate to follow through on his threat.

The story tells it differently. Jonah didn't so love Ninevah that he gave them God. God so loved Ninevah that he gave Jonah. God sent Jonah to Ninevah, not to condemn it, but that it might saved through him. (And Jonah didn't like it one bit.)

Second, you also often hear that the one Jesus calls "Father" is the one who holds a grudge against all humanity, and that Jesus is the nice one. The Father is fearsome and angry. We want Jesus on our side to soften him up.

The story tells it differently. After all, what makes us think that love of God's enemies is something that comes effortlessly to Jesus? This is a guy who's living under Roman occupation. His own puppet king has overseen a mass murder of his fellow two-year-olds. Every day he sees Roman abuses of power against his people. By the time he's thirty, how many horror stories do you think Jesus has accumulated that would make your blood boil?

Forgive the Romans? Proclaim peace to Israel's oppressors? Are you kidding?

And in fact, Jesus is a rather reluctant prophet when it comes to extending God's mercy outside Israel. He can be rather short with Gentiles, and when he does help them, he usually tells them that they are beyond the scope of his original mission.

We don't have to work too hard to imagine the world Jesus lived in, because Jesus still lives in it. Jews are still being blamed for 9/11. Anti-Semitism is coming back into fashion in Europe. Suicide bombings in Israel are regular events. Why should Jesus, who is as Jewish today as he was 2,000 years ago, be any nicer today? Who's going to soften him up?

Maybe the Father isn't the bad guy after all, but the steady source of Jesus' sacrificial love and compassion. "God so loved."

The World

But would that mean that like Jonah, Jesus has – issues?

Well, wouldn't you? Wouldn't you have a problem with the world? Don't you honestly have a problem with the world?

Let me read from an article by Tony Parsons in yesterday's Mirror:

The day was crisp and cloudless and made you feel glad to be alive. A day when anything seemed possible. Then death came out of that clear, blue sky, changing everything, tearing apart all those lives, and we learned just how much we in the western world are hated.

Is that hate understandable? ...

I look at all the reasons put forward – the foundation of the state of Israel, the Gulf War casualties that we watched like so many video games, the Iraqi children who have died because of sanctions – and it still baffles me. How can you slaughter the innocent to avenge the innocent? But then I think of the children who died in firestorms in Dresden and Tokyo, and I know that we are all capable of slaughtering the innocent to avenge the innocent. We have done it before. Perhaps we will do it again soon.

No, it really wasn't like a movie. ... Because the heroes died. Almost all of them.

And we know from the heroes that survived that they did not die screaming defiance and shaking a righteous fist at the sky. They died in terror, and running for their lives, and calling home to tell the wife or husband that they would never see them again, but would always love them.

Nothing like a movie. Love burned alive, heroism crushed, thousands upon thousands of good people left without their father, their mother, their child, the love of their life.


"Did you see the yuppies flying out the windows of the trade center?" laughed a young man outside a mosque in North London. "That was so funny."

And I can't tell that young man how angry he makes me feel. And I can't tell him how wrong he is. And I can't explain that there are many of us who have been sickened by the slaughter of Palestinian children, who will probably now care a little less about the injustices of the Middle East now that we have an injustice of our own, now that we know that young man would be amused if our own loved ones were burned alive, buried in rubble, torn to bits.

We are being forced to choose sides. The evil idiots who crashed those planes, their grotesque cheerleaders like that young man, are forcing us to harden our hearts. That's the real tragedy of that unforgettable Tuesday.

Think for one honest minute about what we do to each other in this world. And then ask yourself why Jesus should have found it easy to forgive the Romans who are crucifying him like they have crucified so many who came before him, and would soon destroy his homeland.

On the night that everyone betrays and denies and sentences and abandons him, Jesus tells his few remaining companions, "My soul is very sorrowful, even to death" (Matt. 26:38). Those are Jonah's very words after Ninevah had repented and God had withered Jonah's favorite plant. Once again, we see Jesus putting himself in Jonah's place. He has issues.

Tony Parsons is dead right. Suffering from sin forces us to harden our hearts. That really is a real tragedy of 9/11. Al-Qaeda and all its sympathizers have hardened my heart. I studied Islam for years under a beloved professor who converted to Islam from Christianity. My fellow students were mostly Muslims, and they were all, without exception, wonderful people. Now, when I think of Islam, I think of people rejoicing at the deaths of thousands of innocent people. I want to condemn Ninevah, not see it saved. I have issues. Legitimate issues.

This puts me in the position of the scribes and Pharisees who demand a sign from Jesus. They have legitimate issues too. So they are demanding that Jesus show himself to be their kind of deliverer. They want a movie hero. Their hardened hearts want vengeance. That's what makes them "an evil and adulterous generation." Sorry, Jesus says. My sign will disappoint you. It will trouble your souls even to death, as it troubles my own.

Jesus is promising the sign of Jonah. He will be the gift to "the world God loved." Even to Ninevah. Even to Israel's enemies. Even to us.

That He Gave His Only Son

September 11 has left me feeling a lot less warm and fuzzy about the world. It has created a new need in me: a cure for a hardened heart. But it is here that Jonah offers more resources for healing than Tony Parsons' compelling journalism and optimistic resolve. It is here precisely that the sign of Jonah offers concrete help.

It helps to have the prayer Jonah prayed while waiting to die in the belly of that fish (Jonah 2:3-10):

Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying,

"I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.
You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows passed over me.
Then I said, 'I am driven away from your sight;
how shall I look again upon your holy temple?'
The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God.
As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple.
Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Deliverance belongs to the Lord!"

Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land (Jonah 2:1-10 NRSV).

This sounds like it could come from the same Jesus who moves from "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matt. 27:46) on Friday to "Do not be afraid" (Matt. 28:10) on Sunday. It helps to know that suffering innocently and bearing the burden of forgiving one's oppressors grieves even Jesus. In a world where heroes die senselessly, it helps to know that my hero died senselessly. In a world where it's so hard to learn obedience to a compassionate God, it helps that, as Hebrews puts it, even the Son "learned obedience through what he suffered" (Heb. 5:8). When news of some new outrage begins to choke off my compassion, it helps that "we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin" (Heb. 4:15).

When I see all over again that we don't have it in us to love enough, that I don't have it in me to love enough, it helps to know that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are unspeakable love for their world, unconditional love, unpleasant love.

If God's love for the world is anything less than this, then we're without hope. The world's evil will triumph over it. It will force us all to surrender to the rage we feel at the rage of others.

Jonah learned obedience through what he suffered. Jesus did too. But for all the similarities, there's a critical difference. God's love triumphed over Jonah. Jesus is "greater than Jonah" (Matt. 12:41) in that God's love triumphed in Jesus. God "gave his only Son." Jonah arose from the deep, but he pouted until the story was over. Jesus arose from the tomb, and promised to go with us (Matt. 28:20) as we bring his peace even to our enemies.

Today that peace has come to us. Listen for the bittersweet power of John 3:16-17 as I read it one last time: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him."

You can either celebrate this, or you can pout about it. You can surrender your hate to the one who refused to hate, or you can fight your own personal World War III, which you will lose even if you win.

Why don't you bring your issues to him instead?