What is the Bible by Rob Bell – Part 3
Part 3: Fish#1
…Then Pul king of Assyria invaded the land…
Tiglath-Pilesar, king of Assyria, came…and deported the people…
Shalmaneser king of Assyria marched against Samaria and laid siege to it…
-from 2 Kings 15 and 18
Invading is what happens when you raise an army and then march into another country and take it over using force and power and violence.
Deporting is what happens when you capture the inhabitants of said country you’ve invaded and forcibly remove them from their homes and jobs and towns and land and then take them far away.
Laying siege is what happens when you surround a city with your army and in doing this sever the city from its food and water sources so that so many people are starving and suffering and dying that eventually they give up and surrender.
The Assyrians, in other words, were mean. Nasty, brutish, violent, oppressive-the Assyrians made life miserable for the Israelites. Year after year after year.
It’s during this era in history that a story emerged about a man named Jonah. Jonah was an Israelite. And according to this particular story, Jonah’s God tells Jonah to take a message to the great city Nineveh.
And Nineveh was in…Assyria.
Assyria? Our worst enemy? Those hated infidels who have made life for our people a living hell time and time again? You want me to go into the center of the beast-and do something good for them? Seriously?
Jonah wants nothing of it and so he heads to the nearest port, jumps on a ship, and sails in the opposite direction.
Of course he does.
You’d get in a boat, too.
(Side note: Often this story is told in such a way that Jonah’s disobedience is the point of the first part, along the lines of See what happens when we don’t do what God tells us to do? But how do you imagine the first audiences would have reacted to this story when Jonah won’t go to Nineveh? They hated the Assyrians. Would they have focused on his disobedience or would they have cheered him on because they could totally relate?)
So he gets on the boat, a storm comes, there’s a discussion among the crew about the cause of the storm, they determine he’s the problem, they throw him overboard, he’s swallowed by a fish, he prays in the belly of the fish, the fish spits him out, he then goes to Nineveh, the Ninevites are fantastically receptive to his message, and then the story ends with him so depressed he wants to kill himself because of a gourd.
(You can’t make this stuff up.)
There’s so much here, where do I start? We’ll get to the swallowed by a fish part shortly, but first, I’ll start with the sheer strangenessof this story.
You would assume that a story told by Israelites about Assyrians would stick to fairly straightforward categories of good and bad, right and wrong, righteous and evil.
But the Israelite in this story, the one who supposedly follows God, runs in the opposite direction from God. The word that’s used is flee. Jonah flees. He then ends up on a boat full of “pagan/heathen” sailors who pray.
And while they’re praying for the storm to stop Jonah doesn’t pray at all. Jonah sleeps.
The pagan, heathen sailors ask all sorts of questions trying to figure out why this storm has come on them, only to discover that Jonah is the problem, something Jonah knew all along.
And then, when he finally does get to Nineveh, after he’s resisted God again and again, these horrible, mean, nasty Assyrians turn out to be open to God’s message, really open-so open that the king orders
…Let man and beast be covered in sackcloth.
Sackcloth was what you wore when you were crying out to God, when you were acutely aware of your sins, when you were asking for God’s mercy. The king orders everybody to repent and wear sackcloth-including the animals!
(Animals repenting? Wha….? A fairly surreal detail, to say the least. One of the many hints that the author has a larger point in mind…a point we’ll get to shortly.)
(Another point about that point: when you read the Bible, embrace the weird parts. Animals wearing sackcloth is weird. Take note of the strange parts because they’re usually there for a reason…)
We’re familiar in the modern world with frameworks that see things in dualistic terms: there are the good people, and then there are the bad people, there is the right thing to do, there is the wrong thing to do, there are the people who need saving, and then there are people who do the saving.
But in this story the categories are all scrambled. The supposedly righteous Israelite is defiant and lazy and generally prickish (is that a word?) while the supposedly evil and wicked heathens are receptive and open to God’s message for them.
And then, in the end, after Jonah has had a change of heart and he’s seen this massive, miraculous change of heart in the Ninevites right before his eyes, he’s so upset by it that he wants to die.
He says to God
I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.
And then he adds
Now LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.
What a bizarre story.
A story in which none of the characters do what you’d expect them to do. Which raises the questions
So why did this story survive?
What did people find this story important and worth telling and preserving?
What does it tell us about how they understand who they are and who God?
First, this story is about a man, but it’s about a nation. Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh because the Assyrians had treated Israelites horribly. The story asks the question
Can Jonah forgive the Assyrians?
which is really the question
Can Israel forgive the Assyrians?
Jonah is angry at the end,
angry that God has been so kind to them.
Of course Jonah is angry.
When you haven’t forgiven someone who has wronged you and then something good happens to them-when they are blessed or shown mercy or experience favor-it’s infuriating.
Which leads us to a larger theme of the Bible: According to the story that’s been unfolding up until Jonah gets on a boat, Israel had a calling from early in its history (Genesis 12 to be more precise) to be a light to the world, to show the world the redeeming love of God.
A calling they haven’t lived up to.
There’s a question, then, that lurks in the story of Jonah:
Can you forgive your worst enemy and be a channel through which God’s redeeming love can flow to them?
It’s a question for Jonah
it’s the question for Israel.
This is why the book of Jonah doesn’t end with a conclusion or a judgment or details about what Jonah does next.
The book ends with a question, a question God has for Jonah: Should I not be concerned about that great city?
It’s a question for the Jonah character in the story,
but at a far more significant level it’s a question the author is asking the audience, an audience who we can only assume would have had many, many personal reasons to answer…
That said, what about the fish part?