A lot of us may have become acquainted with Jonah as a children’s story right out of the Bible: Jonah and the Whale. Or we may have had a Children’s Bible Story Book which contained words and pictures about the amazing story of one of God’s prophets being swallowed by a big fish. If we’re not careful, that’s what Jonah could remain.
It’s not, however, a mere children’s story from Holy Scripture. It’s one of the most profound stories in the Old Testament. It’s about salvation. It’s about the love of God being larger than the Israelites thought it was. It’s a story that, it seems to me, could have been included in the New Testament. (Jonah did get a favorable mention in Matthew 12:39-41, and the Ninevites were said to be in good standing at the time of judgment because of their repentence.)
We know well the children’s part of the story. We may be a little hazy on the rest of it. When Jonah finally preached to the people of Nineveh, he declared: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” As it turned out, the people of Nineveh believed in God, and they repented. Much to the consternation of Jonah, the Ninevites declared a fast and put on sackcloth. When God saw this, he relented on his threat of destruction and offered the people salvation.
Jonah was furious. Israel, God’s chosen people, and Nineveh were enemies. Nineveh was known for its wickedness. If Nineveh believed in God, its people had experienced a quick change of heart. Jonah wanted none of that. I knew you would do this, God, Jonah complained. “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” (Jonah 4:2) He then asked God to kill him, rather than make him watch the salvation of Nineveh.
Jonah’s anger is somewhat understandable. As an Israelite, he had been taught all of his life that other nations were evil, enemies of God and his chosen people, even unacceptable for marriage. Now, God was turning those teachings on their head. Interestingly, somehow Jonah already knew that (I knew you were gracious, slow to anger, etc.), though he had not embraced what seems to be a new way of looking at the world.
As far as we can tell, Jonah never once thought about changing his mind, although God had changed his own. Is it possible for us to change our minds and turn from deep-seated beliefs that may cause hurt to other people–to other believers? Can we allow God’s nature as revealed in the story of Jonah to change what what we believe? Jonah said he would rather die.
That has been the long-time battle cry of religious zealots who can see things only one way–their way–which they usually say is God’s way. Someone once told me that it’s very important to seek God’s will but very dangerous to think you’ve found it.