A few weeks ago we watched a Christian cartoon version of the Jonah and the Whale story from the Old Testament. Now he’s singing the songs and asking me such questions as, “What’s a prophet?” or “Why did God say —?” So we reviewed the story as we ate lunch and I starting thinking that people–God’s and others– haven’t changed much since Jonah’s time.
The Jonah story is still a fascinating book in the Bible about a reluctant missionary inside a large fish, an important evil city, and the God who cared about all of them. (In Genesis 10:9-12 Nimrod, the warrior, built such pagan cities as Babylon and Ninevah.) Jonah probably hated Ninevah; maybe he even lost some family members to that place. When Jonah ran away from God’s mission to deliver a message of warning to Ninevah, he spent three, dark, miserable days inside a stinky fish stomach, crying out to God in distress. Then God told the fish to spit out the prophet.
What a great place for introspection, yet Jonah was still talking smack about those pagans “who forfeit grace” (Jonah 2:8, 9, NIV). God gave Jonah a second chance to deliver his message to Ninevah. They responded with humility and God had “compassion” upon the people and did not allow them to be destroyed.
A Gracious, Compassionate God
But Jonah was angry that he served such a “gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love” (Jonah 4:2). Jonah pouted and declared he would rather die than live. Still expecting hellfire, Jonah sat down to see what would happen to Ninevah. God went so far as to provide a vine to give Jonah shade, then a worm chewed the vine. When Jonah got sunburned he whined, “It would be better for me to die.” God questioned Jonah’s right to be angry about the loss of shade, and Jonah admitted, “I am angry enough to die.” God confronted Jonah: “You are so concerned about the loss of a vine that you had nothing to do with. Yet Ninevah has more than 120,000 people, and their cattle. Shouldn’t I be concerned about them?”
For generations people have refused to resign the concept of an angry, vengeful God who delivers eternal justice on their terms. They often label others as heretics and unbelievers if they can’t accept a gracious inclusive God. Many times they have exterminated those with whom they disagree, believing they represent God. And they pout, and clutch their vindictiveness as something sacred. Even as God blesses them and provides second chances.
God loved Ninevah and Jonah. Later the same God came to earth as a man, full of grace and compassion for the wounded and ignorant. As he died at the hands of his own people Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34, NIV).
Questions for personal journaling or group discussion:
1. Have you ever been angry enough to want to die? What do you think about that particular issue now?
2. How do you imagine the outcome for evil people? Does that picture match your idea of God, if you believe in him?
Karen Spruill writes from Orlando, Florida
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