What Is The Gospel According To Jonah?


Did you hear about the man swallowed by a whale?

Early on Friday morning June 11 2021, Michael Packard was diving for lobster off the east coast of the USA “when, suddenly, everything went dark. ‘Oh my God, I’m in a whale’s mouth, and he’s trying to swallow me’,” recounted the lobster diver. “I thought to myself, ‘hey, this is it. I’m going to die. There’s no getting out of here.’” But the whale threw up, spewing Packard back up into the sea. And Packard said. “‘I just got thrown in the air and landed in the water and I just floated there.’”[1] I don’t know about you but I immediately thought of the Story of Jonah.

Do you remember the Story Of Jonah?

God sent Jonah to Nineveh. But Jonah did not want to go. Jonah tried to escape. He set off by boat in the opposite direction as quick as he could. But there was a terrible storm. Jonah knew that God had caused the storm. So, he asked the sailors to throw him into the sea. But Jonah did not drown, because God sent a whale (or a large fish) to swallow Jonah. Then Jonah prayed to God and God caused the whale (or a large fish) to throw Jonah up on the dry land. So Jonah went to Nineveh. He warned the people that because of the atrocities they had committed, God would destroy them. However, the people repented, God forgave them and did not destroy them as he told them he would. This made Jonah mad, because Nineveh was the enemy and he wanted God to destroy them. But God told Jonah that he cared for them and that he would give them another chance.

Why didn’t Jonah want to go to Nineveh?

Ninevah was the capital of Assyria, where the Islamic State of today was based, and it was as infamous in its day for its terrifying cruelty as Islamic State is today

“Assyrian art contains some of the most appalling images ever created. In one scene, tongues are being ripped from the mouths of prisoners. That will mute their screams when, in the next stage of their torture, they are flayed alive (their skin and flesh viciously whipped from their bones). In another relief a surrendering general is about to be beheaded and in a third prisoners have to grind their fathers’ bones before being executed in the streets of Nineveh.” [2]

The idea of Jonah going to Ninevah, unarmed, to confront the merciless regime at the height of its power and to prophesy its demise, was a frightening prospect.

So Jonah ran for his life. And we all know the story of how God sent the whale to stop him in his tracks, turn him around and put him back on the road to Ninevah.

What did God ask Jonah to say to Nineveh?

“In forty days Nineveh will be destroyed.” (Jonah 3:4) No ifs; no buts; no maybes.

And no doubt, Jonah would have thought – like us – that it was just what Nineveh – like the Islamic State – deserved: shock and awe and total absolute annihilation

But after forty days Nineveh was not destroyed.

Because the people “repented of their evil violent ways” (Jonah 3:8) and “God relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” (3:10) And Jonah was enraged, that God had changed his mind and not kept his word.

Which brings us to two points I want to make: one about Jonah and one about God.

The point I want to make about Jonah is that, like many religious people, he is committed to “the word”, especially “the word of judgment” above everything else, and desperately wants prophesies of “judgment” to be fulfilled, regardless of how much suffering it’s fulfilment would involve, as long as that suffering is inflicted upon others not upon ourselves.  Like believers, who pray for the war of Armageddon to break out in the Middle East, to fulfil their prophetic time-table.

But before we dismiss Jonah too smugly, we need to ask ourselves: would we be willing to go, on our own, unarmed, to confront a murderous terrorist regime, armed to the teeth, like Islamic State, with it’s terrible crimes against humanity?

The point I want to make about God is that God is more concerned about being seen to be compassionate than being seen to be consistent. Indeed God is willing to change his or her mind, and risk the wrath of the prophets over not fulfilling their prophetic word, in order to be truly, really, outrageously compassionate. To Jeremiah God says: “If at any time I announce that a nation…is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.” (Jeremiah 18:7-8) This was exactly Jonah’s complaint. For crying out loud, he said, “I knew that you were a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” (Jonah 4:2) So, in the last verse in the book, God asks Jonah: “should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left – and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:11).

The gospel according to Jonah is not the “gospel of Jonah” but the “gospel of God.”

The gospel of God is that “love” not “judgment” will always have “the final word.”

Dave Andrews

I would recommend reading David Benjamin Blower’s book Sympathy For Jonah which inspired these reflections. I picked it up, started to read it and couldn’t stop. It’s an irresistible, fanciful, terrifying book: brilliant, beautiful, and colourful, but brutal, awful, and confronting. Sympathy For Jonah is The Gospel According To Jonah for today.

[1] https://boston.cbslocal.com/2021/06/11/lobster-diver-swallowed-by-whale-cape-cod-michael-packard/

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/nov/06/i-am-ashurbanipal-review-british-museum

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