For some, the book of Jonah in the Hebrew Old Testament is reminiscent of a grand fishing story. Not only did the fish get away, but the tale seems larger than life. It makes a great children’s story, but is of little use in our modern lives. Even the theologians have reduced it to a metaphor of Jesus Christ death on the cross. However, Jonah, the city of Nineveh and the Hebrew God, Yahweh, have more to teach us then just a cute Sunday school story or a theologian’s confirmation of the Christ centric understanding of the Old Testament.
Like so many of the ancient Hebrew prophetic writings, the book of Jonah is meant to school us in faith and its relationship to culture, those habits of our heart and mind. And, in the case of Nineveh, a particularly nasty culture. The lessons are not easily fit into a box of convenient religious categories. The book ends with a question from God. It directs us to questions of religious judgments. How do we see and respond to people who seek God under the umbrella of their own religion and culture? In “Christian” North America, how do we see the plight of the Palestinian people, Islamic cultures or even the gay and lesbian communities? What about Buddhist, Hindu or secularist cultures? Can they know the Christian God and His mercy?
Nineveh is the other, a people who are outside of our traditional values and at worst a society of habits that have more in common with the brutal regimes of the past century, from Stalin to Pot Pol, from Hitler to Sadman Husain, not to mention the Assyrians brutality to the Jews of Jonah’s time. Jonah, the representative of Jewish orthodoxy, is a prophet, but a flawed prophet. He represents that close link between both vice and virtue, between what is both good but corrupted by ego and denies the religious possibilities of God himself. Not even the call of God himself can bring Jonah, a religious man, to commit to the service of a people he considers offensive.
Jonah is two faced. God calls, he accepts and then immediately proceeds to get as far away from both Nineveh and God. Ironically, he finds his escape on a ships passage among men who are anything but Jewish, sailors. In the heart of the sea’s storm, it is these men, while practicing their own faith, discovery the possibility of the God Yahweh. Not exactly the ideal conversion. What happened to theology and confession? More to the point, where’s the Jewish orthodoxy? What about the Nicine Creed? The writer is noticeably silent on these points.
Jonah’s miraculous rescue on the sea continues to move him further away from God, but this time in the belly of the fish, a second irony. Yet, here, deep in the ocean, Jonah accepts God’s appeal. His acquiescence is tainted by his desire to finish the task and witness the rightful destruction of his enemies, as his later behavior betrays the intentions of his noble prayer. He can hardly be characterized as siding with God on moral grounds.
So he enters Nineveh, and gives one of the shortest prophetic messages in the Old Testament, a warning about the city to be overthrown. What’s astounding is the results. A city of over 100,000 people believes in God, Yahweh. For such a dramatic results, we are short on details, particularly religious details. What happen to their existing gods and practices of religion? What about the distinctive practices of Abraham’s chosen people and its law’s that distinguish them? The only insight we are given is by God himself at the end of the book. Nineveh learned the difference between their “right hand and left hand,” or between good and evil. Perhaps the Christian and Jewish call to faith is simpler then we think, encompassing the possibilities of culture that make room for God, His mercy, and “the other” when emancipate from evil, the violence of man against man.
The book ends with a question to Jonah. “Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?” Jonah’s blind spot, as a man in the mainstream of his own narrative identity, as a people chosen by Yahweh, is his lack of openness to the possibilities of God’s will. Christian missions have a rich history of emancipating cultures from what is evil within the culture. The legacy of schools, hospitals, and social movements and its own internal reforms are its heritage in lifting people up from underneath the structures of power, including secularism. The critic of Christian missions rightfully points to the role of imperialism and Christian missions, of the sword and the cross, and we are reminded that these are the perversions of faith and not the logical entailments.
Unlike Jonah, Christianity must guard itself from its own arrogance in a pluralistic world, a blind spot of its own virtue. The beauty of Christianity is its openness to the other and of God’s mercy, in spite of our preconceptions of culture. Judaism and Christianity’s own self critique in Jonah calls its own to be open to other races and cultures, rather than its inclinations to judge by internal standards of “self righteousness.” Most importantly, Joahn is a message about caring. Caring enough for the cities and neighborhoods that lack human rights and any sense of practice about the imago dei, the image of God in man. This is the call of the book, to a distinctively Christain mission.