The ‘story’ of Jonah is an interesting one. It has caused a lot of debate historically through to the present times.
Now, I am one of those weird people (and there aren’t many of us)! that does take the historical setting of the biblical text just as serious as the message for us today. To get the authority of the message for today’s world, you need to delve into the early centuries and get the message of their world.
And to be honest, when we do that; there is some considerable overlap when it comes to themes in the story of Jonah. Such as: “Should God forgive people who persecuted his people?”, or if we want to turn modern philosophy like my brother seems to want to: “Should someone be forced to do something that they don’t want to do, does that show signs of a good God?”
My Jesus, My Saviour StF 363 My Jesus, my Saviour
From the breaking of dawn StF 156 From the breaking of the dawn
All these, we’ll try and explore tonight as we consider each of the chapters in turn because as Hilary pointed out on Sunday, there are only 4! So, we are going to explore chapters 1 and 2 and chapters 3 and 4 and then we are going to have some closing thoughts.
Therefore, as we get underway… an historical overview: “Ninevah was the capital of Assyria, the conqueror of Samaria in 722 BCE; it was destroyed by the Babylonians and their allies in 612”. So, our story is set after the exile period. Chapters 1 and 2 – Introduction + Call + Running away
Within that setting, then, it is probable that our story is a story and not a historical figure and that response fits our theme tonight: that of heroism. Think of it, in the ancient world, if you wanted a heroic figure you would not choose Jonah. In the ancient world, while these were later, you might turn to the figures of Greco-Roman Myth; these would:
1) Have their fate determined to them by the “gods”, and be issued a challenge of some sort; think Hercules
2) Then, they would have to do something to prove that they completed the challenge
3) Further, they would generally come back with a girl in hand to prove such a masculine challenge
Now, I’ve not a had a relationship and don’t consider myself an expert on what women want (or intend on having one in the future), but I would assume that most women would not want:
a) A man that runs away from a challenge
b) A man that argues with an authoritative loving figure
c) A man that is vengeful and nasty
This is shown as we consider the ancients view of the waters… in the stories context the seas were considered chaos. And Jonah, in the sea being thrown overboard would have meant that he thought death the best option. In a sense, in modern times, he would have been committing suicide. As it says in the Jewish Study Bible: “… Even then [the sailors] they are afraid of being held responsible for the death of prophet. To be sure, God knows that their action will not lead to Jonah’s death, but rather serves as a necessary step for the completion of Jonah’s mission and of God’s overall intention. But the sailors do not know that”.
And I am reminded, at this point, of my conversations with my brother. “Is it right God should force responsibilities upon them and make the complete them?” But… to be honest… ask myself or Hilary and any other Local Preacher and we would know how Jonah feels, whether or not like the story.
Now, given that Hilary and Les are about to fly off to Italy, and I’m having two days off, it might not be the best example… but God gives us all tasks to do because He cares about His creation. He cared about the people of Nineveh and he wanted him to proclaim a message of forgiveness.
Sometimes, the jobs that God wants us to do are not the jobs that suit our inclinations. As it says in our covenant liturgy as Methodists. As I have often said in giving my testimony, if anyone would have said from school years that I would be engaging with theology and philosophy and ancient history for Jesus… to be honest, Tarshish seems like an attractive option.
Chapters 3 and 4
In chapters three and four, we are faced with critical and interesting questions. Now, granted we faced this when Jonah was in the fish. “Was he pushed to go to Nineveh?”, “Was he forced?” But there was a deeper thing happening… and I doubt that even Jonah understood this.
At the heart of this was a rekindling of his prophetic journey… but he had to come to terms with this.
Chapters 3 and 4
I am sure Hilary knows how this feel, and preachers gone by, but there have been many occasions where we have all felt like we just want to curl up in bed on a Sunday with a good book. But Jonah chapter 3 and 4 are where his prophetic mission gets re-established.