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Challenging God: Why Did Jonah Run?
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One possibility is that Jonah doesn’t want to be seen as a false prophet. Here comes God and says “ Jonah, I want you to go to Nineveh; I want you to get these persons to repent.” We know that he actually goes into Nineveh and he says “ forty more days and Nineveh is going to be destroyed.” Now, maybe his position is this “ look, I know these guys are going to repent and I know when they repent, you God are going to forgive them and I know you’re not going to destroy them after forty days and I am going to look silly and I’m not interested in looking silly”. What do you say? Does that work for the book?
So, here is my problem with this theory; if that’s what Jonah is thinking, there is very easy way around this problem. All he had to do is go back to God and say “ instead of asking me to go back to Nineveh and tell them “forty more days and then they will be destroyed”, what if we say, forty more days and then they will be destroyed unless you guys change your ways”, and that way it’s great! You are happy,because you get your message across; I’m happy because I don't look like a fool when they do Teshuvah and we’re great!” And basically then, the moral of the story of the Book of Jonah is ‘God and his prophet should communicate better’. Is that what the story is about? I don’t think so.
If Jonah jumps off the ship, that’s really part of the story. If he gets swallowed by a fish, that’s really part of the story.All these things are the mainstays of the story; they are not incidental. So I think the possibility of it - Jonah not wanting to be seem as a false prophet- does not seem to be what’s really motivating him here. So what might be another possibility for why Jonah is running away?
Here, I want to suggest the ‘Jonah is selfish theory’. You know Jonah, he was just a selfish kind of guy. He was interested in God being nice to him but wasn’t particularly interested in God being nice to anybody else. We’re talking of prophets are usually a people of higher moral quality than that. But let’s see if we can actually disprove that theory. If you look at the book itself, is there anything in the book that argues against the ‘Jonah is selfish theory’? So two things I think come to mind. The first thing is what happens to Jonah on the ship during the storm. Jonah runs away, he is suppose to be going to Nineveh, instead he’s going to Tarshish and there is a divinely inspired storm.The sailors are afraid, they think the ship is going to go down.
They throw lots to see if there is somebody on the ship that is causing this divine anger. And the lots fall on Jonah. So they turn to him and they say “what’s the story?” Jonah explains - he is running away from God. They are all very afraid. And at that point they give him an opening, they say “ well, what should we do with you?” Pretend you are Jonah, they’ve asked you “ well, what should we do with you now?” Now, imagine you are a selfish kind of personality, would you say “ throw me overboard”? Or would you say “ well, why don’t we try rowing harder back to shore?” I think you would choose “ rowing harder back to shore”. But it’s not what Jonah chooses. Jonah says “ throw me overboard!” Selfish people don’t say “ throw me overboard.”
And now let’s go to a second thing. And the end of the book, the people of Nineveh do repent and God forgives them. Jonah didn’t want it to happen; now he’s lost the battle. What’s his response? He says to God “ my life isn’t worth living anymore. Take my life from me. I want to be dead rather than be alive!” It’s not what a selfish personality does. But there is something going on with Jonah; it’s deeper than being selfish. He want’s to die because Nineveh was forgiven. He wanted to die before when he told the sailors to throw his off the boat. I mean, there is something much deeper, much more visceral going on here. That leads us to the possibility of some other motivations that might be propelling Jonah to do what he does.
I want to introduce you to something I call the ‘Jonah as Jewish Patriot theory’. Who were the people of Nineveh? Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria. These were not good guys. The Assyrian empire were enemies of the Jews. In a couple generations,the Assyrians are going to swoop down, invade the Northern Kingdom, exile the ten tribes, make war against countless Judean cities and maybe Jonah’s position is “ I don’t want to help these guys. You God are asking me to warn these people about their destruction. Well, I’d like it if the got destroyed.I don’t want them to be forgiven.” Maybe that’s his position. Are there any problems with this position? Well I want to suggest that there is. And again, the issue is, any motivation that you posit for Jonah at the beginning of the book, has to be able to make it’s way through the end of the book. So let’s talk about the end of the book.
In the end of the book, we have this story about this big plant and the worm. There is this big plant with all of it’s leaves shading Jonah and Jonah is very,very happy about the plant. Along comes the worm, the worms eat away at the roots, it destroys the plant, and the plant withers and Jonah wants to die and he is very, very upset. Now at that point God says “ you had compassion on that gourd that you didn’t work for and I shouldn’t have compassion on Nineveh, this great big city? You know Jonah the implication is here that the problem with you - you don’t have enough compassion.” If I was Jonah, I would be offended. I would say “ God, I’m a very compassionate person. I have compassion upon my people. I’m just not interested in the Ninevites attacking us!”
Now, I also want to just introduce you to another sort of variation of this theory - ‘Jonah is a Patriot theory’ and this variation is given by the Midrash ; it’s sort of a spiritual version of the ‘Jonah is a Patriot theory’. Here is what the Midrash that Rashi quotes says “ Jonah knows history and he knows that over and over again, God has sent various prophet to the Jews to no avail; they just haven’t repented. And now, along goes Jonah to go to some Gentile city and to get them to repent and Jonah is worried that they are actually going to do it; and that’s going to make the Jews look bad. God is going to say “ I send prophet after prophet to my own people that I have this covenant with and they ignore all of these prophets and I send one lousy prophet to the Gentiles and all of a sudden they repent like there is no tomorrow!” What do I need the Jews for? And Jonah doesn’t want to be the instrument of that.”
Very satisfying this theory in it’s own way. Again though, the problem is how do you make it through the end of the book? If this is really the simple explanation, how does the story of the gourd and the worm that destroys it, suppose to convince Jonah of anything? What, he is suppose to have compassion on the gourd? “Don’t talk to me about gourd and plant you know! Again, I am a patriot of the Jewish people. I just don’t think it is going to make our people look good!” You know, what would be the answer to that? So if you told me that the answer that God was giving Jonah at the end of the book is “ look Jonah, I understand that you’re worried about the Jews but you can’t look into such long term spiritual consequences to what’s going to happen. You just have to accept my plan”. And if you told me that that was God’s answer, that would make sense. But it doesn’t sounds like that’s God’s answer. The story of the gourd doesn’t seem to be a story in which God says “ you don’t have the right to question me. You are questioning me and I’m trying to provide you an answer with this story.” What is that answer?
So those are four possible approaches but none of them seem particularly compelling because none of them really seems to match up with God’s response at the end. So I want to suggest to you a theory that I think works - what I might call a fifth approach - but in order to get to that, we really need to dive into the details of the story. We need to look at some of the other perplexing things here. When we so that, we’re going to collect additional clues that will help us piece this together, help us understand why Jonah ran away and what God is trying to reach him at the end of the story.
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