Suppose you see this headline on your news feed: “Vegan Convinces McDonald’s to Stop Selling Hamburgers.” The story follows: “A shabbily dressed man burst into the food chain’s shareholders’ meeting shouting, ‘Eating meat is murder!’ The shareholders and CEO reacted immediately with, ‘What were we THINKING? We’ll stop selling hamburgers as of today.’” You’d know this was satire, wouldn’t you? Not “fake news”—satire. It’s not supposed to fool anybody. Maybe it’s from The Onion.*
That’s pretty much what happens in the book of Jonah. A bedraggled stranger wanders around Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian empire, one of the most brutal empires in history (they wiped out ten of the twelve tribes of Israel). All he says is that that Nineveh will soon be destroyed….. And everybody believes him! Even the king. The king orchestrates one of the most extravagant displays of repentance imaginable—even the animals have to stop eating and wear shabby clothes (“sack cloth”). (Did they dress their livestock in nicer clothes beforehand?)
Folks, this whole book is a satire. When it was first written, nobody would have read it as factually true, any more then you or I would believe a story about McDonald’s turning vegan overnight. So don’t even ask whether a man could have been swallowed by a giant fish and live to tell about it. That’s not nearly as incredible as the instant repentance of an astoundingly brutal empire, just because of some bedraggled, half-digested stranger’s ranting. (Incidentally, we know that the Assyrians did NOT repent. The book’s first readers knew that too.)
It makes you wonder how people ever came to think this was supposed to be factual reporting. At every turn it pokes fun at people’s expectations. They expected prophets to obey God. Jonah disobeys—he tries to get as far away from Nineveh as possible. They expected foreigners to disobey God. These foreigners obey—extravagantly. They expected prophets to preach long-winded sermons. The prophet Jonah utters just eight words. They expected a prophet’s predictions to come true. Jonah’s didn’t. It’s satire. Stop worrying about the giant fish.
Perhaps most surprising, as the story winds up, is that it’s not just the Assyrians who repent. God repents! The Assyrians are spared. And Jonah is furious with God: “I KNEW you’d do that, you bleeding-heart liberal!” God is amused and tells Jonah, “You know, since I’m God, I actually care for everybody: even bloodthirsty Assyrians, even speechless animals, and even reluctant, grouchy prophets like you.”
The book of Jonah reminds us that the Bible is not a textbook. It’s a collection of all sorts of literature. And it’s more of a debate than a final pronouncement.
The book, after all, ends with God’s final question, not an answer: “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh …?” God asks Jonah, in other words, “Couldn’t I be more loving than some of you prophets have made me out to be?”
In the Bible you can find plenty of snapshots of a vindictive, mean-spirited God. The book of Jonah says (through a caricature, ironically) that these nasty snapshots are themselves caricatures. God may be angered at our cruelty, but God constantly yearns for even the cruelest of us to start walking in love.
Can we do that today? What if tomorrow a bedraggled foreigner showed up just outside the barriers around the Capitol, in few words warning all of us, from leftmost to rightmost, of our imminent self-destruction? What if instead of arresting this crackpot we believed them? What if their few words stopped our predictable bickering and started us cooperating, prompting us to include the most vulnerable in our decision-making? Impossible? Miraculous? So it may seem.
But God yearns for that impossible outcome, always. And God never stops nagging us about it. May the impossible happen!
*I stole and adapted this from Bill Placher—Walter Brueggemann, William C. Placher and Brian K. Blount, Struggling with Scripture (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), p. 34.