The tale of Jonah is one of the most misunderstood stories in the Bible. Often it makes for an easy children’s story with all the drama of Jonah’s adventure at sea. We use it to moralize about obedience to God and the dangers of refusing God’s direction. However, Jonah teaches us some deeper, far more uncomfortable truths.
First, Jonah was a racist. There is no mistaking this from the text. When God told Jonah to confront Nineveh over their sins, he did not flee because he was scared. Yes, Nineveh, as the capital of Assyria, was known for its brutality and near genocidal tendencies as it expanded its empire. Yet, that is not why Jonah refused to go. He refused because he knew the mercy of God, a mercy he did not feel the Assyrians worthy of experiencing.
But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”Jonah 4:1-3 English Standard Version (emphasis mine)
The story also highlights Jonah’s wicked heart when it contrasts his attitude with that of the sailors. In the midst of a great storm, the pagan sailors showed more mercy to Jonah than Jonah, the man of God, showed to Nineveh. Make no mistake, Jonah is the bad guy in this story.
Second, Nineveh did not deserve God’s mercy. I fear we “modern” people often underestimate the level of brutality in the ancient world. We cry foul when police shoot rubber bullets at rioters. Meanwhile, in the ancient world victorious conquerors like the Assyrians would flay their enemies alive (neither act justifies the other). Assyria was the world’s superpower of the day, built on conquest of tribal peoples, slavery, and the exhortation of wealth from others. Nineveh was the capital of this barbaric nation. So no, Nineveh did not deserve God’s mercy, but then again, neither do we.
For a modern day parallel to this story, consider not Moscow or Beijing, but Washington, D. C. Consider being sent as Jonah was to Washington in order to demand repentance from House members, Senators, the President, and all their aides and all the bureaucrats that make up the United States federal government. Imagine being sent on this task knowing that if they repent, Republican and Democrat alike, they would be shown mercy. Yet in your anger and spite over those you deem unworthy of God’s mercy, you refuse the call hoping that would lead to their utter destruction.
This is the story of Jonah, called to preach repentance leading to mercy to those he most despised. This is also our story and relevant in light of the anger and hurt we see in the United States right now. There is so much division, so much anger, it is easy to stop seeing our opponents as people. They no longer become human beings made in the image of God with whom we disagree. They become “others,” alien ideologues whom we must destroy by any means possible.
Jonah was not the good guy in the story. God was. God was the one who showed mercy to both Jonah and the people of Nineveh, none of whom deserved it. So the question is, “Do we love God more than our hate?” Do we love enough to listen to people we disagree with? Do we love enough to turn the other cheek to those who hate us? Do we love enough to stand against injustice in all its forms while not resorting to injustice in kind?
In other words, will you go to Nineveh?