The Book of the Twelve for Lent 2016
A Whale of a Tale – Jonah (1)
Jonah is doubtless the most well-known book in the Twelve. But not as a part of the Twelve. Usually we heard it in Sunday School when we were young, perhaps on a flannel graph. Then we were thrilled or perplexed at how the whale could swallow a man and yet he lived to do God’s bidding. We debated whether the story was “historical” or some kind of parable or literary creation. We took away the lesson that this entertaining little story is about Jonah’ unwillingness to proclaim God’s mercy to the wicked Nineveh.
And if this is the case, we missed the thrust and importance of Jonah.
First of all, Jonah is some kind of a story (even if there be some kind of “historical” event underlying it). It is literary artistry of a high order.
Secondly, it’s a big fish not a whale. This may seem a small point but it does warn us to be careful in our reading of the Bible and not let what we’ve been told or taught overrule what is actually there.
And, as to whether a big fish could swallow a man and him live to tell about it (to adapt a saying of Karl Barth’s about the talking snake in the Garden of Eden), it’s more important what that man said than whether the event could have happened!
Finally, Jonah never preaches divine mercy to Nineveh. He preaches judgment and is unhappy that God delivers mercy! Is he mad because God shows undeserved kindness to these vicious and arrogant pagans? Or because it made him look bad as a prophet to grandstand through that evil city announcing gloom and doom and it not happen or the reverse happen?
Though (deliberately) trading on a few of the Sunday School elements of Jonah, Frederick Buechner’s retelling of the tale (from Peculiar Treasures) will serve as our overview of the story which we will look at aspects of in the next few days.
“Within a few minutes of swallowing the prophet Jonah, the whale suffered a severe attack of acid indigestion, and it's not hard to see why. Jonah had a disposition that was enough to curdle milk.
“When God ordered him to go to Nineveh and tell them there to shape up and get saved, the expression on Jonah's face was that of a man who has just gotten a whiff of septic-tank trouble. In the first place, the Ninevites were foreigners and thus off his beat. In the second place, far from wanting to see them get saved, nothing would have pleased him more than to see them get what he thought they had coming to them.
“It was as the result of a desperate attempt to get himself out of the assignment that he got himself swallowed by the whale instead; but the whale couldn't stomach him for long, and in the end Jonah went ahead and, with a little more prodding from God, did what he'd been told. He hated every minute of it, however, and when the Ninevites succumbed to his eloquence and promised to shape up, he sat down under a leafy castor oil plant to shade him from the blistering sun and smoldered inwardly. It was an opening that God could not resist.
“He caused the castor oil plant to shrivel up to the last leaf, and when Jonah got all upset at being back in the ghastly heat again, God pretended to misunderstand what was bugging him.
"Here you are, all upset out of pity for one small castor oil plant that has shriveled up," he said, "so what's wrong with having pity for this whole place that's headed for hell in a handcart if something's not done about it?" (Jonah 4:10-11).
“It is one of the rare instances in the Old Testament of God's wry sense of humor, and it seems almost certain that Jonah didn't fail to appreciate it.”