Jonah Learns a Lesson: Chosen People, Part One

Jonah Learns a Lesson: Chosen People, Part One July 16, 2018

Jonah is cast into the raging sea.
The lot falls to Jonah.

Jonah, a prophet of God’s Chosen People, learns a painful lesson about God’s all-inclusive love. Jews and Christians both identify themselves as chosen people. Others may wonder, Is their god being fair?  Episode 16-1 of the Rowing with Michael Series: A journey through the Jewish/Christian Scriptures in Verse and Commentary. Introduction and Contents for this series HERE.

Michael, row the boat ashore. Alleluia….

Jonah was not a tasty dish. Alleluia.
He didn’t sit well with a hungry fish. Alleluia.
Finally he obeyed the Lord’s command. Alleluia.
Then sat and pouted on the desert sand. Alleluia.

Ezechiel got a big surprise. Alleluia.
He didn’t think dry bones could rise. Alleluia.
If God could do that for those dead men, Alleluia.
God’s chosen people could live again. Alleluia.

In an age of rapid travel and instant mass communication, we have come to know many cultures other than our own. That God would choose just one nation, Israel, out of the dazzling variety of peoples and cultures of the world is a puzzle. But that God did choose one in particular is a central part of the faith of Jews and Christians.

Ezechiel’s vision of dry bones coming together, taking on muscle and skin, and rising to life shows how strongly the Jews of his age held this belief. Even when they were no nation, held in bondage in the Babylonian Captivity, they clung to their scriptures and to the visions and words of their prophets, encouraging them to trust that God had not abandoned them forever.

But this belief about being chosen was also a problem. The author of Book of Jonah disagreed with the way Jews of his day thought about being the chosen ones. The character Jonah learns a truth that upsets him: that God, who chose the Jews, also cares about other people.

Early Christians had a similar problem, especially when Paul turned his evangelizing efforts toward the Gentiles, people who were not Jews.

Three posts will deal with the issue of chosenness and what that implies about the rest of humanity. This post answers: Why was Jonah so upset?

A tall tale

The whole Book of Jonah is very funny. Its literary genre, I would say, is that of the tall tale. I think the Jewish author, writing long after the historical setting of his story, thought he had to write with humor because his point was so very contrary to what many Jews, including the powers of the day, wanted to believe. Here’s the story:

God commands Jonah to preach to the citizens of Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, and the Assyrians were everything you can imagine bad about empires. Their evil deeds included plunder, rape, and ethnic cleansing. They did away with the whole Northern Kingdom of Israel and seriously compromised the small Southern Kingdom, forcing the king in Jerusalem to pay tribute in order to avoid annihilation.

Jonah thinks, “Those Ninevites will never repent. . . . But what if they do? God will let them off the hook just like that.” So he takes off in the other direction on a ship across the Mediterranean Sea.

The ship runs into a fierce storm and is in danger of sinking. The sailors cast lots to see which one on board offended his god. It’s a big storm so it must have a big explanation. The lot falls to Jonah. They throw him overboard, the storm ceases, and a big fish swallows Jonah.

Jonah is regurgitated after three days and, much chastened, goes on to prophecy in Nineveh: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” He’s still assuming, hoping, they won’t repent. But they do. Even the king, along with everybody else, sits in sackcloth and ashes—animals too. That’s a lot of sackcloth and ashes. They all go on a long fast. God relents and Nineveh is spared.

Jonah goes off in a huff and sits down and sulks. In one day God makes a bush come up over Jonah to give him shade. (I told you it’s a tall tale.) Jonah is very happy about the bush. On day two God appoints a sultry east wind and a very hot sun and also a worm to destroy the bush. Now Jonah is really angry about losing the bush, angry enough to die he tells God. God has the last word:

You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals? (Jonah 4:10-11)

God is not the God of Jews only but of other peoples as well, and also animals. How does this lesson of the Book of Jonah square with “chosen people” idea we find so strong in Ezekiel, in many other places in the Old Testament, and also in Christianity, especially its Catholic version? That is what the next two posts explore.

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