A Prophet Gone Bad: Reflections on Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Finally Jonah goes to Nineveh, utters a reluctant, five-word sermon (seven or eight in English) on one Ninevite street corner, and watches in unabashed horror as the entire Ninevite crowd converts to worship of YHWH, from king to cows! Once again, every time the prophet opens his mouth, people start believing what he says.

But Jonah, the prophet of YHWH, the most successful prophet in all the Bible, is furious! And now we come to the real reason for Jonah's flight in the first place. He knows the great verses of Exodus 34:6 all too well. He just knew that YHWH was "gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love (chesed!) and always ready to change a mind about punishment." Jonah just knew that if he ever spoke the word of YHWH that everyone would change their ways, and much to his chagrin it has happened, despite his attempts to avoid it all; pagan sailors and Ninevite warlords and king have all become worshippers of YHWH. And now Jonah's pew will be peopled by all manner of undesirables, nasty Ninevites, salty sailors, and who knows what other riff-raff. Jonah would rather be dead! And so he demands that YHWH bump him off.

As much as YHWH might be thought to be so inclined to do the little bugger in, of course this YHWH has no such thought in mind. Instead, YHWH sets out to teach the ridiculous prophet a thing or two about who YHWH really is. The fast-growing and fast-dying bush that Jonah quickly loves—the only thing he does love in this story beside himself—leads him again to want to die. I love my little plant, he whines! "Get off it," shouts YHWH. "You love the little plant that grew up and perished in a single night? Well, should I not love Nineveh, that huge city with its myriad people, not to mention all those cows?"

And that is the end. But not really the end. Of course, YHWH loves Nineveh and its cows. But what about Jonah? Does he get it? Or does he sit up on the hills above Nineveh, sucking his thumb and waiting for YHWH to drop a low-yield nuclear device on them after all, after YHWH comes to the divine senses and sees the Ninevites as Jonah sees them, filthy, murderous, pagans, one and all?

And now we can see just who Jonah is: he is that sanctimonious, Bible-spouting mountebank who hates anyone who is not just like him. I fear that he too often is us—those of us who just know we have all the right answers, while "they" (fill in the blank of your particular "they") just as certainly do not. Jonah is the prophet gone bad. He is at once hilarious and monstrous. He is Vulture, the Son of Wretchedness, and every religious community has him among them. Yea, his name is Legion.

Read this story at your peril and laugh at the antics of its main character, but know that your laughter is at yourself. Go then and do not do likewise.

1/19/2012 5:00:00 AM