My son recently asked me which book of the Bible he should read first.
There are 66 books in the Bible, so it’s difficult to choose which one to read first.
Do you start with the New Testament or the Old Testament?
Do you start with a Gospel?
Do you start with the first book of the Bible, Genesis?
Or do you start at the end of the Bible with the Book of Revelation?
After having these thoughts, I blurted out, “Jonah!”
I told him that it is a great description of God’s love for all people, including those we call our enemies.
And it’s only four chapters and a total of 48 verses.
Verse for verse, it might be my favorite book in the Bible.
We generally think of the heroes of the Bible as always being faithful to God’s call, but the Bible is full of anti-heroes. The website tvtropes.com defines an anti-hero as, “a protagonist who has the opposite of most of the traditional attributes of a hero. They may be bewildered, ineffectual, deluded, or merely apathetic. More often an anti-hero is just an amoral misfit.”
Jonah is definitely an anti-hero.
The story takes place during the days of the Assyrian Empire. The capital of Assyria was a town called Ninevah. The Assyrians threatened to conquer the known world and destroy any resistors. Jonah and his people were known as resistors. They were in big trouble.
So God called Jonah to, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”
But Jonah is an anti-hero, so he does the opposite of what a hero would do – Jonah runs in the opposite direction of Ninevah and boards a ship to a city called Tarshish.
While on the boat, God sends a big storm and the sailors become scared that they might drown. They cast lots among themselves and whoever the lot fell upon was the one to blame. The lot fell on Jonah, who tells them to throw him overboard so that the storm would stop. The sailors refuse to go along with Jonah’s sacrificial plan at first. Instead they try to row harder back to land. But the storm was too strong. They cried out to God, “Please, O Lord, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” Then they threw Jonah overboard.
Did God orchestrate Jonah being sacrificed? The story doesn’t explicitly say, but I don’t think so. God causes the storm in the story, but God does not actively stop the storm. After all, the sacrifice was Jonah’s plan, not God’s.
Instead of sacrificing Jonah, God saves Jonah by sending a large fish to swallow him up. Jonah stays in the belly of the fish for three days. How did Jonah get out of the fish? I like the way the KJV puts it, “And the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.”
Jonah survived the belly of the fish, but only through fish vomit. Jonah landed on the ground covered in fish vomit. How’s that for a visual? Ha!
Then God called Jonah again to go to Ninevah. This time Jonah went. When he arrived he preached the shortest, and in my opinion the worst, sermon ever: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
Jonah had no message of repentance? No word about God’s desire for justice? Nothing about God’s love? That’s it???
But it worked! The story tells us that everyone in Ninevah repented. Even the animals repented. The King made a decree that the Ninevites would show their sorrow to God by calling for a great fast,
“No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” 10When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
You might think that Jonah celebrated his success, but no. Jonah the anti-hero was displeased and angry with God. He resented God’s steadfast love and mercy. He cried out,
O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.
Jonah resents God’s love, because it’s a steadfast love that embraces even those evil Assyrians.
Interestingly, there is no evidence that the events of Jonah ever happened. The Ninevites never repented of their violent conquests. In fact, Nahum, another book of the Bible, never talks about the Ninevites repenting. Rather, it tells the story of God’s unrelenting wrath and destruction of the Ninevites. Jonah and Nahum have radically different an contrasting views of what God did with the Assyrian Empire.
In the end, I love the book of Jonah. It’s not historically accurate, but it tells a deeper truth about God’s radical love for all people, including those we call our enemies.