July 8, 2018, I led an adult Bible Class for the first time. With my upbringing and self confidence issues, that was a really big deal to me. I loved it. I had a blast researching Jonah and learning so much more about this Wisdom story. There are so many layers to this story. My husband, Jake, made me focus by creating an outline for me because I was going everywhere with the story. As I talked to him for about 20 minutes, he still hadn’t written anything down. I was livid with him about it. Jake is a teacher by profession. He told me he hadn’t written anything because he had no idea what my actual point was at the moment; I was still everywhere. (I do that! I admit it.) It is really funny now, and I benefited a lot from his experience as a teacher.
Jake and I became interested in the story of Jonah in our twenties after watching Veggie Tales (without kids- don’t laugh, this where we were spiritually 🙂 ). We were amused by Archibald Asparagus’s reenactment of Jonah. Now we always say “Anywhere but Nineveh!” in the tone of Archibald Asparagus every time we don’t want to go somewhere.
I had our kids help me by writing two scriptures on the board (Exodus 34:6-7 and Jonah 4: 1-3). Blake was so proud to help he signed his name so everyone would know. I had him read both verses and tell me what stuck out to him. He said, “Jonah is talking back to God.” He was stunned.
I was also showing how God was presented to Moses in Exodus, but when Jonah repeats that same verse back to God, he changes it at the end. The part about punishing the children and their children for generations to come-Jonah says he knew God would refuse to send calamity. This is why he wanted to go to Tarshish. Jonah says verbatim what so many of the Bible stories underlying message is- a loving God who is not out to punish. He says it, and isn’t one bit happy about it. I love that Jonah was creative with scripture. He did not believe his teachers that God would punish his children for generations to come. That is rich! Too bad it didn’t make him happy.
Jonah challenges our dualistic thinking. No one is acting according to the rules of traditional wisdom stories. Why is the Israelite resistant to God? Why are the horrible, mean, and nasty Assyrians open to God’s message? The Ninevites were so receptive, the King even orders sack cloth on the animals as well as all the people. Animals repenting? It is a wild story. Jonah challenges us to consider sometimes our worst enemies may be more receptive to God’s grace than we are when we don’t forgive.
Jonah had good reason not to want to go to Nineveh. The Assyrians had conquered Israel. Jonah probably witnessed atrocities beyond our imagination. Or maybe we can imagine it now. Jonah was written at a time many would say “Heck No!” on going to Nineveh.
When Jonah is thrown overboard from the boat and says his prayer, my heart feels it so deeply. I remember my own experience of feeling thrown into the sea unwillingly. A friend brought up that maybe the fish actually came as protection versus trying to teach a lesson–being thrown overboard certainly meant death. It was a time to be quiet and contemplate. It is worth noting the Bible is full of fish stories. The Ichthys, greek word for fish, is the first symbol of the Christian faith before the cross.
Even though Jonah completes his responsibility and the Ninevites repent, Jonah throws an absolute fit. We are left with him pouting with no real answers as to what happens at the end. But one thing our class did notice, God never seemed angry with Jonah. God continued to draw Jonah back into God’s thinking. We will spend our whole lives trying to keep in step with God’s thinking. It will challenge us more than we will like.
The question for Jonah is the question for Israel. The question for Israel is the question for us. What was done for Abraham was to bless all nations. Israel had not used their blessing to bring others into their blessing. It also leaves us to question, can we forgive our worst enemies? Are our wounds forever?
Ironically, the next week after the lesson, the Wilshire kids were in a musical called “Oh, Jonah”. The performance was incredible. I am so incredibly grateful my kids got to experience Sarah Stafford this past year. My own journey of being thrown out to sea lead us here (not quite Nineveh Ha!), and Sarah brought new life back to our family nurturing our children. Our hearts are filled with gratitude. We will remember Jonah as we work to continue a posture of gratitude and forgiveness. But I am thankful God lets us get mad and draws near to deliver us where we need to go-even if it is Nineveh.