The summary of this familiar tale is as follows: Yahweh asks Jonah to go proclaim judgment on the Assyrian capital, Ninevah. Jonah runs away and gets on a boat headed as far away from Ninevah as possible. The boat gets caught in a bad storm (because Yahweh is angry at Jonah), and the unwilling prophet gets thrown overboard and swallowed by an immense sea creature. After Jonah’s prayer (which may have been inserted into the story later), Yahweh tells the beast to vomit Jonah up on a beach, and it does. Then Yahweh sends Jonah to Ninevah again, and this time Jonah goes. He preaches hellfire and brimstone to the people of Ninevah so effectively that they become a repentant population. This really pisses Jonah off, because he was at least hoping to see the city get destroyed and all the evil-doers punished. Yahweh has mercy on Ninevah, and Jonah goes outside the city to sulk. Yahweh then teaches Jonah a little lesson about how the prophet’s selfish anger contrasts with the merciful and active Yahweh.
Jonah is one of those biblical stories that doesn’t need a whole lot of interpretation. If we translate the text into a new way of defining divinity, we might say that Jonah was a man who was compelled by a deep desire to create a better world, but that he allowed fear of how he would be received by others guide him 180 degrees from where he most wanted to be. Even when he stopped running, he interpreted his vision of a better world as requiring that some people (and even some animals) be destroyed—another layer of irrational fear that still kept him from seeing clearly. When other people responded with receptivity toward Jonah’s vision, he became angry because he had prepared for a fight.
He wanted people who were different from him to suffer—to be annihilated—and his narcissistic attitude wasn’t eager to find creative ways to coexist with others, even when they were willing to adapt a new way of being because of his message. Jonah had a narrow way of viewing the world. One might say he had limiting mental models. He wanted justice for other people, but he was quite happy with claiming grace for himself. He let his fear and anger control him rather than digging into those emotions to discover something he could work on within himself. But in the end, the story affirms that everyone is worthy of mercy. Everyone is worthy of grace.
We can probably find a lot of points of comparison with Jonah. Perhaps when someone goes speeding past us recklessly on the road, we hope they get into an accident, or at least that a cop is waiting around the next curve for them. When people behave differently than we want them to, we make them our enemies in our minds. We are often eager to speak judgmental words against things we don’t like, but we rarely take the time to speak inspiring words about the lives we most want to create. We are tempted to rejoice when people we don’t like suffer, and we are loathe to celebrate with people we don’t like, even when it wouldn’t cost us a thing to do so. We draw lines of Us and Them, just like Jonah did with the people of Ninevah.
However, Jonah did a few admirable things, too. He took the blame when the ship was having trouble, and even though we know that doing something bad won’t bring foul weather your way, in the context of the story Jonah was clearly at fault. Jonah also overcame his initial fear of how he would be received by people in Ninevah. He didn’t keep digging beyond that, but it took courage for him to make the first step out of his comfort zone. We also don’t know if Jonah learned anything in the end. It might be that he realized how unsatisfying his selfish perspective was, and he might have started to look with fresh eyes at people who were different from him.
Even though we don’t know how Jonah’s story truly ends, though, we have the great opportunity and responsibility of determining whether we will learn something from his story. If we are willing to dig into our fears and our anger and get to the root of what holds us back in life, we may find that our way of seeing the world is not very helpful to us. If we are willing to recognize how people are similar to us—that there really is no Them except in our own minds—we may find that our inherent creativity is as useful for building connections as it is for destroying them. If we are willing to articulate the kind of world we want, and if we are willing to ask ourselves the difficult questions that dig into why we want what we want, we might discover for ourselves a compelling vision that we just cannot run away from. It requires a level of honesty and insight that Jonah wasn’t prepared for, but there’s no reason for us to be ruled by our irrational fears and our anger. Underneath all of our judgments and fears about other people, we know that human beings have a lot more in common with each other than they have differences. Sometimes the differences seem huge, but often that is just because our minds make the differences more important than they actually are.
So, what’s really important?
what’s really important?