The familiar tale of the rebellious prophet Jonah reveals our shared flaws in understanding God’s mercy
As a regularly taught story in Sunday School and a Veggie Tales classic, I believe that most folks have an existing understanding of the book of Jonah. I’ve been fortunate enough to revisit it recently with my church, and I’ve learned that this story contains so much more depth than previously understood. When the context of Jonah’s authorship is taken into account along with a recognition of the audience for whom it was written, a key theme is revealed: as a representation of Israel, Jonah’s prolonged opposition to God is a commentary on the incompatibility of ethnocentrism and God’s salvation.
The story of Jonah reveals more of God’s character: his mercy, the gracious way in which he teaches us, and the perfect justification of his decisions. It also reflects back our own characters: our ingroup attitude to God’s mercy, our projections onto his righteousness, and the stubbornness of our flaws.
Jonah was a mid-8th century B.C. prophet who lived under the reign of the last great king Jeroboam II. Ninevah was the capital city of the Assyrians, a brutal and pagan rival civilization to the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Both before and during Jonah’s lifetime, the Assyrians had been a terror to his people, committing violent atrocities in the name of conquest. King Jeroboam II also made his own conquests in the name of Israel, and the period of success led to heightened nationalism and the corruption of the elite. While the prophets Hosea and Amos denounced the king for his various sins, 2 Kings includes an opinion of Jonah that portrays the king as Israel’s savior. His support for this “Israel First” king will be relevant later.
With that context in mind, we can enter this short (only 4 chapters) story.
Chapter 1: Jonah Flees the Presence of the Lord
1 Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” 3 But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid…