Saturday, January 02, 2021

Mining the Minors: Jonah (15)

In the last few decades, those of us who live in multicultural societies have been thoroughly propagandized against any visible display of racial animus. The social project of stigmatizing Western “racists” — to the point where even inadvertently acknowledging obvious differences between people groups commonly results in social shaming and summary disemployment — has been a great success among liberal whites, though notably less transformative across other demographics.

Having grown up in an era largely free of war, half-lobotomized by the steadily-mounting pressure of political correctness, more than a few of us may have difficulty imagining a time in which intense race-consciousness might have served the occasional useful purpose.

That would be most of the rest of human history.

Making Meaningful Distinctions

2,500 years ago, a Zebulunite who refused to make meaningful distinctions between Assyrians and Israelites would shortly be a dead Zebulunite. While Israel was instructed in its law to welcome foreign sojourners and treat them fairly, raiding parties and invading armies were not “sojourners”. Where enemies were concerned, it was not only necessary to “see color” (and other marks of ethnicity); one’s continued existence often depended on keeping that ability well-honed. When a border-town watchman shouted, “The Assyrians are coming!”, everybody knew it was not for tea and crumpets. It meant your men were going to be killed in horrible ways, your women raped, your children enslaved, your crops stolen and your cities burned.

In such an environment, Jonah’s desire to see the people of Nineveh get every bit of what was coming to them was not only normal, we could argue it was justifiable. The reluctant prophet was not a racist in the sense we use the word today. He was simply a product of his time.

That was not good enough for God. His relationship with Jonah required that his spokesman come to see geopolitics the way God sees them, and bitter enemies as lost men and women in need of repentance.

Jonah 4:1-2 — “Lord, I Told You So!”
“But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.’ ”
The widespread public display of humility and repentance from the people of Nineveh meant it was no longer necessary for God to make good on his threat to destroy the city. His purpose had been accomplished. The Ninevites had changed their ways, at least for the time being.

The only person who found this an unacceptable outcome was Jonah. He wasn’t going home to Israel yet, not so long as there was the slightest chance God might still carry out the destruction he had warned of.

Is This Not What I Said?

Our story was set in motion back in chapter 1 with the statement that “the word of the Lord came to Jonah”. We do not know the form in which this word came — whether in a dream, a vision, or by God speaking to Jonah directly — and there is no indication in those first few verses that Jonah had at that time verbalized his reluctance to be God’s emissary to Nineveh.

That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. As with most Bible stories, the narrative is exceedingly lean and gives us nothing that (from the Holy Spirit’s point of view) we don’t absolutely require. There are further hints that some verbal exchange may have occurred at the time of the prophet’s call to his unwanted mission in Jonah’s prayer in chapter 2, where he says, “What I have vowed I will pay”, though it is impossible to be certain whether the reference is to a vow made at the outset to go to Nineveh, which he had subsequently broken by fleeing to sea, or to a vow made later, during his period of repentance in the belly of the great fish.

Now of course it is possible that by “Is not this what I said?” Jonah really means “Is this not what I figured would happen?” The Hebrew word used for “said” could bear the meaning “said in the privacy of my own head” as easily as “said out loud”. But expressing his unhappiness with God’s instructions actually seems quite a natural thing for Jonah to have done. He certainly has no problem venting his unhappiness to the Lord repeatedly in chapter 4, as we will shortly see. His statement is also an indication that while the prophet harbored in his heart the desire for revenge against the people of Nineveh, he knew from the very start that was not the attitude God wanted from him. Certainly he knew it was not God’s desire to pour out destruction on Nineveh if there were any other option.

We know this from five rather wonderful qualities he now ascribes to his God that demonstrate he knew the Lord very well indeed. Ironically, in all likelihood Jonah had learned them from observing the way in which God had dealt with the nation of Israel throughout its history.

Five Divine Qualities

Of course, Jonah may also be paraphrasing a quotation from the Law, where Moses records for us God’s proclamation of his “name”, or character, in Exodus 34. That list is suspiciously similar, though quite a bit longer:

Gracious. The first two words on Jonah’s list are often found together as descriptions of God’s dealings with men. The initial reference to God’s graciousness in scripture is found earlier in Exodus in the legal requirement that a cloak taken from a neighbor in pledge be returned by sundown. God’s reasoning is that if the poor neighbor gets cold and cries out to God in his misery, “I will hear, for I am gracious.” One takeaway from that is that God naturally feels compassion, while men must be instructed to behave as if we did.

Merciful. The Hebrew word translated “merciful” occurs only 13 times in the Old Testament, and is only ever used of God. In Deuteronomy, Moses states that God’s mercy means that he will not abandon his people or forget the covenants he has made. God’s mercy is evident in his discipline: it is the reason he responds favorably to repentance and often stops short of annihilating those who richly deserve it.

Slow to Anger. The phrase “slow to anger” is often translated “longsuffering”. God is described as slow to anger in each of the Law, Psalms and Prophets. The book of Proverbs teaches that a longsuffering spirit is a product of great understanding, and this is certainly the case with God, who, because of his unsurpassed knowledge of every heart, makes allowances for the failings of others that you and I would not.

Abounding in Steadfast Love. The phrase translated “steadfast love” is also translated in other ways, “abundant goodness” and “great mercy” among them. The sense is not merely emotional but practical. The steadfast love in which God abounds always has consequences for its objects. It is a love of action.

Relenting from Disaster. The first time Israel benefited from this particular quality was at Sinai after Moses interceded for a sinful people. As with God’s mercy, this quality does not show itself arbitrarily, but rather in response to repentance.

The Wrathful God of the OT

Jonah’s description of God’s character is fascinating in its depth of insight, especially when we consider his own subsequent actions. We often hear about the “angry, wrathful God” of the Old Testament, with whom Jesus is inevitably (and incorrectly) contrasted. And yet this is demonstrably not what God’s own people thought of him, even though they were far too frequently the subjects of his discipline. The one thing you don’t hear a lot in scripture from the mouths of suffering Israelites is “We didn’t deserve this!”

But Jonah’s problem was not that God was too wrathful for his tastes, but that he was insufficiently wrathful against the sorts of sin Jonah found most offensive.

There is a certain kind of arrogance Jonah displays here that we often find among secularists who offer us gems like “I can’t believe in a god who would create me knowing I would sin, then hold me accountable for sin he knew I would commit.” Though Jonah’s words demonstrate that he knew God much better than do unbelievers of this or any other era, his complaint has this in common with God’s modern critics: that he presumes himself more moral than God. He would not have thought of it that way, but that’s what it really amounts to.

Let us never be caught complaining about God’s longsuffering with others, or his failure to give men what we think they deserve when we think they deserve it. We need these same divine mercies ourselves far too often.

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