Jonah And Racism

I know. The title of this article is supposed to be “Jonah and the Whale,” right? I mean, that’s what everyone know about Jonah. But I’ve recently heard a couple different pastors on the radio, and to a man they cut to the heart of the story.

Jonah is not about some miraculous rescue from the sea, though that’s a part of the story. It’s not even about a disobedient prophet who finally, when given a second chance, repented and relented and did what God told him to do. Though that also is part of the story.

The real issue for the prophet Jonah was his hatred of the Assyrians. You know, the people who lived in Nineveh, where God told him to go and preach. If God had said, Go to Bethlehem or Bethel or Jericho or Dan, I imagine Jonah would have been happy to obey, because we know from 2 Kings that Jonah did in fact prophesy certain things about Israel.

But Nineveh? Jonah didn’t want to go to the enemy. He told God why: he knew that when he preached the message of judgment, those violent idolaters who had fought against Israel on more than one occasion, would repent, and then God would forgive them. Yep, that’s why he didn’t want to go. He didn’t want them to repent. He didn’t want them to receive God’s mercy.

Again, that’s right there in the book of Jonah—in the chapter that doesn’t make it into the nice little picture Bible story books we so often see. After God saw the Ninevites change their ways and turn from their wicked deeds, after God relented of the destruction he had planned to send against them, what did Jonah do? He went up on a hill outside the city to watch, hoping that perhaps God would stay with the judgment He had planned.

Then Jonah went out from the city and sat east of it. There he made a shelter for himself and sat under it in the shade until he could see what would happen in the city. (Jonah 4:5)

While he sat there, God prepared another object lesson for Jonah. He gave him a plant that provided additional shade from the heat, but just as miraculously He sent a worm that destroyed the plant. And Jonah was angry. Why? He had liked that plant. He wanted the plant to live. He hadn’t actually planted it or cultivated it or done anything to give it life. But he wanted that plant to live.

God made the comparison: Jonah and his attitude toward the plant in juxtaposition to God and His attitude toward Nineveh.

Then the LORD said, “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?” (Jonah 4:10-11)

Jonah had no compassion for the thousands of people who God was warning about the coming judgment. His actions—going the opposite direction in order to avoid giving God’s message, becoming angry when God relented and determined that He would not destroy them after all, sitting outside the city in hopes that God would still judge them—followed by God’s confrontation of him, show us Jonah’s heart.

He wasn’t thinking along with God, here. He wasn’t rejoicing with the angels that sinners had turned from the errors of their ways. He wasn’t thinking about mercy or forgiveness. Instead, he was thinking about revenge.

My guess is that Jonah would have been happy to deliver God’s message of judgment: “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” (Jonah 3:4b). If, that is, he hadn’t figured out that God, being merciful, would give them a second chance.

He didn’t want them to have a second chance. One way to keep them from repenting, was simply keep them in the dark about their coming judgment. So, one ticket to Tarshish, please.

The whole story is so ironic, because Jonah himself experienced God’s second chance when he was plucked from the sea by a God-appointed fish. When Jonah repented, God appointed the fish to hurl, then gave Jonah a second chance:

Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time (Jonah 3:1a)

Jonah reminds me of the man in one of Jesus’s parables who had been forgiven much but who would not forgive those who owed him even a small amount.

The story also reminds me that God loves the world. He loved the people of Israel and He loved their enemies. He wasn’t playing favorites or picking sides. He sent Joseph to Egypt, Daniel to Babylon, and Jonah to Assyria.

In essence He’s sent Christians to those places, too, as well as to many other places. That’s our “marching orders,” our perpetual assignment. And never has it been easier to “go” without really even having to go. We can preach the gospel—the good news that has to start first with the same kind of warning Jonah was to deliver—by supporting those who leave their homes and go in person. We can tell others through the internet, radio, print, podcasts, videos, so many, many ways. We can even go to our homeless or unchurched neighbors right where we live.

Our choice is simple: we can behave like Jonah or we can show the compassion of Christ, the love of the Father for those thousands who are confused and don’t know what is right.

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Published in: on September 27, 2019 at 5:00 pm  Comments (9)  
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  1. Hi, Becky! Have you read about the Assyrians? They were horrific, violent, brutal people. Some of those imprecatory Psalms are about them. I always make this point because sometimes in the modern world we act like Jonah is just involved in a neighborly spat, like we should all be holding hands and singing kumbaya. Jonah’s disobedience then becomes kind of bratty or childish or something, maybe even racist. In truth however, God has asked him to go save those he has watched torture and murder his own people’s children. Assyrian artifacts tell us the truth of their culture at the time. I think of Jonah more as a real hero, than a disobedient prophet. I doubt many of us would have responded even as well as he did.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, IB. I think I mentioned the violence of the Assyrians, just didn’t give details. Someone on FB said Jonah’s assignment was much Like Corrie ten Boom going to the Germans after WW2. Maybe more like Betsy talking to and praying for the guards while they were in the concentration camp. Nothing easy about this assignment, but that’s the point. God wants us to love even the unlovely, the brutal, the abuser, the bully. That’s hard for us. We like going to the people who like us and who are nice to us and who don’t persecute us. But God didn’t specify only the nice people or those who aren’t really, really bad sinners. The truth is, we are just as deserving of death as whoever who think is the worst sinner. But for the grace of God, I’d be Hitler. But God rescued me and He wanted to rescue the Assyrians, too. Jonah . . . didn’t really want to see God extend His mercy to them. That’s why God had to show him his attitude.

      Thanks for deepening this discussion, IB.

      Becky

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    • I came here to add this detail ~ glad someone else pointed it out! I have seen several sources online that point out the cruelty of the Assyrians (so horrific!) which makes calling Jonah a racist very misleading.

      He had good reason to be weary of the Assyrians, by all accounts.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting article and well written. Sometimes God asks us to do unbelievable things, and yet it all works out. Jonah is my hero now, I understand his hesitancy. Wow…

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  3. Love the line, “One way ticket to Tarshish, please”. I may not leave town, but I know I’m guilty of shying away sometimes when God puts someone in my path; an opportunity. And because I’m too busy to stop, feel anxious, or put-off, I head for ‘Tarshish’. My choices are based on the value I put on that person at the time—Poor reasons not to share.

    Another inspirational post, enhancing my quiet time and hopefully changing my quiet life!

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  4. I disagree, only because if it’s not expressively written in the Bible, then I cannot superimpose my own interpretation over it. I cannot assign racist intent to Jonah.

    Was it racism – prejudice based on skin color or ethnicity, or was it because the Assyrians were quite cruel and dangerous? (That might be an understatement, actually.)

    Jonah had reason to fear and run the other way. As for not wanting them to be forgiven, have we not thought the same way? How often do we see the news of a man imprisoned for murder and think “Nah, let him be forgiven!” My bet is: not often.

    To me, it’s like if God called me to North Korea. I would probably head West instead of East, after all the books I’ve read about it. Does that make me racist?

    Then why did I learn Hangul? Why am I learning Korean?

    Jonah’s story cannot be diluted down to “he’s just racist.”

    I do still enjoy your blog, but I need to disagree on this one. The word “racist” is thrown around a lot lately, and it’s dismissive. It leaves out that Jonah had GOOD reason to be afraid, and God had a GOOD lesson to teach him.

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    • Yari, thanks for your comment. I welcome other perspectives and think we all learn more by discussion. I’m glad you voiced your views here.

      You’ve made some good points, some things I wish I’d addressed when I first wrote the post.

      First, as others have pointed out, the Assyrians were especially cruel. I didn’t elaborate on that and probably should have. Because here’s the thing: having a reason to hate someone doesn’t give us permission to do so. We generally think of racism as hating people for no good reason, for some superficial thing. But it’s actually still wrong even if there’s a valid reason—if they’ve treated others in cruel, abusive ways.

      I agree, I may have behaved just like Jonah. But understanding the book hinges on his conversation after God relented from the punishment He was going to bring on Nineveh. Here are the pertinent verses: “When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it.

      “But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the LORD and said, “Please LORD, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity.” (3:10–4:2)

      Jonah said, in essence, that he disobeyed God because he didn’t want God to extend His love and mercy to the enemy.

      God’s object lesson in which He showed Jonah that he loved a plant more than he loved the people God made, also shows us that we should not be determining our actions based on our desires, but on God’s. We can always say we have a reason to sin, to be disobedient. Eve did. The fruit was good to look at, tasty, and would make her wise. She had good reasons to listen to the doubts Satan put in her mind and heart. Except, all that called into question God’s word, His truthfulness.

      So He tells us He loves the world. We don’t have a license, I don’t think, to say, Yeah, but those scary people, I’d rather see them not receive Your love and mercy.

      God did have a good lesson to teach Jonah, which is why we have chapter 4 in the Bible. God wanted Jonah to learn to extend love and mercy, even as He does.

      Becky

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      • Thanks for adding Bible verses. I see that Jonah is one of the shortest books in the Bible, so I’ll give it a re-read, for sure.

        I definitely agree with the 3rd paragraph on your reply. I feel that Jonah had legitimate fear, not just prejudice, and for that I empathize with him.

        An interesting take, nonetheless (first time I ever heard this POV) and you’ve inspired me to read this book again 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • Any time we dig into the word, it’s a good thing. So praise God! Glad you found something here that enticed you to read more.

          Becky

          Liked by 1 person


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