Here are some final thoughts on the story of this unwilling, seemingly unrepentant, successful failure of a prophet.
Putting this book into the “Prophets” section of the Bible, alongside the weightily serious Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, might seem itself to be a bit of a joke. Next but one from Jonah comes Nahum. Whereas in Jonah, the citizens of Nineveh are given the opportunity to repent of their wrongdoings, and all is well when they do so, in Nahum there is no such opportunity. Across three chapters, he vituperatively tears into them in no uncertain fashion – “I will cover you with garbage, treat you like trash, and rub you in the dirt.” Their fate is correspondingly uncompromisingly brutal – “cracking whips, churning wheels, galloping horses, roaring chariots, cavalry attacking, swords and spears flashing, soldiers stumbling over piles of dead bodies.” Quite a contrast!
The presence of the ‘good-fun’ Book of Jonah is, to me, a reminder that we need to approach the Bible with an understanding of what it is, and what it isn’t. It’s not a verbatim and factual account of the sayings and doings of God. If it were, he’d be a schizophrenic psychopath – a warm-hearted philanthropist one minute, and a genocidal maniac the next, and fair game for Richard Dawkins. The Bible contains the words of human beings who too often compare and compete with, and fear and hate, one another – who experience and reciprocate domination and exploitation, who slaughter, and are slaughtered in turn – and who wreak vengeful mayhem, claiming that they’re simply obeying divine orders and following divine example. And so we have the Book of Nahum that’s lurid and reprehensible, but also (some might say, thank God) the Book of Jonah, that’s light-hearted and entertaining. Let’s be thankful for welcome mercies, and swallow neither Nahum nor Jonah whole.
Rather interesting is the book’s final verse. After upbraiding Jonah for his, in context, over-the-top concern for the worm-eaten, wilted vine, God asks him, “In that city of Nineveh there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell right from wrong, and many cattle are also there. Don’t you think I should be concerned about that big city”. Well, cattle certainly can’t tell right from wrong, although the abattoir’s need to shackle and stun tells its own story of terror and stress.
As it happens, what the Hebrew literally says is that these citizens of Nineveh do not know their right hand from their left or, otherwise, north from south (if you face east, your right hand faces north, and your left hand faces south). Whatever enormities the Assyrian rulers and soldiery might have been responsible for, the average citizen of Nineveh’s main and everyday preoccupations would doubtless be the very same as those of the average citizen of Jerusalem. Neither would seem, judging by the God of Jonah, unmitigatedly to merit merciless punishment, brutal death or eternal destruction. One is tempted to ask, however, why the same wasn’t the case for the citizens of the Canaanite cities, slaughtered to every last man, woman and child, at the express command of the supposedly same God.
The Bible is not a book that’s the authoritative, consistent, final and unquestionable word about anything whatsoever. When I hear people ask, “what does the Bible say?”, I feel like telling them that “the Bible”, as such, doesn’t say anything. One might as well ask, “what does the Library say?”. It too doesn’t say anything, because it says everything. Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll find it in one or other book, or on one or other shelf. Like the other great and glorious epics of the world, some of what’s said and done in the Bible is exemplary and inspiring, whereas some of what’s said and done is the very opposite. It’s a good, profitable, and essential read, which has lessons and warnings that we all need to think about, long and carefully and, if only then persuaded, take to heart, and live out for the benefit of ourselves and one another.
Perhaps the author of Jonah was reminding us that “laughter is the best medicine.”
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