Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Relevance of Jonah

Strange as it may seem, I was moved to write this article while reading a book on Palestinian liberation theology. Please think with me about the ongoing relevance, even to Palestinian Christians, of the Old Testament book of Jonah.
Preaching on Jonah
From way back, I have long been interested in the theological and missiological meaning of Jonah. The sermon I preached in my seminary homiletics class was on Jonah. I can’t remember if the sermon on Jonah was the only one I preached before the class. But I do remember it—and wish I still had the manuscript for that sermon. (Why can’t I find it on my hard drive?)
At that time (1961), June and I were pursuing a career as overseas missionaries, and I was convinced that there was a strong missionary message in Jonah. That conviction has not changed, although it has been refined some.
Thus, it was with great interest that I read about Jonah in a new book on Palestinian liberation theology.
Ateek’s Emphasis on Jonah
Naim Stifan Ateek is a Palestinian Christian and an Arab who is a citizen of the nation of Israel. Ateek (b. 1937) is the retired Canon of St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem. His book A Palestinian Theology of Liberation was published earlier this year. 
Since I have written about the plight of the Palestinians previously (see especially here and here), this article is only about the main point that Ateek makes about Jonah in his book.
“The Theology of Jonah” is a brief section (pp. 76~80) in Ateek’s book. He asserts: “Through the story of Jonah, the Old Testament reaches its theological climax.”
Jonah is the apex of OT theology because there we find emphasis on God as the God of the whole world, an inclusive God. Secondly, Jonah teaches us that “God’s people include all people.”
Ateek’s main point is the third thing we need to learn from Jonah: “The story of Jonah emphasizes that there is no one particular land that belongs to God. God is the God of the whole world. . . . God is concerned about all lands.”
From the NIV Quickview Bible
Thus, “Authentic understanding of land rejects the exclusionary monopoly of one people that brings about the negation, expulsion, and ethnic cleansing of the people of the land” (such as the Palestinians).
Ateek goes on to stress, “The challenge of authentic faith is to overcome and defeat whatever is exclusionary regarding our theology of God, neighbor, and land, and to embrace whatever is inclusive.”
Bell’s “Take” on Jonah
Pastor Rob Bell made a splash in the theological world with his book Love Wins (2011)—about which I wrote in my blog article titled “Bell on Hell.”
Bell’s latest book is titled, What Is the Bible? How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything (2017). “Fish,” the 13th of his 43 short chapters, is about Jonah.
Bell cautions against Christians placing importance on “defend-the-fish” arguments in interpreting Jonah while missing “the point of the story, the point about allowing God’s redeeming love to flow through us with such power and grace that we are able to love and bless even our worst enemies” (p. 104).
Harking back to my most recent article (here), Jonah teaches the importance of loving those whom we have othered.

At this time when the U.S. Administration—and evangelical Christians who are some of its strongest supporters—tends to other (“illegal”) immigrants, Muslims, the poor, they—and we all—need to pay close attention to the relevance of the theology of Jonah. 


  1. Recently I wrote a 1,200-word review (for Englewood Review of Books) of the book mentioned early in this article. For those of you who might like to read that review, here is the link to it on another blogsite:

  2. To this point the only comment I have received received is from Thinking Friend Nolan Carrier, who is a Baptist pastor in south Missouri. His brief comment in its entirety:

    "Amen, Amen, Amen! Thanks Leroy!"

  3. What a huge topic. There are no good answers, now or historically, and probably never will be until the end of the age.
    The Jewish people certainly have never had a claim on the land since the beginning when Abram (Chaldean descendant of Eber) first settled there as fulfilment of what had been promised to his father, Terah. Given the “other” (non-Biblical) history, Abram was welcomed and blessed by the king of Salem, Shem, son of Noah (Abrahim’s still living G.G.G.G.G.Grandfather). This was the land of Canaan the descendent of Ham. The issue applied to Yitzhak and Jacob, Moshe and Joshua as well. It was interesting to read (Arab) Mt Philip Sabila’s (Antiochian Orthodox) view of Zionism (Eretz Israel) in light of centrality of the Jewish Messiah, Isa Al Masih, and also the persecution of Jews down through history.
    Indeed, this is the story almost universal to all history, regardless of tribe or nationality or religion. Arab vs Jew (both descendants of Abrahim/Ibrahim); Protestant Huguenots vs Catholic Inquisition; Crusaders vs Orthodox; State of Georgia vs Cherokee Nation (and all the other tribes driven out by Manifest Destiny - but a least the Cherokee “won” that case in the Supreme Court); Buddhists vs Christians and Muslims of Burma; Arab Muslims vs Arab Christians (ن); Wahutu vs Watutsi, and Watutsi vs Wahutu (both Christian tribes); Barabaig vs Maasai; !Xhosa vs Zulu/Ng’oni; Quechua vs Spanish; United States vs England; former US slaves vs the 16 indigenous tribes of Liberia… - none seem to get along. Wars settle land dominance issues. They always have. Christian or any other group/tribe. I remember when Church World Service decided to supply ZANU-PF and Robert Mugabe in order to overthrow the white settlers of five generations in Rhodesia (sounds similar to Manifest Destiny) – we see how that turned out.
    Liberation theology really brings nothing to the table, except the potential for more (just?) war. Maybe that is not bad if one wants “justice”. We all seem to be tribal, even within Christendom. The story Jonah illustrates the heart issue of desiring retribution on one’s enemy – indeed it would not be long before Nineveh (Assyrians) prevailed against the Jews. Currently the land of Canaan (Israel) is dominated by Jews (allocated by the Balfour Declaration and the United Nations, with borders adjusted by several defensive wars). In order to reverse that in a claim of “justice”, one must go back and reverse so much more of our wretched human history. Or else try another war. None is righteous, no not one.
    I still support just war theory. But one must be careful with it. Who are the real tyrants? Is it our “justice” heroes?

    1. Thanks, 1sojourner, for your thoughtful comments. There is much that merits response, but let me just respond to one point, about liberation theology.

      The liberation theology that Ateek writes about is thoroughly non-violent. He wants justice, but he in no way advocates or supports "just war."

      There have been those who have used violence in the name of liberation theology, but Gustavo Gutierrez in South America, whom Ateek acknowledges as "the father of liberation theology," was not an advocate of violence.

      Ateek states that liberation theology emphasizes "the need to prioritize the poor, the exploited, and the oppressed, and to reject those who use power to maintain unjust systems at the expense of the most vulnerable" (p. 9).

      Later, Ateek writes, "Every time we pick up a knife, fire a shot, turn a car into a weapon, or fire a missile from Gaza into Israel, we act foolishly. . . . Where we can match Israel is through nonviolent resistance" (p. 118).

    2. Good words. The Arab Christians are one group I pray for daily. Most of the world forgets them, and the genocide they face. When I was in Israel, there were many Arab Christians, especially in Bethlehem, Gaza, and Nazareth. Their issue does not seem to be the Jewish Israelis, but violence in the name of Allah is. That does not address the land concerns, but does illustrate the multi-dimensional problems.

      Jonah's concern was legitimate. The enemy Assyrians did come and capture the northern kingdom of Israel and take them captive. We can claim that God has a bigger picture of redeeming all the nations who repent, but viewing from Jonah's perspective, one might understand his valid concern. Part of that point is that the northern kingdom did not follow God well, but when they did repent, God followed up with very harsh judgements on them. I struggle with that. If God is against us, who can be for us?

      There are good people out there who really do want the best for all - some of my favorites of recent history were Nelson Mandela, and Herbert Hoover. VRFr Ateek would probably fit that group.

  4. Thanks for mentioning the Book of Jonah. One of the greatest gifts I have received in my life was the invitation to serve as learning leader for a study of the Book of Jonah as preparation for the presentation in Sunday morning worship of the musical “Oh, Jonah!” With the acceptance of that opportunity my “adult” love of the story blossomed.

    In a 07-14-2015 article on his blog, “Writing From the Edge,” Robert Cohen identifies 5 “brilliant” Jewish gifts: strangers, love, trouble makers, the Book of Jonah, and Rabbis. In response I wrote this:

    I am in agreement that “Once a year may not be enough for the brilliant Book of Jonah.” To my mind, it encompasses strangers, love, trouble makers and even, anachronistically, rabbis in its wisdom. When I (one formed in the Christian faith) learned years ago that Jonah is read on Yom Kippur I was struck with a (rare for me) knee-bending and uplifting rush of grateful awareness. In many ways for me the wisdom of including Jonah in scripture “has made all the difference.”

    Edward Greenstein, in "The Jewish Holidays," wrote (in the margin commentary) concerning the reading of Jonah on Yom Kippur: “The story ends without divulging Jonah’s reaction because it is not so important how Jonah responds. It is crucial how we, the audience, respond. The ending of the tale is in our hands.”

    I wrote (5 months ago in a response to your article on “penal substitutionary atonement”) that I learned from the Book of Jonah “that God acts to change us; not [to] punish [us].” And now, as you suggest, I also learn “the importance of loving those whom we have othered.” Thanks again!

    1. Dick, thanks for your informative comments. I don't know a lot about contemporary Judaism and did not know that Jonah is read on Yom Kippur. I was happy to learn that.

      I had forgotten about our exchanged comments about Jonah with regard to the Atonement, and I enjoyed going back just now to see that again.

  5. Not only all peoples under God's care, but "much cattle." Charles Kiker

    1. Yes, Charles, it is interesting that the book of Jonah ends,

      "Yet for my part, can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (4:11, CEB)

  6. Bro. Leroy, I've always had a problem with the modern claim on the land by Israel. My understanding was the promise was always tied to obedience. We all know how that turned out. Besides the idolatry and morality problems Israel had, there was also the dereliction of purpose. "You shall be a nation of priests". The Jews were not so much to be busy protecting their land as they were to be a voice of God to the nations, conveying the very thought you emphasized in your article. God was to become known as the God of all peoples, all ethnic groups. The Jews were chosen to convey that message, not isolate themselves and become self-righteous and silent in their witness. This comes through Isaiah as well as Jonah. The Great Commission of Matthew 28 was no more direct than the Servant Songs of Second Isaiah.

    Still, 1Sojourner is right. How far back should we go to give justice to the "first inhabitants" and give their land back? The Neanderthal would probably appreciate Cro Magnon going back to Africa or wherever he started!

    1. Thanks, Tom, for reading and responding with your pertinent comments. You quite possibly heard me preach a sermon about Jonah in the early 1960s. Although that may have had nothing to do with it, I am thankful that you have adopted what I consider a correct understanding of that book.

      The Jewish claim, though, is not just that they were the early settlers of the land but that they were the people God chose to have that land (that is why it is still called by some the Promised Land). That makes it different than for other people--although perhaps some American Indians claim that what we now call North America was given to them by the Great Spirit so by rights it still belongs to them.

  7. The story of Jonah is not one I have studied, even though one of my nephews is named Jonah. So while this is mostly new to me, I particularly appreciate the story's view of God being the apex of OT theology. As pointed out this concept of God being God of the whole world is mostly overlooked or ignored. It continues to amaze me that so many people easily accept God as creator of the universe, but believe God limited His interest in Earth to the Middle East for so long.

    As far as othering goes, many US administrations have been guilty as 1sojourner briefly noted. Rather than trying to learn how God revealed Himself to the original inhabitants of the American continents, our US forefathers and other colonial powers labeled them savages and took their land, all while sharing how God revealed Himself in the Middle East as the only possible truth. As Leroy and 1sojourner also noted, this othering is not limited to the US, or the Americas, or even to different religions. At least in the US, sharing the story of Jesus should have made this easier, but this has too often not been the case. I say it should have been easier because in the US all men (and later persons) are created equal and endowed by their Creator. Of course, we know how well that has gone too.

    1. Dennis, it was good to hear from you again, and I appreciate you sharing substantial comments.

      I appreciate you linking this article to the previous one on othering. That is what we should learn from Jonah: there are no "others," for we humans are all equally created and loved by God. But yes, sadly, the conquest of the indigenous people of this continent was based on othering them, labeling them as savages, as you noted.

  8. Here are comments received yesterday morning from local Thinking Friend Don Pepper:

    "With due respect to the unfair treatment of the indigenous Palestinians so similar to how Native Americans were abused, your interpretation, and that of your reviewed author, cannot be derived from JONAH!

    "I view 'The Book of Jonah' as an entertaining allegory for the 'You can run but, you can't hide from doing God's bidding,' ('Despite Inflation, The Wages of Sin Remain The Same. (^_-)) '!

    "Just imagine the Nineveh Wal-Mart selling out of sackcloth to outfit all those camels, and all that penitence toward the god of another province!

    "What about rolling the dice to ascertain the responsible party in the boat to be tossed overboard to quell the storm!

    "For the 'Man in the street,' there is no OT- NT 'Bridge to Christianity' to be found in The Book of Jonah."

    1. Don, thanks for reading this blog article and for being one of the first to respond. I appreciate your comments--although I do not agree with them.

      The book of Jonah can be read the understood on various levels. So, yes, it is in one sense "an entertaining allegory." But I think it is far more than that.

      Please read the other comments that have been posted here on the blogsite and you will see that many seem to agree with me (and Rev. Ateek)--although, admittedly, most of these are not typical "man in the street" people--yet some have had no formal theological education.

  9. Yesterday morning I also received these comments from Thinking Friend Graham Hales in Mississippi:

    "Such a good and relevant blog. Jonah reminds us of the heart of the Gospel. With Evangelicals moving into tribal mode, one almost needs a new name for biblical Christianity. I remember one campus minister telling me he never used the term 'Christian' any more to define his belief system as it is so often seen by unbelievers as a title for hatred and exclusiveness. He preferred the term 'follower.' I like that.

    1. Thanks for reading and responding, Graham.

      I have heard of many Christians who were formerly comfortable with the label "evangelical" but who no longer are willing to embrace that designation. But it is sad that there are now those who feel they need to give up on the name "Christian" also.

      "Follower" is not bad, I guess, but surely they would have to say "follower of Jesus," for people around the world are followers of many different "lords."

      As you know, some seek to differentiate themselves from objectionable Christians by calling themselves "Red Letter Christians."

      You may also know that some moderate Baptists, embarrassed by what some traditional (Southern) Baptists have said and done, have started calling themselves "goodwill Baptists." Maybe, more broadly, followers of Jesus could use the term "goodwill Christians."

  10. Then early yesterday afternoon I received this brief comment from Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky:

    "A good time to invoke Jonah, Leroy!"

  11. Thinking Friend, and former missionary colleague, Dan O'Reagan sent me an email yesterday also. After telling about his unpublished manuscript on the book of Jonah, he wrote,

    "Jonah has remained a book of great interest to me. I basically said what you said - many people miss the message of Jonah by concentrating on the fish instead of the man and his mission and message."

  12. Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago often comments on my blog articles, but I had not heard from him recently. He wrote early this morning saying that he and his wife had been travelling in Europe.

    Eric makes these pertinent comments about Jonah:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your comments on the book of Jonah and the book by N.S. Ateek.

    Unfortunately, many Christians get hung up on whether or not the book of Jonah is historical. As such, they miss the real point of the story--a parable about the universality of God's love for all human beings.

    "In the context of the Palestinian struggle, it is somewhat ironic that the book of Jonah is read in the afternoon services on Yom Kippur. Jews are reminded by the book to repent as the Ninevites had done in the face of Jonah's preaching."

    Eric also wrote,

    "We toured the large Roman Catholic cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, on Dec 1. In the ambulatory behind the altar, there is a complete skeleton of a baleen whale suspended from the ceiling. Why? I did not find out, but it may refer to story of Jonah. It is sometimes amazing what one finds in Roman Catholic churches in Europe."

    1. Jonah and the Whale played a pivotal but understated role in the classic play, "Inherit the Wind." As the play unfolds its version of the famous Scopes "monkey trial," the character based on Clarence Darrow, the famous lawyer, asks the character based on William Jennings Bryan a question about Jonah and the whale. Bryan proudly replies that this is not what Jonah says. The books says "a big fish." Bryan adds that he does not know where the whale error came from. Now the understatement comes in because the play never tells us about the source of the error, although it does correct Bryan on Jonah, which actually says "a great fish." Had it told us about the whale, it would have blown up the play. According to the King James Version of the Bible, the "error" goes right back to Jesus Christ, who in Matthew 12:40 is quoted as saying, "For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth."

      Another layer of understatement directly involved the Clarence Darrow character. His character name is "Henry Drummond." A lot of ink has been used discussing this connection. What I have not seen discussed in connection with "Inherit the Wind" is that a man more likely to have ended up holding a Bible and a copy of "On the Origin of Species" together was a prominent late nineteenth century evangelical liberal named Henry Drummond. In a biography of the later liberal Harry Emerson Fosdick, we are told that when he visited England he attracted larger crowds than any preacher since Henry Drummond, whose most famous book was "The Greatest Thing in the World." Another was titled "The Ascent of Man." For more about the historic Henry Drummond, see this link:

      Anyway, the metaphor has been set, and Jonah and the Whale will live on, no matter what the book of Jonah says!

  13. Thinking Friend Otsuka Kumiko-san in Oita, Japan, shared the following comments about this article--and I am posting them as received: