Jonah's Revenge

August 08, 2014

In middle school and high school I performed in my church's puppet ministry. We were good, even traveling to other churches to perform our songs. I was, of course, a star (sometimes literally playing the part of a star for Christmas). One of the many songs I count as a favorite featured Jonah and the fish.

Go Jonah. Go Jonah. Go to Nineveh. Go Jonah. Get on up, get on up, go down Jonah.

Playing the part of the fish brought the most fun in the song, especially since our fish puppet repeatedly swallowed and vomited the Jonah puppet as that old gospel quartet song cycled through the chorus a few times. Not quite biblical, but more fun!

The song only told Jonah's story through the fish part. Most kids books and songs go just a bit further into the story. Jonah preaches, the people repent, and we all say "amen."

If only the story was so simple.

Page in a children's pop-up book

News reports lately mentioned Jonah quite a bit. The ancient city of Nineveh - now known as Mosul, Iraq - lies at the heart of a new wave of violence in the war-torn region. A group known as ISIS has been killing religious minorities and even Muslims who disagree with them. Not surprisingly, Christians are among those targeted.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq resulted in changes in the country that decimated the historic Christian population, which fell from 1.5 million to less than 500,000 (and some estimates put today's number much lower). The new ISIS violence sent tens of thousands of more Christians to the grave or to the mountains to hide.

The Christian community in Mosul, which has lasted for nearly 2,000 years with a rich history, no longer exists. All Christians in ancient Nineveh have been killed or forced to flee. We have witnessed the death of a Christian community. Christians in other towns in the area are now suffering the same fate. As ISIS captured Mosul, they not only drove Christians out but sought to wipe out the city's Christian heritage. ISIS destroyed churches and removed crosses.

ISIS also destroyed the site believed by many to be the tomb of Jonah.

Screenshot of video played on CNN of the bombing.

Although I enjoyed the puppet fish version of the Jonah story, we performed the song around the time I moved from loving the Jonah story to disliking it. For kids, there's something magical about the big fish that swallows the disobedient man and throws him back up a few days later. It also offers a simple moral: obey God or else you might become fish food!

I eventually read the rest of the story.

Jonah was a horrible prophet and role model. The disobedience isn't the problem. Turns out he didn't really repent while in the fish. Sure, he hated being in there and wanted out. But he didn't actually care about the people of Nineveh. He only went to avoid more divine punishment (kind of a fishy motive for someone labeled a prophet).

Jonah was a self-centered, self-righteous, hateful, judgmental man with a god-complex (hope that doesn't sound too judgmental). He cared more about a shade plant (because it helped him) than he did about a large city full of people. He didn't flee his calling because he feared the people would turn on him but because he feared they would turn to God. He actually wanted to see the city destroyed! Like some Israelis who took to hilltops during recent strikes on Gaza, he went to gawk and enjoy the show. He got mad at God for not providing the desired fireworks of death and destruction. Perhaps Jonah also got upset at his own impotence as he was unable to call fire down on the city himself.

What a great story for kids! Perhaps that's why most children's books stop with the repentance of Nineveh. We ignore one-quarter of the book so that we don't find God challenging as we sit with the shriveled plant.

With ISIS destroying parts of the city once known as Nineveh, perhaps Jonah's finally happy. If he really was buried in that tomb, perhaps he felt joy down in his bones as the bomb blasted everything to pieces. His wish for destruction finally seems realized as a group sharing his hopes for the death of other people swept in without mercy. They even destroyed the mosque on the site of Jonah's tomb, even though they claim to be Islamic and the Qur'an joins the Bible in calling Jonah as a prophet.

Most likely the so-called tomb of Jonah in Mosul did not actually hold the remains of the hateful prophet. Many scholars believe his story is merely a parable. Other scholars believe he went back home in despair after God refused to destroy Nineveh. But the unlikely scenario that the place destroyed by ISIS was actually Jonah's tomb would be a fitting end to his tragic tale.

I can almost picture Jonah standing on the mountain overlooking Nineveh, waiting there for years in hopes that destruction finally comes. He waits there on that spot in vain until he finally joins his beloved shade plant.

After my puppet career ended (thankfully not early as I avoided elbow injuries), I eventually came to like Jonah again - not the man but the story. I've met Jonah in lots of churches - and, if I'm honest, have been him at times. Too many people wrap themselves in divine self-righteousness that they burn with a desire to see other people destroyed. Then these modern Jonahs get angry if grace comes instead. They may preach the message of mercy and redemption, but they fail to live it.

One of my professors in college lost his job in part because he argued that the book of Jonah may not be about a true person but instead was a parable. He insisted the moral of the story remained more important than its historicity. Some individuals with more literal and judgmental readings of scripture didn't like that teaching. Although they didn't prove Jonah's historicity by forcing out a brilliant scholar, they did prove he was correct that the moral of the story is still needed.

It would be easy to live like Jonah. The path of the compassionate God remains difficult. It would be easy to cheer if President Barack Obama rained hellfire down on ISIS to kill them (which he might). It would be easy to gloat that ISIS's rise again proves President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq was horribly wrong (which it was). It would be easy to cheer when an individual who led the charge against my professor lost his job for launching a similar effort against someone else (which he did). But each of those responses would be to join Jonah on his mountain over Nineveh (and that especially doesn't seem like a good place to be right now). Somehow a compassionate response must be found.

But I'm tempted to just stick with the fun fish tale in my son's pop-up book.