Praying Now

November 15, 2015

Three prayer requests.

1. Pray for comfort and peace in Paris, but also in Beirut which was bombed the day before, families on the Russian airliner, and for Syria and Iraq where people suffer on a daily basis from the violence of ISIS. Let us serve them as we are able.

2. Pray God will “break their teeth” (Psalm 58:6) and defang their power; pray God will put things right and reveal a sense of divine justice amidst this violence. Let us give our anger to God.

3. Pray for a heart to love refugees, immigrants, and others who come to the West as they escape the violence of Syria and Iraq; pray God will give us a love for our neighbors rather than anger. Let us treat our neighbors with goodness and mercy.

May God have mercy!

Fuller article here.


Jonah 2:2-6 — Jonah’s Prayer, Part I

November 11, 2015

Jonah sings a thanksgiving song, even while in the belly of the great fish. Because the great fish rescued Jonah from death, the fish now gives him a “boat ride” back to land. Jonah is not terrified by the fish but thankful. God saved his life by providing a great fish to swallow him and return him to land. It was a three-day journey from Sheol back to life. Consequently, Jonah prays a thanksgiving song, even in the in the belly of the great fish.

Genre

The prayer’s genre is evident from its component parts. Kevin Youngblood (Jonah: A Scandalous Mercy, 101) identifies these parts, and they are typical for a thanksgiving psalm (for example, Psalm 116).

Element Occurrence
Introductory Summary Jonah 2:2

“I cried out, because of my distress, to YHWH and he answered”

Recollection of the Crisis Jonah 2:3, 5-6abc

“The waters had enclosed me, threatening my life; the deep had enveloped me; reeds had wrapped around my head.”

Cry out for Help Jonah 2:4, 7

“YHWH I had remembered. My petition had reached you; [it had reached] your holy temple.”

Description of Deliverance Jonah 2:6d

“Then you restored from the pit my life.”

Vows Jonah 2:8-9ab

“As for me, with a grateful voice I will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay.”

Praise Jonah 2:9c

“Deliverance belongs to YHWH.”

Typically, thanksgiving psalms move from remembrance of the crisis and the petitioner’s cry for help to its resolution with gratitude, sacrifice, vows, and praise. In other words, they remember the crisis and the petition, and then they give thanks for the deliverance. This is exactly what we see in Jonah’s prayer: Crisis and petition (2:2-6abc) followed by thanksgiving and praise (2:6d-9).

Consequently, Jonah’s prayer is not a prayer for deliverance from the belly of the fish, but a remembrance of how Jonah cried out to God in the “womb of Sheol,” that is, in the belly of the sea where he was drowning. God answered Jonah’s cry for help by providing a great fish to bring him back to life and land. Jonah is rescued from Sheol, from the pit of death, and encounters God’s presence in the belly of the great fish as he journeys toward land.

As a result of this deliverance, Jonah promises a sacrifice—a sacrifice of thanksgiving (Leviticus 7), and pledges he will pay his vows, which are typically part of a thanksgiving sacrifice ritual. Jonah knows, beyond any doubt, Yahweh has rescued or delivered him.

Prayer Language

Jonah’s prayer is deeply immersed in the liturgical life of Israel as Jonah uses the language of Israel’s prayer book, the Psalms. Almost every word and line has a counterpart in the Psalter. The below chart identifies similar, often the same, language (Hebrew) in both Jonah’s prayers and various psalms.

Jonah Psalms
2:2 I called to the Lord, and he answered me I called to the Lord, and he answered me 3:4; 120:1
2:2 Out my distress Out of my distress 118:5
2:2 I cried for help I cried for help 18:6;

28:2; 30:2; 88:14

2:2 Sheol Sheol 30:3; 88:3
2:2 You heard my voice You heard my voice 28:6; 31:22; 116:1
2:3 You have thrown me away You have thrown me aside 102:10
2:3 Into the deep…waves In the deep…waves 88:6f;

42:7

2:4 From your sight (eyes) From your sight (eyes) 31:22
2:4 Holy temple Holy temple 5:7; 138:2
2:5 Waters as far as my life (soul) Waters as far as my neck (soul) 69:1
2:5 Deep surrounds Deep surrounds 42:7; 88:17
2:6 You brought up the pit You brought up from Sheol 30:3; 71:20
2:6 Yahweh, my God Yahweh, my God 13:3; 30:12; 88:1
2:7 When my soul fainted When my life faints 142:3
2:7 I remembered I remember 42:4, 6

77:11;

119:55

2:7 My prayer to you My prayer to you 69:13; 88:2
2:7 Holy temple Holy temple 5:7; 138:2
2:8 Worship worthless idols Worship worthless idols 31:6
2:8 Forsake steadfast love (hesed) Forsake faithful ones (hesed) 37:28
2:9 Thanksgiving…pay vows Thanksgiving…pay vows 50:14

116:17

116:18

2:9 Salvation belongs to the Lord Salvation belongs to the Lord 3:8;

88:2

What is the significance of this? One might suggest Jonah is vainly repeating phrases from his past piety. I see no reason to think this, however. To use standard liturgical phrases does not mean it is contrived piety. Rather, it might reflect how deeply ingrained this language is in the life of the singer. Sometimes pious repetition is the most effective way to express our hearts when our own words fail us. Further, the prayer perfectly fits the situation, and it is tailored to express Jonah’s journey from watery chaos to life on the land. Jonah is thankful for life.

What this language does tell us is how profoundly shaped Jonah is by the worship of Israel. As Bobby Valentine says, “The prayer shows Jonah to be a master of Israel’s liturgical tradition (he has memorized the hymns!).” He knows his prayer book; he knows how to pray, and he prays sincerely. He petitioned God while tossed about in the chaotic sea, and now, in the belly of the fish, he gives thanks and vows a sacrifice once he returns to the temple. This is the first (2:2b-6b) and second halves (2:6c-9) of the prayer itself. As Youngblood outlines the prayer, Jonah first remembers his petition and God’s response (2:2b-6abc), and then he expresses gratitude for God’s deliverance (2:6d-2:9).

Remembering the Petition (Jonah 2:2-6abc)

The prayer runs like this (in some cases I have taken Youngblood’s suggested translation; otherwise it is my own with some language from the NRSV. I have also underlined parallel ideas):

I called, out of my distress, to Yahweh,

            and he answered me.

I cried out for help in the womb of Sheol,

            you heard my voice.

Nearing death, perhaps confronted with a near-death experience, Jonah awakens to his situation. Near death, he finds himself in the “womb” of Sheol. The noun translated “womb” is often translated “belly,” but it effectively means “womb” since it is feminine in gender (so Youngblood). Sheol is the realm of the dead, and this is Jonah’s distress. When Jonah was about to die, he cried out for help and asked Yahweh to deliver him from death. God answered and delivered him by sending a great fish to swallow him. Now, in the belly of the fish, Jonah gives thanks for the deliverance.

You hurled me into the deep,

            into the heart of the seas

                        and the river overcame me.

            All your breakers and billows swept over me.

In the previous line, Jonah addressed God directly: “you heard my voice.” Now, remembering his predicament, he recognizes God’s hand in his distress. “You hurled me into the deep,” he says. “Hurled” is the same word used to describe what the wind God sent upon the sea, how sailors threw cargo overboard, and what the sailors did to Jonah in chapter one. Though the sailors “hurled” him, Jonah knows who lies behind their action. The sailors served God’s purposes; God hurled Jonah into the deep by the hands of the sailors.

The language of “deep,” “heart of the sea,” and the “river” as well as “breakers” and “billows” provide a vivid image of how chaos (perhaps alluding the Canaanite gods Yam [sea] and Nahar [river]) overwhelm Jonah. God gives Jonah over to the chaos, to the forces beyond Jonah’s control but not outside of Yahweh’s sovereignty. Yahweh maintains control over the chaos that surrounds and overwhelms Jonah.

Then I said,

            Though I have been banished from your sight,

                        yet I will look once more toward your holy temple.

In the midst of the chaos, Jonah decides—despite his sense that he is beyond hope, outside of God’s care and concern—to look again, at least one more time, toward God’s dwelling place, God’s holy temple. When Solomon consecrated the new temple in 2 Chronicles 6, he describes how Israel, when it sins, would “prayer toward this place” (the temple) for forgiveness (2 Chr. 6:21, 26). The temple always meant hope, forgiveness, and renewal. Jonah appeals for mercy by turning his face and prayer toward God’s dwelling place.

The waters engulfed me up to the neck,

            the watery deep overcame me,

                        and the reeds wrapped around my head.

The “waters,” “deep,” and “reed” (as in Sea of Reeds, or Red Sea) evoke the Exodus (Exodus 15:4, 8, 10, 19, 22, 25), but Jonah is not standing on the land. On the contrary, he is, like Pharoah’s army, sinking into the sea. When God flooded the path through the sea to destroy the Egyptian army, God released chaos. It is a form of “uncreation” (like the flood in Genesis 6-8) where God reverses the good order of creation and chaos takes over once again. Jonah feels like the Egyptian army at the bottom of the “Red Sea” (or Sea of Reeds). This is yet another description of Jonah’s near-death experience from the chaotic sea, which—in this circumstance—serves Yahweh.

I descended to the foundations of the mountains,

            to the land whose bars would trap me forever.

Youngblood is particularly insightful in these comments (p. 109):

In Israel, the sacred mountain is represented by Zion. Thus, the mountains to which Jonah descended are the inverse, the negative, of the sacred mountain here Jonah previously stood in YHWH’s presence. Jonah has just completed an “anti-pilgrimage” to the “anti-temple” of Sheol. Instead of a psalm of ascent sung by pilgrims during their climb to the summit of Zion, Jonah sings a psalm of descent inn anticipation of death and separation from YHWH.

Jonah, descending to the base of the mountains in the sea, entered an underwater “land,” the realm of the dead, which is Sheol. Jonah’s descent was into death, but God heard his prayer and delivered him.

Jonah’s Chaos and Our Own

While Jonah created his own chaos by fleeing from God’s presence–and we often do the same, we also experience chaos in so many other ways. Reading Jonah’s prayer, his language lives in our own experiences of chaos. In desperate times–drowning in the sea, as it were–we reach to God and cry out for God’s mercy.

In a real sense, we are all Jonah. We have all found ourselves, at times, engulfed in the waters, overwhelmed by the deep. Chaos often reigns in our livers, whether it is due to our own sin or due to tragic circumstances beyond our control.

What we learn from about God from the storyteller in the book of Jonah is that God is merciful. God hears our prayers, and God answers them with mercy and deliverance, even if we have created our own chaotic circumstances.

Jonah’s prayer language comes from the Psalter, and Jonah’s prayer is also our prayer as we find ourselves engulfed in chaotic waters. Israel teaches us how to pray in the Psalms, and Jonah teaches us to appeal to God’s mercy despite the messes we have created for ourselves.

Conclusion

The center of the first half of Jonah’s thanksgiving song is an expression of hope despite his circumstances. Hurled into the deep, Jonah knows Yahweh has banished him, nevertheless Jonah looks toward God’s dwelling place. Seeking in the depths of the sea and descending toward Sheol, Jonah turns toward the temple in prayer and hopes for deliverance. And God, who is full of mercy, heard his prayer and delivered Jonah from certain death.


Jonah 1:17-2:2 — A Great Fish “Tale”

November 5, 2015

But Yahweh appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

Jonah prayed to Yahweh, his God, from the belly of the fish, and said:

“Out of my distress, I called to Yahweh,

and he answered me.

From the womb of Sheol, I cried for help;

you heard my voice.”

(Jonah 1:17-2:2, my translation).

The sailors prayed, but Jonah did not. The sailors rowed toward land to save Jonah, but Jonah suggested they throw him into the sea. The sailors praised Yahweh, but Jonah did not. The sailors were rescued, and a “great fish” swallowed Jonah.

The Hebrew text has an accent in the middle of the first sentence (Jonah 1:17), which instructs the reader to pause. In other words, one follows “But Yahweh appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah” with a dramatic pause. Jonah’s life is in the balance. Is the swallowing a mercy or death?

“Swallow” has a long history in biblical narrative. For example, the earth “swallowed” Pharoah’s army (Ex. 15:12). Korah and his allies were “swallowed” up, and they went down to Sheol (Num. 16:30-32).

The most interesting example is Jeremiah 51:34 which pictures King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon swallowing Judah “like a monster” and then vomiting Judah out. Jeremiah and Jonah use the same language for swallowing and vomiting (Jonah 2:1, 10). Theologically, Jonah’s experience in the great fish is analogous to Israel’s experience in exile. It is God’s judgment but for the sake of mercy and salvation. Like Israel in the exile, God sent Jonah on a journey to Sheol to reorient his life.

The pause gives the reader time to anticipate–is it death or life? And it was life; the “great fish” is Yahweh’s deliverance.

The “great fish” rescues Jonah from death by taking him on a journey from Sheol. The fish saves Jonah from drowning in the “womb” of chaos or Sheol, the realm of the dead. Jonah is “swallowed up,” and it appeared Jonah was headed for death, sinking into the “deep.” However, God appointed the fish to save Jonah from the chaos, from Sheol. It was purposed for deliverance rather than destruction, for salvation rather than death.

The “great fish,” whatever that is and we can only speculate, is the vehicle for deliverance. While the ship took Jonah away from the presence of Yahweh, the “great fish” becomes a rescue vessel, which carries Jonah toward Yahweh and the safety of the land. The “great fish” is a grace in the midst of the chaotic sea; it rescues Jonah. Whether the “great fish” refers to one of the great sea monsters or not, this large animal—no doubt a terror to sailors—is Yahweh’s appointed means of deliverance. Chaos, sea monsters, or a “great fish” do not threaten Yahweh. On the contrary, they serve Yahweh, the maker of land and sea.

Jonah was in the belly of the fish for “three days and three nights.” In the context of the Ancient Near East, the temporal indicator assumes a particular kind of journey. George Landes (JBL [1967] 446-450) illuminates this language in significant ways. In the Sumerian myth The Descent of Inanna to the Nether world,  “three days and three nights” is the time it takes for “Inanna to arrive within the nether world” from the land of the living (Descent, 173-175) It is a three-day journey there and a three-day return trip. In this case, “the fish is assigned the same time span to return Jonah from Sheol to dry land” (Landes, 449). The “great fish” carries Jonah from Sheol to land in “three days and three nights.” As Youngblood notes (Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy, 103), this three-day journey motif is also present in Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:4) and Israel’s three days in the wilderness without water (Exodus 15:22). It also lies behind Hosea’s promise of restoration—though Yahweh has essentially killed Israel, nevertheless “on the third day” Yahweh will restore them (Hosea 6:1-2).

The “great fish,” then, is Jonah’s boat ride from the deepest parts of the sea (Sheol) to life on land. The “great fish” is a rescue animal rather than an “attack dog.” The “great fish” saves Jonah from death. Consequently, within the “great fish,” Jonah sings a thanksgiving prayer. He offers thanks for the rescue with his prayer in Jonah 2:2-9.

Jonah prays to God twice in this short book. The first time is Jonah 2:1, which highlights the fact Jonah did not pray in the first chapter though the sailors prayed. The second time is Jonah 4:2, which indicates Jonah’s heart has not changed since the opening of book. Jonah’s experience in Sheol did not transform Jonah’s heart, though he is thankful for Yahweh’s rescue from death.

Jonah 1-2

Jonah 4

Jonah prays (2:1) Jonah prays (4:2)
Jonah wants to die (1:12) Jonah wants to die (4:3)
Jonah resists mercy (1:2-3) Jonah resents mercy (4:3)

Jonah is still the same person with the same heart. He resists mercy for Nineveh by fleeing from the presence of Yahweh, and in the presence of Yahweh at the end of the narrative, Jonah resents mercy for Nineveh. As Bobby Valentine says, “Jonah sounds incredibly pious [in his prayer] but his heart is incredibly hard.”

What, then, did Jonah pray in the “belly of the fish”?

Though Jonah prays from the “belly of the fish,” his prayer recalls his experience in the deep, the chaotic sea. It is almost as if Jonah’s prayer has a flashback to drowning in the sea when he called upon the Lord and now gives thanks for his ride within the belly of the fish. He prays a thanksgiving hymn; it is not a prayer of lament or repentance (more on this in another blog post). Jonah is thankful but not penitent.

The first lines of the prayer parallel three ideas (Jonah 2:2):

  • Jonah called to Yahweh and cried for help
  • Out of his distress, out of the womb of Sheol
  • Yahweh answered and heard his voice

This language echoes the language of Israel’s prayer book, the Psalms.

  • “called…answered” appears in Psalms 3:4; 120:1
  • “out of my distress” appears in Psalms 118:5
  • “I cried for help” appears in Psalms 18:6; 28:2; 30:2; 31:22; 88:14
  • Sheol appears often, see Psalms 30:3; 88:3
  • “You have heard my voice” appears in Psalms 28:6; 33:22; 116:1

Jonah is well-versed in the prayer and liturgical language of Israel. He knows how to pray, and this prayer evokes the best of that language for thanksgiving hymns. Nevertheless, it is also specific to his circumstance rather than a generalized prayer from the tradition. It uses traditional language but it is crafted as an expression of Jonah’s experience.

While often translated “belly of Sheol,” as if this a reference to the belly of the fish, the word is different and it is feminine rather than masculine (the gender of “belly” of the fish is masculine). The “womb of Sheol” provides the “image of Sheol as an entity with a rapacious appetite that indiscriminately swallows everyone (Prov. 30:15-16),” and the “hyperbole is that Jonah wonders if he might be too far gone” and “so close to death that he couldn’t even tell whether he was still alive or not, whether he was still within YHWH’s reach” (Youngblood, 105).

Reeling in the chaos of the sea and sinking into the depths of Sheol (the realm of the dead), Jonah finally calls out to Yahweh, “his God.” While on the ship the captain pleaded with Jonah to “call” on Jonah’s God (Jonah 1:6), but he apparently refused. While the pagan sailors had earlier called on their own gods, they actually “call” on Yahweh as they throw Jonah overboard while Jonah did not (Jonah 1:14). Only in the depths of Sheol does Jonah “call” on Yahweh.

And, astonishingly, Yahweh hears and answers! Yahweh does not resent Jonah’s flight or his fight (resistance). Rather, Yahweh shows mercy and rescues Jonah from the sea.

Jonah’s boat ride in the belly of the fish returns him to land and life! The Lord God is merciful.


Jonah 1:7-17a – Salvation Through Judgment

October 29, 2015

Salvation Through Judgment and Mercy is the title of Bryan Estelle’s book in The Gospel According to the Old Testament series (Presbyterian and Reformed). Judgment for Jonah is not retribution or revenge; it is the means of salvation. Through judgment, God saves Jonah from himself and renews Jonah’s missional call. God is not punishing Jonah; God is pursuing Jonah.

God saves Jonah through the mediation of wind, storm, and fish….and pagan sailors who learn about Yahweh through Jonah. The narrator tells the story through the dialogue and interaction between the sailors and Jonah.

Sailors Jonah
“Come, let us cast lots” The lot fell on Jonah
“Tell us why this calamity has come upon us” “I am a Hebrew and fear Yahweh”
“What is this you have done!” They knew he was fleeing from the presence of Yahweh
“What shall we do with you?” “Pick me up and throw me into the sea.”
They rowed hard for land. The storm grew in intensity.
“O Yahweh, do not let us perish…and do not make us guilty of innocent blood.” They picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea.
The sea ceased its raging and they worshiped Yahweh. A great fish swallowed Jonah.

The sailors move from terror to praise, and Jonah descends into the deep, into the belly of the great fish.

The sailors cast lots, which is a common form of discernment in the Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 16:8-10; 1 Samuel 10:19-21; Proverbs 16:33; 18:18). Their prayers, obviously, were not effective, and their gods had not responded. They sense, however, their situation is connected to someone on the ship who has offended Yam, the great sea god. Astoundingly, as Brent Strawn has argued, these pagan sailors engage in the Hebrew practice of casting lots (Biblica [2010] 66-76). Casting lots is unknown among nations other than Israel at this time. As Kevin Youngblood notes (Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy, 77), the sailors have moved away from praying to their own gods and practiced Hebrew divination, including casting lots and later praying, sacrificing, and making vows to Yahweh.

Jonah did not volunteer he was the one responsible for this calamity (literally, “evil”). He was not, apparently, going to identify himself until he was discovered. He was hiding and waited to see what would happen. He watched as the lot was cast, and Yahweh singled out Jonah.

The sailors then bagger Jonah with a series of questions, probably frustrated by his silence.

Why has this “evil” come upon us?

What is your occupation?

Where did you come from?

What is your nationality?

Who are you?

The questions probe Jonah’s identity—vocation, movements, and loyalties. At the heart of the questions is the “why” and the “who”? Jonah’s occupation, origins, and nationality might contribute to their primary interest, which was the initial question out of their mouths and the last one.

The first question laments their current situation—they are in the midst of a traumatic storm, which threatens their lives. They want to know, what we all might want to know at that point, “why?” They need an explanation, a rationale. If they knew what was happening, they might figure out how to respond. And while Job’s immediate recorded response does not answer this question (the narrative is telescoped), apparently Jonah did answer it since it becomes evident they did learn about Jonah’s flight from God. Consequently, we might imagine Jonah answered all their questions:

I am fleeing from the presence of Yahweh (the problem).

I am a prophet of Yahweh (occupation).

I came from the land of Israel (geography).

I am an Israelite (nationality).

I am a Hebrew (ethnicity).

The last question probes Job’s identity, “Who are you?” He gives an ethnic answer, “I am a Hebrew.” This is how an Israelite would answer a foreigner, the term the nations used to describe Jews. More importantly, he gives a religious answer: “I fear Yahweh.” This is his religious loyalty; Yahweh is his God. And Yahweh is the “God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Jonah serves the Creator God who is sovereign over the sea and land, sovereign over Yam and Baal. In other words, Jonah serves the God who sent this storm. Yahweh wants Jonah!

Given Jonah’s responses (including what was not cited in the narrative), the sailors recognize their plight and their fear increases. Outraged, they exclaim: “What is this you have done!” Jonah has involved them in his disobedience to Yahweh. Jonah flees Yahweh, but Yahweh pursues Jonah, and the sailors are caught in the middle. Yahweh’s pressure on the sailors increases as the intensity of the storm increases. The sailors are at a loss as to what to do, and Jonah suggests they cast him overboard.

Why did Jonah offer this option? Jonah, we might say, is willing to die to save the sailors since he figures Yahweh will save the sailors if he is not on board. Jonah knows Yahweh is merciful, and he expected Yahweh would save these pagans just as Yahweh wants to save the Assyrians. Ironically, Jonah shows mercy to pagans even has he is running from proclaiming mercy to pagans (the Assyrians). This may indicate Jonah’s particular hatred for the Assyrians themselves.

However, Jonah could have simply prayed to Yahweh, accepted the commission, and Yahweh would have calmed the seas. Jonah, however, is not willing to accept the mission as yet. He would rather die than offer Assyrians mercy!

At the same time, Jonah is not willing to throw himself into the sea. He asks the sailors to oblige him. Perhaps this suggests Jonah will not act to save the sailors himself—he will wait it out on the boat until there is no choice. Perhaps Jonah still thought he could escape with the sailors. Whatever the case, the sailors do not immediately hurl Jonah into the sea.

Apparently, the sailors did not want to do that. They continued to row in an attempt to reach land, but their efforts were futile. The storm continued to intensify. The more they attempted to save themselves—and Jonah—the more the storm increased. Ultimately, if they were to secure their own salvation, they had no choice but to hurl Jonah overboard just as they had previously hurled cargo over the sides of the ship.

Reluctantly, they threw Jonah overboard, praying Yahweh would save them and forgive them. They held Yahweh accountable for this person’s blood rather than themselves; it was Yahweh’s storm. Yahweh had left them no choice. In this way, as at other times in Israel’s history, the nations became God’s instrument to discipline Israel—this time in the person of Jonah.

In the end, the sailors (the nations) praised Yahweh and offered sacrifices and vows to the God of heaven. Jonah’s sacrifice redeemed the sailors. The pagans were, in some sense, converted, and this is something Jonah refused to help the Assyrians to do.

Jonah, no doubt, expected to die. Surely there was no hope in the raging sea.

But, scandalously and despite Jonah’s persistent resistance, God showed Jonah mercy. God rescues (saves) Jonah through judgment (discipline). A severe mercy keeps Jonah alive.

Undeserving of mercy and not seeking any mercy, Yahweh, nevertheless, showed mercy. This is who God is.


Theodrama: Act I, Scene 3 – God Invests Humanity with Dignity and Mission

October 28, 2015

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

Genesis 1:28

The Lord God took the adam and rested adam in the Garden of Eden to serve and protect it.

Genesis 2:15 (my translation)

These texts identify humanity’s vocation. They invite humanity into God’s goal for the creation. God invites humanity to flourish, fill the whole earth, subdue the cosmos, and protect the divine sanctuary. God intends for Eden to expand and fill the earth as humanity faithfully participates in God’s mission. We are God’s junior partners in that mission.

God created us as God’s own images in distinction from all other life. Humanity has a special role within the creation as the image of God within the cosmic temple, God’s house. As the living images of God within the creation, humanity represents God in the world, mediates God’s presence as priests, and reigns over the creation as royalty. When God finished the temple, God placed images within it. Human beings (both male and female) are those images.

Multiply and Fill

This is humanity’s expansionistic function.

God “rested” humanity in the Garden. The Hebrew Bible uses this word to describe divine and human rest on the seventh day (Exodus 20:11; 23:12; cf. Deuteronomy 5:14), God’s gift of rest to Israel in the land (Deuteronomy 25:19; Josh. 1:13, 15; 1 Chronicles 23:25; 2 Chronicles 14:6), and God’s habitation of the temple (2 Chronicles 6:41). God created adam (the human being) from the adamah (ground) and rested adam in the Garden to rest with God as a royal priest in Eden.

Eden, however, was not a static reality. God intended humanity to multiply and fill the whole earth, to expand Eden until it filled the earth, until everything was “Holy to the Lord” (Zechariah 14:20). Humanity, as well as animal life, is to populate the earth, and God “formed” the earth “to be inhabited” (Isaiah 45:18). God multiplies and fills the earth with glory through the praise of God’s creatures (cf. Genesis 1:22; 8:17; 9:1, 7). God multiplied Israel (Genesis 47:27; Exodus 1:7; Leviticus 26:9; Jeremiah 3:16) and later multiplied the church (Acts 6:1, 7; 9:31; 12:24) as an embodiment of this original vision.

Nevertheless, when humanity failed to cooperate, God scattered them. Yahweh scattered humanity at Babel, Israel through exile, and the church through persecution. The divine mission is to fill everything—the heavens and the earth—and everyone with God’s glory.

Subdue

This is humanity’s creative function.

As Creator, God brought order out of chaos. Hovering over the waters enclosed in darkness, God brought order to an uninhabitable earth, a chaotic void. God subdued the earth to provide habitable space, and then God filled the space with life.

Unfortunately, some believe the call to “subdue” empowers humanity to exploit the earth and deplete its resources. On the contrary, “subdue” partners with God’s creative work to bring order out of chaos.

The seven days of creation did not rid the cosmos of chaos. Darkness still exists, the waters still exist, and a chaos figure—the serpent—entered Eden itself. God called the light good but not the darkness. God did not remove the waters but gave them boundaries. Outside of Eden, chaos exists within the creation.

Humanity partners with God to subdue the remaining chaos. This ordering includes things as diverse as domesticating a field for crops or goats for milk as well as developing software programs to bring order to a chaotic mass of data.

To subdue the earth means to partner in God’s creative work; it does not mean abusing or exploiting the creation. Whatever chaos remains in the creation, humanity is called to subdue it and order it for life in partnership with God.

Rule

This is humanity’s royal vocation.

Too often we hear “dominion” in tyrannical, oppressive, militaristic, or manipulative ways, but this is not how God rules. As images of God, we rule in the likeness of God.

For example, the kings of Israel, though they did not always effectively do so, represented God in the nation. God desired they rule with justice and mercy. Psalm 72 reminds Israel what “dominion” means, the humble exercise of power in the service of mercy (cf. Leviticus 25:43, 46, 53). Their rule was supposed to be more like how a shepherd “rules” (cf. Ezekiel 34:4) rather than how a dictator “rules.” Far from exploitation and abuse, God’s imagers rule as servants who give life. They benevolently care for the creation.

This gains greater clarity when we recognize we are co-rulers with God. God shares dominion with us. We are co-workers, junior partners. This is our identity, and it is part of our mission to develop the full potential of creation as we lovingly care for it and gratefully enjoy it. We pursue familial, social, and communal shalom as we embody the justice and mercy of God within creation.

This vocation involves every aspect of human life. The arts (music, literature, fine art) are expressions of human creativity. Technology manages resources; medicine serves wholeness; and social structures shape community. These are part of the human vocation, our partnership with God, as co-rulers and co-creators within the creation.

This means no work is “secular” as if it is disconnected from our missional identity. Every good work—no matter how “secular”—participates in the mission of God.

Human beings are called into multiple kinds of works or different vocational careers. As participants in community, we choose particular careers. We choose these careers as means to love God and serve our neighbors. Through these careers, we participate in the mission of God. Medical professionals partner with God in healing. Financial counselors partner with God as they mediate justice for creditors and mercy for debtors. Professionals in the legal community partner with God as they pursue justice. Environmental biologists partner with God as they preserve and care for the creation.

Partnering with God toward the fulfillment of the mission of God is ministry in the kingdom of God. Nurses, counselors, biologists, and lawyers co-rule with God. Through their careers, they are ministers and royal priests in God’s kingdom.

Serve and Protect

This is humanity’s priestly vocation.

We are priests in the temple of God. Though English translations often given an agricultural feel to these Hebrew verbs, such as “till it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15), Ellen Davis (among others) has demonstrated this is priestly language (Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, 192-194). Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible when these two words occur to together, they describe the Levitical service of God’s appointed servants in the tabernacle (Numbers 3:7-8; 8:26; 18:7).

The first verb normally describes ministering or serving the ground (Genesis 2:5; 3:23; 4:2, 12) or the garden (Genesis 2:15). The second verb is normally translated “keep,” “guard,” or “protect.” Priests protect or guard the holiness of the sanctuary. This may include agricultural dimensions, but given the temple and sanctuary language in Genesis 1-2, it stresses humanity’s priestly role within the creation. Like priests in the temple, we serve God’s creation and protect it from anything unclean.

As priests, we mediate the praise of creation to the Creator, and we mediate God’s rule over the world in the creation. We represent the creation in our praise of God, and we fill the material world with thanksgiving as we receive the creation from God with gratitude. As priests, we bless the creation and lead the creation in blessing God.

Priests are deeply connected with the parties they mediate. As images of God, we represent God to the creation. As part of creation, we represent creation to God. We are spiritual-material beings who participate in both the spiritual reality of God and the material reality of the creation. This is part of our human identity.

Conclusion

God placed humanity in the Garden of Eden as divine images in the cosmic temple of God to serve in God’s sanctuary. As living, breathing images of the living God, humanity was tasked to partner with God in ruling over life upon the earth, subduing the remaining chaos, filling the earth with God’s living glory through human flourishing, and serving and protecting God’s sanctuary.

Humanity is gifted to co-rule, co-create, and co-subdue in partnership with God. This is, at least in part, what it means to live as the image of God within God’s cosmic temple.


Missional Exiles–A Word from Jeremiah 29:4-7

October 27, 2015

[Sermon preached at Woodmont Hills Church of Christ in Nashville, TN.]

In 597 B.C.E. Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, exiled Jehoiakim, the King of Judah, along with some 3,000 others to Babylon. This was the second deportation from Judah (an earlier one was in 605 B.C.E.) and it would not be the last (another when Jerusalem is destroyed in 587 B.C.E.). This was the first to include the King himself and his family. Though Jehoiakim lived in Babylon, he was the legitimate King of Judah despite the fact Nebuchadnezzar had appointed Zedekiah, Jehoiakim’s uncle, King in his place.

[Interestingly, The Babylonian Chronicles, discovered in the early 20th century at the Ishtar Gate in Babylon, describes some rations provided to the King of Judah, Jehoiakim, and these date from 592 B.C.E.].

These exiles probably thought they were deported for only a short period of time. Some prophets assured them they would return to Jerusalem before long. Jeremiah, however, thinks otherwise. Yahweh exiled them in Babylon, and there they would stay for a long time. Jehoiakim, in fact, would die in Babylon (2 Kings 25:27).

In the light of this reality, Jeremiah, as a word from the Lord, offers this counsel (Jeremiah 29:5-7)

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find welfare.

The text comes in two sections.  The first encourages a proactive approach to life in exile.  The second orients the exiles to their relationship with the city in which they are exiled.

The first reflects a common pattern within the Hebrew Bible. For example, it describes those who are excused from serving in the active militia (Deuteronomy 20:5-7), and it describes a blessed state (Deuteronomy 28:3-4).  Further, Isaiah 65, envisioning the new heavens and new earth, uses this language to describe the bless of such a life. In a series ten rapid-fire imperatives, the Lord calls the exiles to flourish in their new setting.

  • build houses and live in them.
  • plant gardens and eat their produce.
  • marry and have children
  • give your sons in marriage
  • give your daughters in marriage
  • multiply and do not decrease

The language echoes what God envisioned for Israel in the land of promise. Yahweh settled them in that land and intended they would flourish as if in a new Eden. Israel’s mandate was to live in the land so that its peace and rest would draw the nations to Yahweh.

The language also echoes God’s purposes in creation where God intended humanity to settle the earth, build their lives, enjoy the fruit of the garden, and multiply. Humanity’s mandate was to expand Eden into the whole earth, fill the earth, and extend God’s peace to all creation as they subdued the chaos.

In this case, however, Israel is an alien in a foreign land; they are exiles, immigrants. They are a transplated people, deported from their homeland by hated enemies. They do not want to be there, and peace is not exactly uppermost in their minds. They want, we might presume, revenge (Psalm 137 reflects such, though it is placed in God’s hands).

Jeremiah says, settle into your new homes. Flourish in your new setting. Become in exile what you were intended to enjoy in your homeland; become what humanity was intended to be from the beginning.

In other words, your mandate–your mission–is still in place. Now, however, you must pursue it as exiles. The mission is still the same, whether in Eden, in the promised land, or in exile.

Flourish! Mulitply! Enjoy life!

God is still with Judah, and just as God blessed humanity in the beginning and blessed Abraham, so God will continue to bless Judah in exile. God will multiply them. God has not forgotten them. Quite the contrary, God renews the blessing of Abraham, even in their exile.

And Israel is still on mission…even in exile.

This includes seeking the peace of the city in which they lived and praying for it so that they might know peace in the city’s peace.

Flourish, but flourish in such a way that peace saturates and overwhelms the place where you are flourishing because human flourishing happens where there is peace. In other words, flourishing is not a selfless project. On the contrary, we only flourish when others flourish; we are only at peace when others at peace.

Exiles–aliens in the land–must look beyond their own self-contained communities. They must love the city in which they live and seek its peace.  They must orient their lives toward peace for the city and pray for it. They must not neglect others or isolate themselves from the city. They must engage it.

For Israel, this meant seek the peace of their enemies and praying for their enemies–something Jesus would call Israel to do as well in the Sermon on the Mount. Disciples of Jesus are peacemakers (Matthew 5:9) and they pray for their enemies (Matthew 5:44).

For the sake of mission, God scattered Israel among the nations, just as he scattered humanity at Babel and later scattered the church through persecution. Since Israel did not attract their nations by their godliness, God sent them among the nations.  God sent them as exiled missionaries. They live in Babylon because God sent them as exiles, and God sent them for the peace of the city, for the peace of the nations.

Jews have lived in the Euphrates river valley ever since the exile (over 2500 years), though they are now disappearing from that region due to instability and persecution. Judaism flourished there, and they were a light among the nations. Most Jews never returned to their homeland; they made Babylon their home.

The church is also an exiled people; light present in the darkness. Churches are missional communities, living in exile (1 Peter 2:4-10).

As such, the two basic directives from Jeremiah to exiled Jews in Babylon offer direction for the contemporary church.

  • Flourish! Live, multiply, and enjoy.
  • Seek the peace of the city and pray for it.

Enjoy life–build, plant, marry….  But remember we are on mission–seeking peace for the city with our lives and through our prayers.

 


Jonah 1:4-6 – A Severe Mercy, God Pursues Jonah

October 24, 2015

Jonah refused God’s commission, but that was not the end of the story. God pursued Jonah.

The narrative begins with God’s call (Jonah 1:2), moves to Jonah’s refusal by flight (Jonah 1:3), and now God pursues Jonah through wind, storm, and fish. Back-and-forth, God invites and Jonah refuses until Jonah, in the belly of the fish, accepts God’s call. God’s pursuit is God’s mercy, and the wind, storm, and fish are not God’s punishment but God’s discipline, a severe mercy.

Jonah’s downward descent is the primary movement in the opening scenes of the first chapter, also noted in the previous blog.

  • Jonah descends to Joppa, a city under Gentile control (Jonah 1:3)
  • Jonah descends onto a boat, which is piloted by Gentiles (Jonah 1:3)
  • Jonah descends into the bowels of the boat, the lowest part of the boat (Jonah 1:5)
  • Jonah descends, ultimately, into Sheol, the belly of the great fish (Jonah 2:6)

Jonah is descending into a pit, away from Yahweh, away from his commission. As Jonah descends, God pursues.

A Severe Providence

Youngblood (Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy) identifies this downward movement in Jonah 1:4-6 and also discerns another downward movement in the narrative, a movement from the heavens (sky) to the depths of the ship. This movement happens on the sea.

Sky – Yahweh hurls a great wind at the sea.

Sea – The wind whips a raging storm on the sea.

Ship – The ship threatens to disintegrate on the sea.

Deck of the Ship – Sailors are hurling cargo into the sea.

Bowels of the Ship – Jonah sleeps in the ship on the sea.

“The narrative,” Youngblood notes (p. 72), “descends, pulling the reader down to the depths with Jonah.” Entering the world of the narrative, we are caught in the descending cycle of Jonah’s flight. Though headed to Tarshish, he is actually going nowhere.

The sea is harsh place. Even the most experienced mariners faced the dangers with great anxiety. Ezekiel 27:25-36, describing the “ships of Tarshish,” provides a harrowing account of sea travel and its dangers. Life, wealth, and futures “sink into the heart of the seas on the day of your ruin” (Ezekiel 27:27). Rowers on an ancient ship were no match for an angry sea (Ezekiel 27:26).

Jonah’s ship faced such an angry, even raging, sea (Jonah 1:15). The narrator calls it a “storm,” which describes something akin to hurricane (Psalm 83:15), and such storms are often associated with divine activity, even wrath (Amos 1:14; Jeremiah 23:19). Indeed, the storm arises from a great wind Yahweh “hurled” across the sea. The storm is a divine act—it begins and it ends when Yahweh decides. The winds and the waves obey Yahweh, even though Jonah does not.

The “sea,” of course, is a dominant theme in chapter where the word yam (sea) occurs nine times. And this is more significant than mere vocabulary. The word also has a mythological background in Canaanite culture. Yam is the god of the sea, the chaos God, who battles Baal, the fertility god of Canaan. In ancient myths, Yam and Baal represent water and land, or sea and the earth.

This is why the sailors are crying out to their own gods, perhaps the gods of their homeland. Ancient deities were often local, regional, or national, and sometimes they were even personal or vocational (e.g, sailors, artisans, etc.). Even ships would have their own protectors, as their decorations sometimes indicated.

When Yam, it appears, as the god of the sea, threatens the ship with a storm, the sailors pray for their gods to rescue them. But, generally, upon the sea, they are impotent. They cannot fight Yam on that god’s own territory.

Yam, however, is not the source of this storm. Quite the contrary, neither Yam nor the chaotic sea is a threat to Yahweh who hurled the wind upon the sea to create the storm. Yahweh created the land and the sea (Jonah 1:9), Yam and Baal are nothing to Yahweh. God uses chaos, even Yam (as the sailors believed in such), as a tool of God’s own purposes. God uses wind, storm, and eventually a fish to pursue Jonah.

The storm, then, is God’s act; it is an act of divine providence. Providence is not always blissful; it is often disciplinary. Providence is not always “friendly,” though it may be misinterpreted as such at first. For example, Jonah had the money to hire a ship and he found one. We might wonder whether such “luck” (or providence) might have encouraged Jonah to flee. But even that providence becomes part of a larger story where God pursues Jonah’s flight. It is not so much a function of divine wrath as it is divine discipline, a severe mercy.

The Renewed Call

Jonah descended into the bowels of the ship, that is, to the furthest reaches of the baot. Perhaps Jonah is hiding, or perhaps Jonah is simply escaping—going to the extremities available. It is like going into Sheol, the place of the dead. The word here is found in parallel with Sheol in Isaiah 14:15 and Ezekiel 32:21. Whatever the case, there Jonah goes to sleep and in such a deep sleep, the storm does not awaken him.

How can Jonah sleep, or why is Jonah sleeping? Perhaps Jonah was content to die, content with his decision; perhaps Jonah was exhausted from stress. Or, as some have suggested, Jonah has fallen into a deep sleep occasioned by God. The Hebrew word may indicated a deep, hypnotic-like sleep (Genesis 2:21; Job 4:13), and often people, including prophets, receive revelation in their sleep or dreams (Genesis 15:12; Job 33:15; Daniel 8:18: 1 Samuel 25:12-25; Genesis 28:16; Zechariah 4:1). Perhaps in this moment God is once again bring a “word” to Jonah. Youngblood (p. 76) suggests the sleep is “preparation for his second calling.” Perhaps this is why the storm did not disturb Jonah’s sleep—God was coming to Jonah once again.

This is confirmed by what the captain says when he awakens Jonah. The commission, announced in Jonah 1:1-2, is renewed through the captain’s words.

The word of the Lord came… Arise! Cry out… 1:1-2
The captain came… Arise! Cry out.. 1:6

God calls. Jonah runs. God responds through wind and storm, and God renews the call through the captain. Jonah, however, continues to resist. As we will see, Jonah does not cry out to Yahweh. Instead, he runs again—this time he is “hurled” into the sea (Jonah 1:12, 15), just as Yahweh “hurled” the wind at the sea (Jonah 1:4) and the sailors “hurled” their cargo into the sea (Jonah 1:5).

The captain is astounded Jonah is sleeping rather than praying. The captain hopes for mercy, much like David hoped for such mercy when praying for his son (2 Samuel 12:22). Perhaps some god somewhere will show mercy and do something to help them.

Ironically, mercy is all Yahweh has shown and will show in this story.

Jonah refuses God’s call and flees from God’s presence. In response, God does not execute Jonah or zap him with lightning. On the contrary, God pursues Jonah! Through wind, storm, and tumultuous waves, God calls Jonah once again. Rather than punishing Jonah, God continues to invite Jonah into the divine mission. And Jonah continues to refuse. God, however, remains merciful, though it is a severe mercy.

The book of Jonah moves from one mercy to another, from mercy to mercy.

Mercy for Jonah.

Mercy for the sailors.

Mercy for Nineveh.

And mercy for Jonah again

The story of Jonah piles mercy upon mercy, which is God’s own identity (Jonah 4:3).

 

 


Jonah 1:2-3 – We are all Jonah

October 22, 2015

When Jonah, a prophet who stands before the face of Yahweh, is commissioned to cry out against the evil in Nineveh ascending before the face of Yahweh, Jonah flees from the face of Yahweh to Tarshish,  the opposite direction.

Divine Commission

Kevin Youngblood (Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy) correctly suggests Jonah 1 is a commission narrative.

Probably the most famous commission narratives in the Hebrew Bible are Moses in Exodus 3, Isaiah in Isaiah 6, or Jeremiah in Jeremiah 1. The typical pattern of such narratives is something like this: God calls people, they object or resist in some way, God renews their call with assurances, and, finally, they accept the call. This happens with Jonah except his resistance takes the form of flight rather than fight. Nevertheless, God pursues Jonah as a kind of commission renewal until Jonah accepts the call.

Instead of zapping Jonah for his refusal to obey, God pursues Jonah with disciplinary mercy.

The prophetic “word of Yahweh” comes to Jonah (Jonah 1:1), which is a standard way to talk about Hebrew prophets to whom God has given a message. The commission itself comes in the form of three imperatives:

  • Arise! or Get up!
  • Go!
  • Cry Out!

Translations often merge the first two into something like, “Go at once” (NRSV). It is an earnest call–clear, urgent, and emphatic. God is sending Jonah to Nineveh, and Jonah should go immediately. Jonah is invited into God’s mission for Nineveh. And this is more than an invitation, it is command (three imperative verbs). Jonah is commissioned as Yahweh’s representative to Nineveh.

Nineveh is not the administrative or capital city of the Empire in Jonah’s day. It would only become such under Sennacherib (704-681 B.C.E.). While this is anachronistic for post-exilic readers (a likely date for the literary work), it identifies Assyria with its most historic and prominent city within memory. Nineveh, in effect, stands for Assyria, which stands for the nations in general. Within Israel’s living memory, Nineveh is the first great city of Assyria (Genesis 10:11).

The occasion for this mission is the “evil” that ascends, like smoke from a fire, before the face (presence) of God. This evil, apparently, has become so great it demands Yahweh’s proactive attention. Jonah is sent because Yahweh’s permission of evil has limits. God permits but also eradicates evil. Yahweh had decided—with some urgency—now is the time for Nineveh to “face” Yahweh and give account of its evil.

At the same time, Nineveh—as a “great city” within the Assyrian Empire—represents all the nations. In the same way, Nineveh’s evil represents the wickedness with which the nations are saturated. And, also, Jonah’s resistance represents Israel’s own unwillingness to share God’s light with the nations.

Jonah’s Resistance

While evil “ascends” before Yahweh’s face, Jonah “descends” away from Yahweh’s face.

When God commands, we expect to see an obedient response. But here the opposite is the case. God said, “Arise!” and Jonah “arose” (the Hebrew uses the same verb), but Jonah arose to “flee to Tarshish” rather than to “go to Nineveh.” Jonah disobeys the call and refuses the commission. Jonah concretely resists God’s call.

Quite vividly, the narrative chronicles Jonah’s flight as a descent (using the same Hebrew verb).

  • He descended to Joppa (1:2).
  • He descended onto the ship (1:3)
  • He descended into the bowels of the ship (1:5)
  • He descended into the belly of a fish (2:7)

Jonah’s flight is a downward movement. Rather than arising and ascending to the task God gave him, he descends away from God’s presence.

Why does flee to Tarshsish? The first descending step was to go to Joppa, which is movement into non-Jewish territory at the time (king of Ashkelon), and he hired a boat (he did not simply pay a fare) with a non-Jewish crew for his trip to Tarshish. Jonah is escaping from everything Jewish, including the God of Israel, Yahweh.

Tarshish (whether it is modern Gibraltar or Sicily) lies in the opposite direction of Nineveh, and it is quite a distance, perhaps a three year round trip (2 Chronicles 9:21). Whatever its exact location, it is far west (Isaiah 23:6, 10; Psalm 72:10; 48:7). Some have suggested Tarshish may have been a paradise or utopia of some kind, but I don’t think that is the point.

Rather, perhaps Jonah thought he might escape God’s presence on the sea since in Canaanite (Baal) literature Yam is the chaotic Sea god who opposes Baal. Consequently, if Jonah takes flight on the sea perhaps he escapes Yahweh’s sovereign jurisdiction.

More likely—though not excluding the above point—Jonah fled to Tarshish because, according to Isaiah 66:19, no one has yet heard a word from Yahweh there and Yahweh’s glory is unknown there.  In others, he fled to a place where Yahweh is not, or at least where the “word of Yahweh” would not come to him. To put it another way, he fled to a place where the commission would not be renewed, so he might have thought.

Why Did Jonah Resist?

This is quite curious, isn’t it? Jonah, a prophet of Yahweh, refuses Yahweh’s commission. The contrast between Yahweh’s command, “Arise and go,” and Jonah’s response, “He arose and fled,” is quite startling, even astounding.

The reasons are probably quite complex. Whatever those reasons are, Jonah thinks they are compelling. He would rather flee Yahweh and die in a foreign land—even die on the sea—than to participate in God’s mission to Nineveh. That mission, to Jonah, was anathema; it was the opposite of his heart’s desire.

Later in the book, Jonah does tell us why he fled to Tarshish (4:2a):

“O Yahweh! Is not this what I said while I was still in my country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful.”

Jonah did not want God to show mercy to Nineveh. But why is Jonah opposed to mercy for the Assyrians (or the nations, for that matter)?

  • Perhaps he was concerned about reputation—would Jonah be counted a traitor for helping Assyrians who previously oppressed Israel?
  • Perhaps he feared retribution from his own people when he returned to Israel after visiting Nineveh.
  • Perhaps he was concerned about a renewed rise of power among the Assyrians, which would result in renewed oppression of Israel.
  • Perhaps he thought Assyria did not deserve mercy because they were a brutal and violent nation (from crucifixions to decapitations, enslavement of peoples, etc.).

Whatever the case, “No mercy for Nineveh!” is Jonah’s slogan. The commission exposes the heart beating in Jonah’s breast. That heart beats in many of us who feel, “he does not deserve mercy,” or “she is not worthy,” or “they must be punished!” We have all felt revenge rather than reconciliation, and sometimes prioritized retribution over mercy.

Sinclair Ferguson (Man Overboard! The Story of Jonah, 13) suggests the call is a form of divine heart surgery, to which we are all exposed when we hear God’s call on our lives.

We might wonder whether God was deliberately shining the spotlight of his Word into an area of Jonah’s life that had never been put to the test before, exposing a nerve, and then touching it to discover what response there might be….Like an instrument which can detect microscopic differences, it can penetrate in our consciences between the limits of our willingness to obey and the point at which we may turn from God’s commands.

We are all Jonah!


Reading Jonah

October 21, 2015

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai” (1:1)

Shipmates, this book containing only four chapters—four yearns—is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sealine sound! What a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand!

Herman Melville, Moby Dick, chapter 9

Many of us know the story from Sunday school, but it is also part of Western culture. Everyone, it seems, has some familiarity with “Jonah and the Whale, the Great Fish Tale.” The wide appeal of Jonah’s story is evident. It is laced through the great American classic, Moby Dick, and it is also a favorite children’s story. From classic novels to children’s Bible stories, Jonah’s encounter with the “great fish” peaks our interest even if some don’t swallow the story.

Who is Jonah?

The first line of the book, quoted above, tells us next to nothing about Jonah. That we would know little about a prophet is not unusual, but what is rather curious is how the book, which bears his name, tells us relatively nothing about him unlike other written prophets (e.g., Amos).

Apparently, however, he was a well-known figure in his day. It is simply enough to say, “Jonah the son of Amittai.” His fame is confirmed by 2 Kings 14:23-27, which is the only other record in the Hebrew Bible about Jonah. We learn Jonah is a prophet during the reign of Jeroboam II from the city of Gath-heper, which is located in the territory of Zebulun in the region of Galilee not far from what would become Nazareth in the Roman period.

In 2 Kings 14:23-27, Jonah affirms God’s intent to give Israel some rest in their land after several years of bitter suffering. The rise of King Jeroboam II (789-748 B.C.E.), the longest reigning King of Israel (the Northern Kingdom), would see the recovery of northern Israel’s Solomonic borders. Jeroboam II presided over prosperity and peace. Jonah is, according to the record in 2 Kings, a faithful prophet to whom the people listened during this period.

The literary work known as Jonah, however, is anonymous—no authorial credit is given, and it is undated. The composition may date anywhere from the 700s-300s B.C.E. Based on linguistics, many date the book in the post-exilic period, and that may be correct.

 

Jonah’s Context.

While there is no verifiable way to assign a date to the composition, the historical circumstances are firmly rooted in the eighth century B.C.E.

Jeroboam II was a fourth generation descendant of Jehu (842-815) who is mentioned in the Black Obelisk of the Assyrian Emperor Shalmaneser III (858-824): “I received the tribute of the inhabitants of Tyre, Sidon, and of Jehu, son of Omri.” This indicates Assyria was a dominant power about forty years before the reign of Jeroboam II. However, during the reign of Jeroboam II the Assyrian hegemony had receded due to internal strife though by the end of his reign the Assyrians were once again threatening the borders of Israel.

During the prophetic ministry of Jonah, it appears, Assyria was in a holding pattern, though its power was about to rise once again. We might imagine Jonah does not want to encourage them because they will oppress Israel. As 2 Kings 14:23-27 notes, God had renewed mercy and goodness toward Israel, and Jonah does not want to contribute to such a renewal of mercy and grace toward Assyria.

As Eli Wiesel wrote, Jonah “does not wish Nineveh to die, yet he does not wish Nineveh to live at the expense of Israel” (Five Biblical Potraits, 154). What Jonah perhaps feared is exactly what happened to Elijah. When Elijah was told to anoint Hazael as king over Aram (Syria), but Elijah did not (1 Kings 19:15). When Elisha, Elijah’s successor, finally did, Elisha wept (2 Kings 8:7-13), and Hazael ultimately did oppress Israel (2 Kings 13:22). This, perhaps, is what Jonah fears, as probably the whole nation of Israel fears the renewal of Assyrian power in the region.

 

The Plot of the Book

Kevin Youngblood (Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy, 45) helpfully suggests the book has three major movements: resistance to acceptance to resentment.

  • Jonah resists his commission to call Nineveh to repentance, fleeing in the opposite direction to avoid the mission (Jonah 1-2).
  • Finally, through God’s pursuit and discipline, Jonah accepts the mission and obeys with God’s call (Jonah 3).
  • Afterward Nineveh’s repentance, Jonah resents God’s mercy (Jonah 4).

These movements provide a way of reading the story, which highlights God’s mercy, both to Jonah and the nations represented in the book. God pursues Jonah rather than abandoning him, God heals the nations rather than abandoning them, and God comforts Jonah despite his resentments.

 

Theological Meaning

While the story of Jonah and the whale is popular, what is the meaning of Jonah’s mission to the nations in the light of Jonah’s resistance, God’s mercy, and Jonah’s resentment?

Jonah, as portrayed in the story, is not an isolated prophet on an isolated task. Jonah represents Israel, and Jonah’s commission is Israel’s commission. God intended to bless all nations through Israel, and God intended Israel serve as a model for the nations. Through their priestly service to the nations (“light to the nations,” Isaiah 42:6; 49:6), Yahweh would draw all the nations into relationship as well (Deuteronomy 4:6-8; 28:8-10).

God did not choose Israel to exclude the nations but to include them through Israel. The nations are invited to the temple (1 Kings 8:41-43, 59-61) so that they might know God. As examples of God’s love for the nations, the prophetic ministries of Elijah and Elisha include provision for the widow in Zarephath (1 Kings 17:8-24) and the healing of Naaman, the Syrian (2 Kings 5).

Israel, however, failed to fulfill its mission. Instead, they warred with the surrounding nations, and the people and their prophets generally refused to herald the good news of the God of Israel to the nations. That this is a function of the prophets of Israel, as well as the people of Israel (who are royal priests among the nations, Exodus 19:6) is evidenced by the many addresses to the nations in the writing prophets (e.g., Isaiah 45:20-23) as well as the ministry of Elisha and Elijah among them.

Jonah represents Israel refusal to carry out God’s mission among the nations, and it provides the reason for their refusal. Just as Jonah resented God’s mercy to Nineveh, so Israel resented God’s mercy to the nations. Fearing the nations, they did not want them to know God’s grace, and when some came to know God’s grace, they resented God for saving them.

The book of Jonah, then, is a message about God’s mercy to both Israel and the nations. Just as Jonah was redeemed despite his refusal, so the nations are redeemed despite Israel’s failures. God’s mercy will win despite our stubbornness.

 

Youngblood’s Outline

I. From Silent Resistance to Jubilant Acceptance: The Compelling Nature of God’s Mercy (1:1-2:11).

  1. Silent Escape from God’s Mercy (1:1-4a).
  2. The Relentless Pursuit of God’s Mercy (1:5-2:1b).
  3. A Prayer of Praise for God’s Mercy (2:1c-11).

II. From Compliant Acceptance to Angry Resentment: The Offense of God’s Mercy (3:1-4:11).

  1. A Second Chance at Compliance with God’s Mercy (3:1-3b).
  2. Responsiveness to and Responsiveness of God’s Mercy (3:3c-10).
  3. Resentment of God’s Mercy (4:1-4).
  4. Object Lesson on God’s Mercy (4:5-11).

Theodrama: Act I, Scene 2: God Creates a Good, but not Perfect, World

October 20, 2015

The earth was a chaotic void,
and darkness covered the face of the deep,
while the Spirit of God hovered over the face the waters.

Then God saw everything made, and, Wow!, it was really good.

Genesis 1:2, 31a (my translation)

The title is a rather controversial one in the history of Christian theology. Many suggest the original creation was something akin to Platonic perfection, which resists any change because if one changes what is perfect, then it is no longer perfect. This kind of perfection has no room for change or development except devolution. One cannot improve on perfection.

However, this view actually undermines important features of creation within the biblical narrative. It fails to recognize the presence of chaos within the creation, the dynamic reality of creation, and the goal (telos) of creation.

 

From Chaotic Void to Really Good

When God finished creating, the creation was deeded “really good” (Genesis 1:31). However, the question to ask is, “Good compared to what?” What is the meaning of the word “good”? This can have moral, aesthetic, and functional connotations. Perhaps it means all three. God created good—not evil, God delights in the beauty of the creation, and God created the cosmos with a patterned regularity that works. Nothing in that language intimates perfection but only the fulfillment of God’s intent in creating.

Genesis 1:2 offers a clue to the meaning of the term. Taking Genesis 1:1 as a kind of section heading, Genesis 1:2 describes the earth before God begins to “make” the world as God intended. At that point, the earth is “without form and void” (tohu wabohu). Whatever the origin of this state, it is chaotic.

These words are only used together in the Hebrew Scriptures here, Isaiah 34:11 and Jeremiah 4:23. Isaiah records a divine threat to devastate Edom (“a haunt of jackals and an abode for ostriches” in 34:13) and Jeremiah prophesies the desolation of Judah. In both cases the land is rendered inhospitable to life, an uninhabitable wasteland. These are “uncreation” texts where Yahweh threatens to undo creation and render a good land uninhabitable, that is, to return the land to a chaotic void

Genesis 1, then, describes the process by which God turned earth’s chaotic waters into good, habitable space suitable for life. God orders the chaos in such a way that life is potentially fruitful and creation may blossom into its full potential. Creation is “good” because it is suitable for life with all its diversity, regularity, and habitable space.

 

Creation is Good, Not Perfect

Tohu wabohu characterizes the disordered state of the cosmos before God begins the creative work of building and filling, which is one way to describe how God made the world. This is the pattern of Genesis 1:1-31.

Days     Built Habitable Space           Days   Filled Space for Life

1          Light                                             4      Sun, Moon, Stars

2         Sky                                                 5      Birds, Fish

3         Land and Sea                              6       Land Animals

God creates space and then fills it, which is the essence of wisdom in creation theology (compare Proverbs 3:19-20 with Proverbs 24:3-4). In this way, God ordered the chaos by making habitable space and then filling it with light and life. This is what God describes as “good.”

Though the creation is good, it is not perfect. Chaos still exists within the creation. God did not eliminate the chaos but rather limited it. For example, in Genesis 1:4 God calls the light “good,” but not the darkness.  It is a different formula than what appears in Genesis 1:10b, 12b, 18b, 21b, and 25b. Light is contrasted with darkness. Darkness is already present in Genesis 1:2, and it is part of the chaotic void. When God creates the light, God calls the light “good,” but the darkness is not called good. The light does not eliminate the darkness but puts a boundary on it. But in the new heavens and new earth, as pictured in the Apocalypse (22:5), darkness will no longer exist because God and the Lamb are the light of the new world: “night will be no more.”

Another example is how God bounds the waters rather than eliminating them (cf. Job 38:8-11). Just as God separated light from darkness, so God separates the waters from the dry land (Genesis 1:9). The watery “deep” in Genesis 1:2 (tehom) is part of the chaotic reality. The presence of the “deep” is a threat to the functionality of creation, and its destructive capacity is present in the Flood narrative where the “deep” is the source of the flood waters (Genesis 7:11). It is an act of “uncreation” and reverses the creative work accomplished in Genesis 1. But the new heavens and new earth envision a home where there is no more sea (Revelation 21:1).

At the end of the sixth day, chaos is still present within the creation. The world is not idealistic or perfect. Chaotic forces are present. They are not evil; nor are they necessarily hostile. Rather, they are the “stuff” out of which creation emerges, develops, and is dynamically ordered.

Chaos still exists within God’s good creation, and part of the dynamic process of God’s continuing work in the world is bounding, ordering, and ultimately eliminating that chaos.

 

Creation is Dynamic, Not Static.

God intended creation to grow, mature, adapt, and change. Creation was intended to develop into a future fullness—to become all it could be or to reach its potential. Genesis 1 is only the starting point; it was not the goal. Consequently, creation is always in process. Under God’s sovereign care and in partnership with humanity, the creation would emerge, grow, and develop till the divine telos was reached.

One indication of this divine intent is that humanity, like other creatures (Genesis 1:22), is blessed to “be fruitful and multiply and fill.” Humanity, like other creatures, is to populate the earth and the whole earth, as Isaiah confessed, God “formed to be inhabited” (Isaiah 45:18). As every parent knows, having children changes things. Indeed, everything changes. Filling the earth is a process replete with change, development, and the scattering of human beings (and other creatures) across the planet—in much the same way Yahweh scattered humanity at Babel, scattered Israel through exile, and scattered the church through persecution.

Another indication of this divine intent is how creation participates in its own development. God created “light” by commanding it into existence, “Let there be light!” (Genesis 1:3). In contrast, God invited animal life to participate in their multiplication—not only in the command to “multiply” but also in addressing how the waters and the land “bring forth” living creatures (Genesis 1:20, 24). Unlike “let there be light,” which is an imperative command, let them “bring forth” is a jussive, which signals a participatory process.

These indicators, among others, suggest creation is a dynamic process rather than a static perfection, and creation participates and contributes to its own development. God and creation cooperate in the development of creation’s potential.

 

There is a Goal, a Telos

Creation’s dynamic character assumes God has a goal for the creation. God created with a purpose, and, therefore, creation has a telos. God, in partnership with humanity and in cooperation with creation, sovereignly and actively pursues that goal.

This pursuit is the outworking of God’s mission. Broadly, the missio Dei (mission of God) is to draw humanity into the circle of the Triune fellowship, unfold the full potential of the creation, and fully enjoy what has been created. Ultimately, creation’s goal is to become the home of the Triune God, in which God dwells and which God fills with divine glory.

God delights in, rejoices over, and communes with the creation, both humanity and everything else. The divine mission is to fill everything—the heavens and the earth—and everyone with glory so that God might rest in the creation where God will delight in the creation and the creation will delight in God.