The Famous Minor Prophet
Our daily reading plan just took us through Jonah, one of the twelve Minor Prophets. If I had to guess, I’d say Jonah is the best known of the Minor Prophets. Most people don’t know Hosea, Amos, and the rest, but they know Jonah. His story about his encounter with a whale (or huge fish, as the NIV translates it) has brought him a fame no other Minor Prophet has.
Is Obedience the Main Message?
But that story has also contributed to our misunderstanding of Jonah’s message. The version of Jonah many of us were taught in Sunday School is that it is a message about the need to obey God; the prophet’s refusal to do what God told him to do and his being swallowing by the whale as a result is presented as an example of what might happen if we disobey God.
Now Jonah may indeed be an example of the need to obey; the way our Sunday School teachers used that story of Jonah and the whale might be correct to a certain point. It is not entirely correct, though. The need to obey God may be a side message of the book, but it is not the full or even main message of the book.
We can tell that the need to obey God is not the main message of Jonah in two ways. The first is that the story of Jonah and the whale does not take up the entire book. It only takes up half the book. The story does not end with Jonah being spit out of the whale and then going on to do what God had told him to do, as it would if the message was about obedience.
Instead, we have two more chapters, a whole other half of the book, before the book ends. (This, by the way, is one of my clearest memories from the first time I read through the Bible. I was stunned to discover that Jonah did not end with the story I knew but continued on. I couldn’t figure out why the book was continuing on and why no one had told me that it did continue on.)
A Message at the End
The second is the end of the book itself. Now I have said before that the key (that is, “message-defining”) parts of many Old Testament books in the center, and that is true. But it is also true that the key parts of other Old Testament books is the end. Nahum, which you may have already read by now, is an example of this.
The main message of Nahum doesn’t come until the very end when Nahum accuses the Assyrians of cruelty, thus explaining why it was that God’s wrath was coming upon them. The fact that this statement doesn’t come until the end makes it the final, undefeatable word of the book. It functions kind of like a modern-day “mic drop.” God just drops this word upon the hearers or readers and walks off to let it sink it.
The Twilight Zone Message
Jonah is another, perhaps even better example, of the key part of a book coming at the end. Jonah’s final word is not just final like Nahum’s but also strange. It would have been strange to Jonah’s ancient readers, anyway, the Hebrews he originally wrote this book for.
It would have been so strange to them, in fact, that it would have seemed like an episode of The Twilight Zone. If you’ve ever watched that show, you know that many episodes ended with an ironic twist; for example, an avid reader finally has time to read as much as he wants after a nuclear explosion wipes out the rest of humanity, but then he breaks his glasses and can’t read at all.
An Ironic Twist
Like those episodes of The Twilight Zone, Jonah also ends with an ironic twist. In the final paragraphs of the book, Jonah is angry. He has wanted the Assyrians of Nineveh to be destroyed because they are (as Nahum would say decades later) cruel, but God has spared them. This has made the prophet so angry that he wishes for death.
Instead, God comes to reason with him. God tells him that while there are indeed cruel people in Nineveh, there are “also more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left”. More than likely, God is talking about babies here; He is telling Jonah that the city is full of innocent babies that should not be destroyed with the cruel people.
Does God Care about Cows?
On top of that, God delivers the final statement of the book, saying “and also many animals (cattle, NIV ‘84)?” So not only are there innocent babies in Nineveh, but innocent livestock as well. God is literally asking the prophet, “Don’t you think I should spare the babies and cows?” God is literally telling the prophet, “I don’t want to destroy a bunch of babies and cows!”
Again, this message would have been very strange for Jonah’s ancient readers. Like Jonah, those Hebrews would have thought the Assyrians were too wicked for God to care about. Discovering that God did care about them and particularly about the innocent among them would have indeed been a Twilight Zone-ish ironic twist. And that ironic twist brings us closer to the real message of Jonah.
The Real Message
But it doesn’t bring us all the way there. To completely see the real message of Jonah, we need to look at his place among the other twelve Minor Prophets. If you remember our last blog, you will know that the Twelve have one overriding message, the message that God is displeased with the cruelty of all people (Assyrians, Hebrews, and everybody else). And He intends to use a series of punishments and a new king to bring in a kingdom which will not have cruelty.
Jonah’s individual message has to fit into this overriding message somehow, and since Jonah is chronologically one of the first Minor Prophets, it has to fit into this overriding message in some basic way.
People are Cruel but God is Not
And it does.
The basic way that this story of God’s sparing the cruel Assyrians (which is what the story of Jonah really is; the whale part is just a subplot) fits with the overriding message of the Minor Prophets is that is shows us who God is. Or, perhaps more accurately, who God is not. It shows us that God is not cruel.
Obadiah showed us that the world was cruel, and Joel showed us that even God’s people can be cruel. Amos begged the people to stop being cruel, Hosea lamented their cruelty, and Micah provide a legal case against it. Nahum and Zephaniah predicted punishment for that cruelty, and Habakkuk proclaimed how righteous people would survive that punishment.
But what Jonah tells us is foundational to all of that. What Jonah tells us is that God is not like us, that God is superior to us in this way (as well as every other way). What Jonah tells us is that God is not cruel. He is not cruel in and of Himself, and He is not cruel to us.
That is a stunning message. That is a message that will change your life. And that is the real message of Jonah. That is the message God Himself communicates with that little ironic ending “and also many animals”.