A while back I was asked to substitute for a Sunday school teacher at church. The lesson was on Jonah. While I try to look for the positive in most situations and look for hidden lessons I wasn’t sure that I would be able to find much in the way of either. Jonah’s story provided me with more than I would have originally thought. The more reading I did the more questions I had about what I thought was a pretty simple subject. It started with, where in the heck is Nineveh anyways. The answer: Across the river from Mosul, Iraq and about 560 miles as the crow flies from the port of Joppa (now surrounded by Tel Aviv), which is where he departed from. Then other questions followed:
Why would a prophet defy a request from the Lord?
After Jonah successfully converted the entire city of Nineveh he complained to the Lord that he knew they would not be destroyed if he came (Jonah 3:10, 4:1). He must have harbored a strong resentment against the Assyrians (Nineveh at the time was their capital city). The following quote comes from, Jerusalem, The Eternal City (Galbraith, Ogden, and Skinner, 1996, p 83). By the way this is a very interesting read. It covers the founding of Jerusalem through today and then discusses some of the prophecies regarding its future.
Assyrians were infamous for their barbarous conquests and treatment of captured enemies. They forced captives to parade through the streets of Nineveh with the severed heads of other captives around their necks. The Assyrians were masters of torture, cutting off noses and ears and yanking out tongues of live enemies. They flayed prisoners -- skinned them while they were still alive. The reliefs commemorating the siege at Lachish show Judahites impaled outside the walls of that city of Judah.
Perhaps, Jonah had a friend or relative who suffered at the hands of the Assyrians or perhaps hatred (with cause) of the Assyrians was just part of the local culture.
Would a coward ask to be thrown off a ship during a storm?
Jonah asked his shipmates to throw him overboard in the middle of a storm (see Jonah 1:12-14). This they reluctantly did. I've been out on a sailboat in somewhat stormy weather. It was scary for me. I can't imagine asking to be thrown into the water. That is not the act of a coward.
Why didn't Jonah change his mind after reaching land?
Jonah had a good long walk or ride ahead of him (at least a 2 or 3 month journey), assuming he was dropped off somewhere in the vicinity of his departure point. Why didn't he go home instead of completing the journey to Nineveh? The journey could not have been entirely safe. I think about the times I've walked back on an agreement I made with Heavenly Father under much less trying circumstances. Jonah must have had a great internal commitment to make the long journey and then teach a group of people that he really, really, really did not like. As mentioned even after he had converted them he still wanted the Lord to destroy them.
- Jonah was not a coward, he was a courageous, committed servant of God.
- He held an understandable grudge against the Assyrians.
- One of the lessons we can take away from his story is that the Lord does not want us to harbor ill will towards others, even if justified by past behavior. While we do need to teach right from wrong we need to be a forgiving people; something that is central to the teachings of Christ and his disciples both in word and in deed (Matt 5:43-44, Luke 23:34, Acts 7:55-60 …). We should apply this in all facets of our life: family, work, church, politics … .
Clearly the story of Jonah is not just about a prophet who ran away from an assignment and was encouraged to reconsider his decision. He can be used as a positive example on a number of levels. That, in an of itself, is an example of finding the positive instead of looking for the negative.