Jonah may very well be my favorite book in all of scripture. I know that it is really hard to say that, given all of Jesus’ parables, given the wonderful stories of the patriarchs, given Paul’s finely crafted arguments, given the lyric poetry of the psalms, or even the passionate pleas of the other prophets. For me Jonah nicely sums up the challenge of the good news of the gospel and does so with a boat load of sarcastic, cynical, humor.
Let’s pause a moment to talk about Biblical Genre. You may have heard this speech from me before, but it bears repeating—Scripture varies widely! Unfortunately, the religious community seems to approach all of scripture as though it were written in such a way as to be read the same. There almost seems to be a level of fear that if we don’t approach all scripture with great reverence and gravity we will be struck dead by lightening from above. I would argue if there is a lighting worthy offense, it would be our unwillingness to understand that scripture is written with many different voices, purposes, tones, and intentions. Some scripture is meant to be serious and should be read with high reverence. However, there is a wide swath of scripture that cannot be understood appropriately without a sense of humor. There are so many genres within scriptures: poetry, history (but not in the modern sense of the word), oratory, prophecy (in the speaking truth to power sense of the word), storytelling, epic, romance (even the kind that today would be on the grocery check out shelf variety), and yes—HUMOR!
The best examples of humorous biblical writing for my money are the stories of Ballam, Esther, Elijah, and Jonah. Given our focus for Sunday, let’s consider a few things about Jonah (Park your children’s Sunday School memories of the story off to the side somewhere!)
Jonah is hilarious, and it is absolutely meant to be hilarious. Unfortunately, it does require some research and historical explanation to understand the humor (And you know what they say, if you have to explain the joke…). Jonah is tasked with talking to the Ninevites—they’re the big bad guys that end up being responsible for the exhile of Israel. So what does Jonah do—he runs in the exact opposite direction! At this time in history, Tarshish is probably the furthest any good Israelite had traveled in the opposite direction of Ninevah, so naturally, that is where Jonah decided to go. Of course, he has to rely on other enemies of Israel to do so—the Phoenecians. When the boat is battered by the waves who starts praying? Those wicked unfaithful Phoenecians. When it comes time to listen to God who listens? Those wicked unfaithful Phoenecians. In fact the only person in this story that doesn’t listen to God is God’s prophet Jonah! Even Fish, and bushes and worms obey God, but not Jonah. Jonah is one of the few prophets that actually meets great success and turns the heart of the people to whom he was called to speak. Then Jonah is “vomited up by a fish to go carry out his prophetic duties—and yes, the Hebrew language is that graphic! The Israelites rarely listen to the prophets, but what do those nasty Ninevites do? The Ninevites declare a city wide fast, and they won’t even let their animals eat. Can’t you see it now? A whole city fasts and dresses in sackcloth, and there are their donkeys, sheep and pigs decked out in the same clothing and faithfully fasting as well! What does Jonah do when he is successful? He whines and sulks about God’s Grace! So God in turn appoints a bush, a worm, and a hot wind to teach Jonah a lesson. And the whole thing ends with “potty humor,” as those awful Ninevites are said to eat with the same hand they use in the restroom.
If you can’t allow yourself to see the humor in that story then we seriously need to talk. Make an appointment.
It is okay to laugh at scripture—this stuff was meant to be funny, and I would argue if we aren’t allowing ourselves to laugh at this stuff, we won’t ever get what scripture is trying to teach us. Frankly, I would argue it is flat out unfaithful to approach this story without a sense of humor! But I suppose that there is part of the point with Jonah—the highly religious, self righteous, prophet of God is too serious to get it, while all those terrible, awful, no-good, very bad people do! We need to lighten up. We need to laugh. We need to accept that God works through all sorts of realitys—even divinely appointed worms. But that is a story for Sundays Sermon. See you then!