Who is God to Jonah?

This afternoon I wrote my fourth (and last) exegetical paper on Jonah for my Hebrew class. Enjoy.

Who is God in the Book of Jonah?

The narrator of the book of Jonah presents the LORD to be a God who 1) reigns completely over all creation, and employs his spoken word as his primary means of ruling; what is more, he 2) actually gives his creation real agency toward the completion of his purposes. The chief agent, in fact, is his spoken word. His ultimate, defining characteristic throughout this story, the trait that qualifies his divine sovereignty, is his longsuffering patience. He is willing to wait—even to repeat himself—in order to win obedience. Whether or not Jonah sees the LORD to be all of these things or understands them fully is doubtful, as we see Jonah’s reluctant obstinacy and stubborn rebellion throughout the narrative.

We see in the episode on the sea that God is sovereign over all creation, even the capricious sea. God throws a great wind (1.4) and “provides” a great fish (2.1, NRSV), demonstrating his mastery over both the elements and the animals. These, then, are not mere objects, but God’s commissioned subjects to fulfill his intended purposes. The wind is sent, not as divine terrorism, but to win the obedience of Jonah, and the sailors; the fish is sent, not as another punishment, but as a vehicle of Jonah’s personal transformation toward obedience. Throughout the Jonah narrative, we discover that God’s primary mode of relating to his people and his creation is his word, to the extent that “the Word of the LORD” is almost another character (1.1, 3.1, 3.6). In a way, the wind might be seen as God’s breath (1.4); the LORD speaks to the great fish (2.11). Thankfully for Jonah, the fish obeys God more promptly and more fully than Jonah himself does.

“Telling” is the only verb in participle form where the LORD is the subject that we find in Jonah 1-3 (3.2). God’s speech is not a static decree that requires messengers and prophets for its transmission; it is an agent of itself, living and active in God’s world and effective for transformation. It is indicative that the only instances where the narrator directly quotes God in the first three chapters are his commands to Jonah: “Get up,” “walk to Ninevah,” and “cry out” to them (1.2; 3.2). This is incredibly profound, as Jonah is the only character in this entire narrative with the gall to not obey the LORD the first time. Rather than vindictively make an example of Jonah’s disobedience in order to demonstrate his sovereignty, God patiently repeats himself, giving Jonah opportunity upon opportunity to obey freely.

God’s patient sovereignty is writ large in his treatment of Ninevah. At the end of chapter 3, the LORD saw Ninevah’s repentance, “changed his mind” (NRSV) from the evil that he said he would do to them, and he did not do it (3.10). The “Word of the LORD” becomes an agent of relationship, a kind of contract, to which God himself submits: because Ninevah turned from their path of destruction, he also will turn from his planned destruction.

The narrator, I envision, stands next to Jonah throughout this entire narrative, gesturing wildly at the abundance of examples of God’s patient reign and spoken word winning the obedience of his creation, begging him to follow their example. To a shallow extent, Jonah sees what is happening all around him: he rants, “You are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2, NRSV). However, Jonah clearly cannot fully comprehend this, as he gives these all as reasons to disobey God, rather than to submit to his reign. What Jonah most misunderstands, perhaps, is what is most central to his confession: “You are…slow to anger.” Jonah slips this in the middle, and seemingly passes over its significance. The narrator, instead, sees this as the crux of God’s character, what is most evident in this entire narrative. Jonah is blind to this; we cannot be.

My previous exegetical papers on Jonah:

       ~   some initial reflections on Jonah

  1. Where is God? and Where is Jonah Going?
  2. Repetition is Emphasis; Emphasis is Theology
  3. Didn’t I Read This Earlier?

Snow White and the Huntsman

It’s not a recent release anymore, but when I finally saw Snow White and the Huntsman, I found several features compelling about how our popular culture  rewrote the familiar fairy tale with its own peculiar flourishes.

While artistically breathtaking in its presentation of a world overrun with magic, and especially responsible in the complexity of its characters, two distinct but related themes stood out to me: the nature of magic as the manipulation of life, and the quality of royal blood to sustain the created order.

Magic in the world of this story is the ability to manipulate life. For Queen Ravenna, this means taking the life of others in order to sustain her own life. There are several different understandings of what magic is and does throughout the fantasy and fairy tale genres, but this ability to control things is certainly common to all of them. The Queen seeks to preserve her youthful beauty and to control her kingdom.

At first, I found Snow White’s praying the Lord’s Prayer to be an arbitrary imposition on the world of the fairy tale, a superficial way of demonstrating her purity or innocence over against Queen Ravenna’s use of magic. But as I tried to explain why I felt it was inconsistent and a concerning part for me as a Christian, I could not. If anything, the Lord’s Prayer, and indeed, prayer in general, is the perfect foil for the Queen’s magic. What better opposite for a self-sustaining craving for control, than to pray (even in an abbreviated form) a prayer that fundamentally asserts, “Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and glory forever.”

The troll was one of the visual highlights of the film

Related to the film’s portrayal of magic is its understanding of the creation-sustaining quality of royal blood. This is a profound commonality in fairy stories and the entire fantasy genre, but it is usually only an implicit element in the worldview. Snow White and the Huntsman visually and verbally explores it. Snow White encounters the distorted and destructive elements of the world along her journey, and discovers that she is a restorative, healing presence among them. Where she goes, she conquers the pervasive winter and unnatural violence that run rampant in Queen Ravenna’s rule.

Coincidentally, or perhaps not, this is also a significant element in the Bible’s worldview. Jeremiah 12:4 reads:

How long will the land mourn, and the grass of every field wither? For the wickedness of those who live in it, the animals and the birds are swept away.

Similarly, 2 Chronicles 7:13-14 reads:

When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.

The only difference here is who the king is. Sorry, who the KING is. It is not so much human royal blood but the divine reign of God and the obedient, covenant faithfulness of his people that leads to the land’s abundant flourishing, a sense that things are “the way things should be.”

The White Stag is really the Spirit of the Forest from Princess Mononoke. Just saying.

The White Stag is really the Spirit of the Forest from Princess Mononoke. Just saying.

The recent riptide of made-over fairy tales in the theaters intrigues me. We’ll see a few more yet before the tide goes out; for instance, Hansel and Gretel, Witch Hunters (Jan 25, 2013). For a little extra reading, here’s a link to a .pdf of the brilliant essay “On Fairy-Stories” by J. R. R. Tolkien.