Friday, August 30, 2013

The Compassionate God in the Story of Jonah

Our God is compassionate and wills that all people be saved. Even though we witness a compassionate God in the New Testament we also have many instances in the Old Testament which signify to the fact that our God is compassionate. We also witness a compassionate God in the story of Jonah.

God Cares for the Whole World
In the story of Jonah we come across flora and fauna with which God seems to be concerned about (Jonah 4:11). The story’s credibility lies in its religious and philosophical message and not in its contribution to biological questions regarding the different animals or plants. Therefore it does not matter to find out the scientific names of the mysterious plant and the whale. After hearing the message of Jonah the decree of the king proclaimed abstinence for both human beings and animals (Jonah 3:7). In the story the king extends this to beast, cattle and flock – in short to every living creature. It is the humour of parody. In Jonah 3:8 we read – “Human beings and animals shall be covered with sack cloth and they shall cry mightily to God.” Partly we are also confronted with the author’s antic wit: it is easy enough to deprive domestic animals of fodder and drink and then pretend that they are fasting but it is another thing to imagine the animals parading about in sackcloth. This phrase of using ‘human beings and animals’ is a standard formula for prophet Jeremiah representing the whole of God’s creation, of His beneficence or of His condemnation. We find this in Jeremiah 7:20; 21:6; 27:5; 31:27; 32:43; 33:10. Also in the last verse in Jonah 4:11 there is a mention of animals who are a cause of concern for God whom He wishes to save.

God Cares for All Peoples
The Vatican II document, Lumen Gentium reflects the sentiments of the book of Jonah when it says that – “Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience” (LG 16). God cares for all peoples of the world and this is elucidated in the last verse of the Book of Jonah that is in where God says – “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left and also many animals” (Jonah 4:11). The sending of Jonah to Nineveh was to bring to light the truth that even the Gentiles were capable of receiving divine truth and to exhibit the possibility of their eventual reception into the Kingdom of God. This truth could not have been brought to the consciousness of the Israelites in a more impressive manner than by Jonah’s really travelling to Nineveh to proclaim the destruction of that city on account of its wickedness and seeing the proclamation followed by the results.

God Rescues Those in Trouble
In times of trouble God comes to the rescue of His creatures. It is interesting to note that Jonah chose death rather than obedience to the call of Yahweh. The mariners questioned Jonah – “Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” (Jonah 1:8). Jonah replied by saying – “I am a Hebrew, I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9). Thus Jonah confessed the very God from whom he was fleeing. Upon hearing this, the mariners were filled with fear and ask Jonah – “What is this that you have done! What shall we do to you that the sea may quiet down for us?” (Jonah 1:10)  Jonah responds by asking the mariners to lift him up and hurl him into the sea. “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you” (Jonah 1:11). Even now when repentance could have brought an end to the storm, Jonah chose death rather than obedience to the call of Yahweh. Yet God comes to the rescue of Jonah which is portrayed through the whale which acts as a vehicle of deliverance. God not only rescues Jonah but also makes a clear decision in rescuing all the people of Nineveh from their two fold troubles: Firstly God saves the people from their own sins which have blinded them and secondly God saves them from the destruction that was awaiting them.

The Compassionate God May Change His Mind
         An encounter between God and Jonah is presented in Jonah 4:1-11 that results from God’s decision to forgive the people of Nineveh and thereby reverse the earlier message of judgment against them which was delivered by Jonah. The verse in Jonah 4:1 expresses Jonah’s anger at God for having reversed the divine message. There is a great deal of speculation that Jonah’s anger is prompted by his own selfishness and embarrassment at having his prophetic message reversed, but as the discussion reveals, Jonah is angry at God for not following through the announcement of punishment. The issue is not just about Jonah’s selfishness or embarrassment, but about God’s reliability. At the start of the book the narrator builds up Jonah’s character as one who is rebellious. But later on Jonah raises the question of God’s integrity and claims this as his reason for fleeing that is he knew that God would not carry out the Divine Word. He cites as the reason for this conclusion the well known statement concerning God’s merciful character from Exodus 34:6-7 – “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and read to relent from punishing.” The references to God’s capacity to punish as in Exodus 34:6-7 are entirely missing in Jonah so that the issue focuses on God’s capacity to forgive when wrong doers repent and change their ways.

Article Submitted to the Examiner on 6th August, 2013