In church today we started the book of Jonah. I’m sure everybody, believer and skeptic alike, knows the basic plot of the story: God commands Jonah to go to the great city of Ninevah and tell the wicked people there that God is going to destroy them. Jonah runs away, is swallowed by a fish (whale?), and ends up doing what God told him originally. The people of Ninevah are horrified at the news and repent, leading God to withdraw His threat.
Now here’s where the story gets really interesting. Most people would bask in their role in changing the ways of a great city; after all, most prophets were ignored, and that was certainly heartbreaking (if not lethal), but here Jonah the prophet had everybody listen. Yet look at how Jonah reacts like a sulking teenager (Jonah 4: 1-3):
4 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he became angry. 2 So he prayed to the Lord, and said, “Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm. 3 Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!”
Let me answer Jonah’s question (which I’ve put in bold): No, that’s not what you said when God approached you; at least, that’s not in my Bible. And if that really had been Jonah’s objection–namely, that he knew God wouldn’t follow through with the threat to the Ninevites–then why is running to Tarshish a rational response?
To me, it’s crystal clear that Jonah was simply lying (or rationalizing, maybe he didn’t realize he was inventing an excuse on the spot). He ran away because he was afraid; he didn’t want to go into a foreign city where the people would hate his guts anyway, to tell them they were sinful and going to be wiped out. (For a much milder scenario, if God commanded me to go the Academy Awards and tell all the movie stars that they were horrible role models and needed to stop having pre-marital sex, I wouldn’t want to do it either.)
Now once I heard a preacher catch a move like this, when it was the Samaritan woman at the well to whom Jesus talked. As you can see in verse 20 at this link, when Jesus busts her for having multiple husbands, she quickly changes the subject in a complete non sequitur. So like I said, I once heard a preacher on that story point out her nice move, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone suggest that Jonah was simply covering himself by saying, “Oh God this is why I didn’t want to go to Ninevah, I knew you would forgive them.”
Indeed, our pastor today took Jonah at face value, and then went into a (totally correct) discussion of why Jonah was wrong to think this way, the irony of him begrudging God’s forgiveness of sinners, etc. But, I think we need to recognize that Jonah was rewriting history–sort of like when Moses told the Israelites it was their fault that he couldn’t enter the Promised Land.