2 Aug 2010

Jonah #5: God’s Heart & His Struggle with Israel and Us (Jonah and His Bible)

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Exegesis, Grace, Hebrew Bible, Hermeneutics, Jesus, Jonah, Ministry, Preaching

Jonah and His “Bible”

Salvation is at the LORD’s discretion” (Jonah 2.9)

Jonah and the Story of Israel

When it comes to the book of Jonah we are encountering a work of deep divine art and exquisite mastery of irony. The person of Jonah was a real historical person who preached in northern Israel. Yet the word “Jonah” means “dove” in Hebrew which is also a word that is used to describe Israel (Hos 7.11 & 11.11). But the word yonah has powerful overtones …

my yonah is in the cleft of the rock” (Song of Songs 2.14)

open to me, my sister, my love, my yonah, my blameless one!” (Song of Songs 5.2)

unique is my yonah, my pure one” (Song of Songs 6.9, see 1.15, 4.1, 5.12)

The “deliciousness,” and intimacy, of yonah is suggestive. Again if polyvalence is used in Jonah, then we need not have to decide between these meanings for the word … we embrace them. As we go through the book we get the feeling that the author intends for us to embrace that ambiguity. The ambiguity acts like a snare. Jonah is the prophet and Jonah symbol of Yahweh’s beloved people. This does not mean we are not to think of one historical person but we are to think of both the man and God’s People. Dove refers to both at the same time. Which meaning do we choose? We don’t have to choose because the author is working on two planes simultaneously.

Jonah is Israel. Jonah is us. We are Jonah.

One indicator that more is going on than simply the history of one man, but rather a man is symbolic of the whole people is the author’s rich use of the Hebrew canon. The language of the book of Jonah is saturated with language, echoes, and intertextualities from the great sweep of Israel’s Story with Yahweh. The author makes brilliant use of “Cultural Literacy” (to use E. D. Hirsch’s term, See link for my discussion of that idea) of his readers to make powerful points and to draw his readers/listeners into the narrative itself.

The story of Abraham, Yahweh and Sodom is echoing behind the description of the wickedness of Nineveh that has “come up before me.” The contrast between Abraham’s (the progenitor of all Israel) pleading intercession for wicked Sodom and Jonah’s eagerness for the demise of Nineveh is not lost on the reader/listener.

The culturally literate Israelite could not miss the delicious irony of the King of Nineveh quoting the theology of Jeremiah back to the Beloved Dove (cf. Jer 18.7, 8, 11; 26.3, 13, 19). Or the the echoes of the repentant adulterous, murdering, man after God’s own hear King David on the pagan king’s lips, “Who knows? The LORD may be gracious to me …” (2 Sam 12.22).

The Beloved Dove explicitly quoting, what is in essence the equivalent of the Apostle’s Creed in ancient Israel, the Heartbeat of the faith of Israel, Exodus 34.6-7 (cf. 4.2) cautions us to read with ears in tune with whole Story of God with Israel. (The importance of this “creed” to Israel is that it quoted to and paraphrased from beginning to end of the Hebrew Bible … at least 25x! See my blog “The Gracious & Compassionate God, Ex 34“).

Jonah and the Psalms

My previous point is demonstrated exquisitely in the prayer psalm of Jonah, recorded in chapter 2. The psalm is the hymnody of Israel. It is the voice of the people of God in worship. These are the words that the Dove has repeated in countless worship services and have become part of the DNA of prayer in the community.

The man Jonah, like the people of God down through the ages, often sing words that are far deeper, richer, and substantive than we truly comprehend. As G. C. Brewer once opined, “we sing a better gospel than we preach or believe.”

Jonah sounds as profoundly religious as the folks broiled by Amos. Yet we are left wondering if there is substance beyond the form of sounding pious!? Or as Paul might put it, there is a form of piety but no power. This is not simply an indictment of our spiritual ancestors but of followers of the Way today.

To illustrate just how deeply the author makes use of the Psalter (or Jonah memorized hymns) I offer the following line by line comparisons. The verbal echoes are striking. (I was unable to reproduce the parallel columns of my chart. If you are interested in a complete parallel chart of Jonah 2 and the book of Psalms send me an email and I will forward that to you). I have placed the Psalm texts in italics to facilitate both a distinction between Jonah and the Psalms and to help keep track of what is going on.

Jonah’s Psalm (2.1-9)

v.2 I called to the LORD out of my distress
and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol
I cried, and you heard my voice.

Hebrew Psalter

120.1 I cry to the LORD …
in my distress …
that he may answer me:

31.22b … when I cried to you for help ..
but you heard my supplication …

Jonah’s Psalm

v.3 For you did cast me
into the deep,

into the heart of the seas,
and the flood was
round about me;
and you waves and billows
passed over me.

Hebrew Psalter

102.10 … you have … thrown me away.

62.2 I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.

42.7 …all your waves and billows
have gone over me.

{Skipping a few verses for convenience sake}

Jonah’s Psalm/Prayer

v.7 When my soul fainted within me,
I remembered the LORD;

And my prayer
came to you,
into your holy temple.

Hebrew Psalter

142.3 When my spirit is faith …
143.5 I remember the days of old …

88.2 Let my prayer,
Come before you,
Incline your ear to my cry!

Jonah’s Psalm/Prayer

v.8 Those who
pay regard to vain idols
forsake hesed.
v.9 But I with the voice
of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;

what I have vowed
I will pay.
Deliverance belongs to the LORD!

Hebrew Psalter

31.6 You hate those who pay regard
to vain idols;
but I trust in the LORD.
116.17 I will offer
you the sacrifice of thanksgiving

116.18 I will pay my
vows to the LORD
3.8 Deliverance belongs to the LORD

What is the Author Doing?

What can we learn from this intertextuality in the book of Jonah? Just this: The author is not interested in a mere historical telling of a long ago prophet (though he uses history as his tool). The author is interested in the people of God seeing themselves and hearing themselves in the Dove. The Dove is the image of the people of God. The author, like his descendant named Yeshua, brilliantly calls for God’s people to move beyond the rhetoric of sound doctrine and into living a life that flows from the heart of God.

That future descendant would tell a story one day of several highly dedicated religious servants of the Lord. Those religious servants see a nameless human being and pass on their way. In a brilliant role reversal (as in Jonah), the hated ones do the right thing, the hated ones demonstrate the heart of God in ways those who memorized the Bible and hymnbook could not fathom (Samaritans were hated … Nineveh was HATED).

What the author wants us to see is that Jonah is not simply about Jonah … It is about us. How often do we simply, and piously, justify our rebellion against the Lord in the name of orthodoxy? How often do we seek to be the arbiter of other people’s destiny? How often do we joyously sing praise songs at the top of our voices while harboring self-righteous, condescending, attitudes towards those who are not as sound as ourselves? How often do we quote Scriptures on grace and have no sense of the depth of our own need of it?

We, like Jonah, can often state correct doctrine, “Salvation is at the Lord’s discretion” (Jonah 2.9)… but what we people of God often fail to have eyes to see is that this “truth” is no mere doctrine. It is the essence of our very life before our God.

Jonah … is the Mirror of … Me!!

3 Responses to “Jonah #5: God’s Heart & His Struggle with Israel and Us (Jonah and His Bible)”

  1. John Says:

    what is in essence the equivalent of the Apostle’s Creed in ancient Israel, the Heartbeat of the faith of Israel, Exodus 34.6-7

    Just put that in my journal.

    Is it not a recurring theme?

  2. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    John thanks for reading and commenting.

    Exodus 34.6-7 is the golden text of the Hebrew Scriptures. In the NT John 3.16; 1 Jn 4.16 etc are echoes of that great text.

    It is difficult to overstate the importance of God’s self-revelation in Ex 34.6-7 to Moses in biblical faith. Sadly many gentile Christians simply are unaware of the text and its “afterlives” in Israel. Then those who do seem to miss the point when it comes to the children to the 3rd & 4th generation. But that is deliberately contrasted with a thousand generations!!

    “[Y]ou are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love,
    a God who relents from sending calamity …” (Jonah 4.2, NIV)

    It is difficult to overemphasize how important this “creed” is in the faith of the Hebrew Bible. There is not a section of the Hebrew canon that does not refer to this creed. It is deeply embedded in biblical faith. Here are a few references:

    Exodus 34.6-7 … the Source

    Numbers 14.18

    Nehemiah 9.31

    Psalms 86.5
    Psalms 103.8
    Psalms 145.8-9

    Nahum 1.3

    Joel 2.13

    This is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The book of Hosea is an extended commentary on the term hesed … Yahweh’s steadfast love.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    I would like to exchange links with your site stoned-campbelldisciple.blogspot.com
    Is this possible?

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