20 Aug 2010

Jonah #9: God’s Heart & His Struggle with Israel & Us (The Wrath of the Theologian)

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

The Wrath of the Theologian: 4.1-6

Deliverance belongs to the LORD” (Jonah 2.9, NRSV)

Most Shocking Chapter in the Bible

If truth is to be confessed then we admit Jonah chapter four is one of the most shocking chapters in the entire canon of Scripture! Here in this chapter the blindness, arrogance, and possibly even the blackness of Jonah’s heart is finally revealed. At the same time we have to confess that Jonah 4 is truly one of the most comforting chapters in the canon because of the revelation of Yahweh there.

In Jonah 4 the “Wrath of the Theologian” is on display in all its ugliness. The Dove, Jonah and the People he represents, was convinced he had the word of God understood in precisely the manner in which God intended … every Christian that values neat and tight systems can sympathize with Jonah.

As our chapter opens the Minstrel brings together for the first and only time two words that he uses with frequency throughout the story: great and evil. He brings them together precisely when the Dove witnesses Yahweh’s mercy for those who clearly do not deserve it. Such mercy becomes a great evil. If we remember the mirror, parallel, structure of the book we see that Jonah’s actions are in stark contrast to the “horrible” pagan sailors in 1.16. While a yire’ah gedolah et-YHWH (a great fear of the LORD) overwhelmed the pagans in light of God’s salvation of Jonah, a ra’ah gedolah (a great evil) swamped the Dove as he (i.e. God’s People) witnessed the magnitude of God’s gracious love! DO NOT SUGAR COAT, DO NOT MINIMIZE, DO NOT SWEEP UNDER THE RUG … what the narrator is putting on display here. Jonah hates how God has been true to his own word yet in a way that makes Jonah look like a fool in his own eyes!! God did overturn Nineveh! Yet Jonah, God’s own people, the church!!, is sitting in judgment on Yahweh himself. Let it flow over us …

Invitation to Stop, Reflect & Retrace Our Steps

Our singing Minstrel drops the bomb on us so to speak in 4.2. For the first time we are told why the Dove flew. Two things happen as the verse opens that take us back. First, Jonah explains his flight quoting the heart of Israel’s Gospel creed … it is as if the narrator says “Now go back and reread 1.1-3.10 in light of 4.2!” Second, Jonah’s prayer “Is this not what I said while I was still in my own country” … has strong linguistic and verbal echoes to Israel’s rebellious cry in Exodus 14.12 to Moses, “Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt.” Yahweh follows up such rebellion with the Exodus event itself and in Jonah 4 God is still trying to deliver the saved people out of the land of slavery. Yahweh attempts to save the Dove! He’s already saved the Pagans!

Before the narrative gets to Yahweh’s attempt to save the drowning Dove (as he saved him from himself and the sea in 1.17 [2.1, Hebrew]) the writer lets the hammer drop! The Message captures the volcanic reaction in the Dove …

Jonah was furious. He lost his temper. He yelled at God, “God! I knew it – when I was back home, I knew this was going to happen! That’s why I ran off to Tarshish! I knew you were sheer grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness!”

My own translation through verse 3 reads …

Oh, Yahweh! Was not this exactly what I thought while I was still in my own country? This is WHY I at first wanted to flee to Tarshish. For I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, patient and abounding in love, who regrets the evil. So then, Yahweh, take my life from me! I am better off dead than alive!”

It nearly takes our breath away! But our Minstrel isn’t asking us to judge Jonah … he is saying we are Jonah! Jonah, like Israel at the moment of salvation itself (i.e. the Exodus), rebels. Moses confessed “you have been rebellious against the LORD as long as he has known you” (Deut 9.24, NRSV).

Are we still?

The narrator has shown us that Jonah is thoroughly “sound” in his biblical theology (1.9; 2.9). Jonah is immersed in the liturgical worship tradition of “church” and says a pious sounding prayer constructed out of the words he heard at church. Now the minstrel has the Dove confessing intimate knowledge of the very core of “Old Testament” faith – the “Apostle’s Creed” of Exodus 34.6-7!!

How many times have we confessed the infinite grace of God in prayer, in song, and sermon and then decide we are in control of the “grace nozzle”?? All to often I suspect. The author sings that Yahweh is not constrained by our understanding of his doctrine … thus the Theologian is Wroth!

Jonah, like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, like many that Gather in buildings with A.D. 33 emblazoned on the corner stone, still does not grasp the depth of his own rebellion against the Lord nor his need for grace because of it. Three times the author has told us the Dove was fleeing from the “presence of YHWH” (1.3 {2x}; 1.10) and yet while Jonah was in the fish not a word of repentance and now in a place that corresponds to the fish Jonah still has not a word of repentance. It is hard to repent when we are convinced of our own rightness.

Rather than repent Jonah uses the creed to accuse God. In quoting the creed Jonah accuses God of four things:

1) of being gracious & merciful
2) of slowness of anger
3) of Hesed (steadfast love)
4) of repenting of punishment

The great text of Exodus 34.6-7 is hard to overemphasize in importance in Israelite faith. It is given in the context of the gross adultery of the Golden Calf to Moses. This self-revelation of Yahweh becomes the basis of hope in Israel and is referred to in whole or part around 25x in the rest of the Hebrew canon. See for example: Ex 34.6-7; Num 14.18; Neh 9.17-31; Psa 86.15; 103.8; 145.8; Joel 2.13 and Nah 1.3. The book of Hosea can be viewed as an extended meditation of hesed, the heart of the Israelite creed (see Ps 136 too).

That Yahweh is gracious. That God is merciful. That the Lord of Israel is loving and merciful is NOT a new teaching to Jonah! He says he knew (yada)! As we have many times sung Amazing Grace so Jonah had praised God for his hesed in his pious psalm in chapter 2. But here it is the historic, concrete, manifestation of God’s grace to “objectionables” that is the object of Jonah’s wrath! He has grace and hesed quantified, objectified and above all controlled.

Church, do we hear the scandal of these verses? What had always been the basis of praise, thanksgiving and appeal for forgiveness is now turned by Jonah into complaint and accusation against the Lord himself. He hates the fact that the Lord abounds in such unbridled love. That God’s grace might extend to even Nineveh. He would, if he could, prevent this loving kindness of the Lord from flowing so freely. He would prevent God from being who he is! What God claims to be! All in the interest of protecting the integrity and reputation of God of course. Shades of the Grand Inquisitor interrogating Jesus …

In the song the Minstrel sings, the Dove has subverted not only the very mission God created Israel for but has also attacked the message itself. Here in the song Jonah is the Anti-Abraham who argues with God not in order to save a city full of “wickedness, rebellion & sin” (from the creed!) but to protest its deliverance. In this melody Jonah is the Anti-Nehemiah who confesses not only his sin but the sin of his fathers and praises God for salvation flowing from the creed … our Jonah never confesses and embraces wrath instead of gratitude. Most shocking of all Jonah is the Anti-Moses quoting the self-proclamation of Yahweh himself to Moses not to intercede on behalf of a rebellious people but to complain and accuse!

Gasping in Silence …

A world where Yahweh is King and hesed is the law of the land is … well it is a world that Jonah cannot live in. Yahweh’s grace is unjust so it would seem to Jonah (echoes in Matthew 20.1-16). Jonah has already tried to commit suicide in chapter 1 but the Lord of Hesed does not wish for the Dove to drown. The Lord of Hesed wishes to set the Dove free to embrace life.

So Jonah says “and now take my life.

Death is preferable to the embarrassment of Yahweh’s version of law and order. To hear a death wish is an unsettling thing. For a prophet, a “son of truth,” it is doubly disturbing. That the Singer intends this to trouble us as it is read aloud has been recognized since before the time of Jesus himself. In the Dead Sea Scrolls “edition” of Jonah there is a pause here for the reader. In the Masoretic text there is a setumah preserving the more ancient tradition of pausing at this point of the story. We are meant to gasp and linger in silence over the implications of the Dove’s actions!

Pause and reflect in silence as the story expounds Ex 34.6-7 even in the life of Jonah the Dove. God’s compassion in saving the drowning Jonah and sparing Nineveh. God’s patience and love … patient with Jonah and loving Nineveh. And his readiness to forgive “at the drop of a hat” by pleading with Jonah and canceling Nineveh’s sentence. Perhaps we should just end this blog here.

Oh the Depth of Jonah. Oh the Wrath of the Theologian. Oh the wonders of his Hesed.


I want to thank my friend Jason Benson in Milwaukee, WI for calling my attention to this painting of Jonah … I plan on calling more attention to it in our next …

5 Responses to “Jonah #9: God’s Heart & His Struggle with Israel & Us (The Wrath of the Theologian)”

  1. John Says:

    So, you’ve read Karamazov?

    Jonah viewed Yahweh’s hesed the same way we view the beatitudes.

    Are there a lot of pauses in the prophets? That’s the first time I had heard of that. I wish they would note them in a fn in our English text.

    That was a good article.

  2. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    John thanks for reading and the comments.

    Dostoyevsky is rich and Brothers Karamazov is great. The passage on the Grand Inquisitor is a brilliant rebuke to the church …

    Perhaps you can expand on the beatitudes comparison.

    I do not know how many pauses there are … I will try to find out.

  3. John Says:

    Hesed cramped the Israelites style (unless it was coming their way,I guess). The beatitudes cramp ours (unless the other person is treating us that way). The beatitudes get in the way of all these patriotic wars our government is waging. Also, how are we going to get even with our fellow man when He looks at us funny, or something like that – there’s the Sermon on the Mount blocking our path. Only the part of Jesus’ teaching that I like, or that affects how the other guy treats me, only that part really applies. Isn’t that what it says?

    Karamazov is an Orthodox tract. I am a Faulkner man. But then, I think he liked Dostoevsky.

  4. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    John I just re-edited my post. Perhaps it is better than before. Yes, the Beatitudes do makes us uncomfortable … especially in their Lukan form (6.20-26).I would say that hesed STILL makes US uneasy (we are Israel, we are Jonah). Too unpredictable. Dostoevsky is brilliant, as is Tolstoy. Faulkner is brilliantly critiqued by James Baldwin …


    But I like Faulkner. Glad you are here.

  5. Randall Says:

    Wow! I love great literature, but this is great lovingkindness and great literature. There’s a little more here than what one gets the first time it is read. I suppose it is helpful to know something of the original language and literary devices.

    Muchas gracias Bobby,

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