By Rev. Kevin K. Wright
The story of the prophet Jonah, as told through his eponymous book, stands as one of the most fantastical mythologies in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Set during the reign of the Jewish King Jereboam II (786-746 BC), Jonah’s story subverts the idea that “what goes around come around” and supplants it with the hope that God’s love and compassion are readily available to those who earnestly seek the path of repentance and obedience.
The Book of Jonah was most likely written sometime between the late 5th and early 4th century BCE during a period in which the Jews were led into exile by the brutal Babylonian Empire. This period of exile gave birth to a proliferation of Hebrew writing as Jewish communities sought to secure their history and heritage while they struggled to survive in a strange and foreign land.
The story of Jonah commences with God commanding the prophet to proceed to Nineveh (located on the outskirts of modern-day Mosul in Iraq) in order to exhort the people there to repent of their wicked ways. Jonah does the complete opposite, however, and secures passage on a boat sailing in the opposite direction as a means of escaping his emissarial assignment. God unleashes a storm to harass the boat, and Jonah, realizing that his disobedience is jeopardizing the lives of those around him, insists on being tossed overboard. The sailors fling Jonah into the sea where he is swallowed by a giant fish. Jonah spends three nights in the stomach of the fish where he repents for his disobedience. God hears Jonah’s remorse and commands the fish to spit him up on the shore so that he can carry out his mission. Once on land, Jonah goes to Nineveh where the people repent of their wickedness and are spared God’s wrath.
The irony of Jonah’s story is that it is his disobedience to God that marries his situation to that of the people of Nineveh. The personified character of Hope in Giona pleads with the people of Nineveh to realize that “Eyes full of tears move to compassion the angered Heaven.” Hope echoes this cadence again to Jonah where it says “Console yourself, oh heart of a sinful man: the penalty of Heaven is not as severe.” In the face of certain destruction, it is only hope that stands before God pleading for the fate of both the prophet and the city.
If Hope is the advocate for the haughty, then it is Obedience who instructs them on how to curry favor with the Almighty. Amidst Jonah’s reluctance to go to Nineveh it is Obedience who tells the prophet that “It is not for man to interpret the law laid down by Him who recreated the soul, who holds and sustains them.” After Jonah’s decision to abscond from his duty lands him in the belly of a fish, Obedience and Hope comfort the disheartened prophet by saying, “The Heavens are not harsh and deaf to the supplications of humility.” Obedience advocates for the choosing of God over one’s self and helps individuals to navigate the rocky shoals of their own ego and pride. In tandem effort, Hope and Obedience provide gracious guidance to those seeking the favor and blessing of God.
Contemporary audiences might need to hear Hope’s voice in the midst of our contentious national climate. Hope pleads with each of us to strive for goodness and gracious acceptance of the other while believing in our individual and corporate ability to act with justice and kindness. We might also welcome Obedience in our lives as well as we strive to weld our actions to patterns of love shaped by an adherence to Hope’s dream for us all. Each of us faces the choice between allowing our lives to be shaped by love or allowing our existence to be overrun by selfishness and fear. Hope and Obedience beckon us to the former. Like Jonah, we are fortunate to have such noble advocates on our behalf.
Rev. Kevin K. Wright is an ordained United Methodist elder and the Minister of Education at The Riverside Church in the City of New York.
Academy Journal Beta.1, 14-15 (2017) · CC BY-NC-ND
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