Sunday, October 16, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Books of Jonah and Micah

The tale of Jonah is a fairly familiar Bible story that lots of children know. Mostly, people are familiar with the fact that Jonah ran away from God and God sent a giant fish to swallow him up, though the fish spat Jonah back out again. But the reality of the story is a little more complicated than the version we teach to grade-schoolers.

For one thing, this is the first story that I recall about a prophet who outright refused to preach God's messages. Jeremiah was hesitant and even tried to stay silent, and Moses made lots of excuses, but all the prophets we hear about eventually ended up going along with God's plan. Jonah is different. God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrian empire, and preach to them that they should repent over their evil ways before God destroys them. Jonah isn't even recorded as giving a reply to this command, and instead of heading northeast to Nineveh, he hops a boat West to Tarshish. Like maybe if he travels in the opposite direction, God will just forget that he gave Jonah an important assignment.

Well, nothing goes according to plan and next thing Jonah knows, he's thrown off his boat and swallowed by a giant fish. Most kids' stories say a "whale", but the Bible itself says a "fish", though I'm not sure what the real practical difference is for Jonah. He still spends three days and three nights inside a large aquatic creature as it swims to Nineveh. I'm also not sure how he avoided being partially digested, but the book says that God himself "prepared a great fish" (1:17), so he could make the insides of the fish work in whatever way he wanted.

Jonah finally goes to Nineveh after the fish vomits him onto dry land. He travels all over the city, not preaching any form of redemption or possibility of repentance for the people, but stating baldly that God will destroy their city within forty days. But the Ninevites do actually repent and turn from their bad ways, and they go without food and pray to God to spare them, which he does.

And now the story really gets interesting. Most kids' versions of Jonah end right here, with Jonah learning a lesson of obedience and Nineveh learning a lesson of repentance, but the book of Jonah continues for another chapter which proves that Jonah hasn't learned anything at all. We're told that the Ninevites apologizing to God and God's decision to show mercy to them "displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry" (4:1). Jonah asks God to kill him, because he feels it would be a better fate to die than to live in a world where horrible people like the Ninevites are shown mercy. God answers Jonah with a question about why he, the Lord of everything, should not have mercy on a great city full of lost souls. Jonah's story ends here, with a repentant city, a merciful God, and an angry, jaded prophet.

The moral? Sometimes God grants mercy when we want to see justice served. We should rejoice over saved souls rather than growing bitter that bad people are not destroyed by the Lord.

Micah seems to be a bit like Amos, to me. It's a call to repentance like just about every other prophetic book, but it's also a specific message to rich people to stop oppressing the poor. Chapter 1 is about the upcoming judgment on Jerusalem. Chapter 2 reveals God's attitude toward the kind of things the powerful people of Jerusalem are doing: "Woe to them that devise iniquity, and work evil upon their beds! when the morning is light, they practise it, because it is in the power of their hand. And they covet fields, and take them by violence; and houses, and take them away: so they oppress a man and his house, even a man and his heritage." These people are stealing from others just because they can, and they spend all their time plotting to do what is wrong.

Chapter 3 again confronts Israel's leaders over their practice of using and consuming the poor people under their care. Chapter 4 talks about the hope for Israel in the future. Chapter 5 is Messianic, a prophecy about the king who will come and save Israel. Verse 2 of this chapter says that this ruler will come from Bethlehem and that he is an eternal person whose existence is everlasting.

My favorite part of Micah is chapter 6, where Micah is rhetorically asking what sort of things he could give to God in order to be purified from his sin. The Israelites sacrificed animals when they sinned, but even that practiced never seemed like enough: "Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?"

There's no need to despair. God wants you to do justly, to love mercy, and walk humbly with him. That's something within everyone's reach.

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