Jonah and the big fish
I am reading a book by the Reverend Naim Ateek - 'A Palestinian Christian cry for reconciliation"; Naim is an Anglican priest and leads an organisation 'Friends of Sabeel', a group to raise awareness of the situation of the Palestinian people living in Gaza, the West Bank and those who live in Israel.
It got me intrigued to read the 4 small chapters of this Old Testament book again.
My first thoughts took me back to my Sunday school days and the chorus that we used to sing: here are the words if like me you have forgotten. It's sung to a catchy little tune.
'Come Listen to my tale of Jonah and the whale
Way down in the middle of the ocean
How did he get there whatever did he wear
Way down in the middle of the ocean
Preaching he should be at Nineveh you see
He disobeyed a very foolish notion
But God forgave his sin
Salvation entered in
Way down in the middle of the ocean'
The other thing to note if you do decide to 'google Jonah'; it gives you lots of material for teaching this to children in the Sunday school lesson. Reading the story again I am not sure why this story is seen as suitable to teach to children- just because there is a ' big fish' this is no children's tale.
The reason for this and it's 'not mentioned' certainly in our cutesy chorus; the possible annihilation of around 120,000 people if they do not repent of their sin.
This possible killing of so many led me to think deeply about the latest conflict and killing in Gaza this summer. This tragedy was played out in splendid technicolour for all to see on our news channels, it became a consuming factor in my world over these weeks and actually to this very second my concerns continue unabated. That conflict may be over but unfortunately the situation continues relentlessly.
I wrote several blogs about this situation: the first one How many lives'?
I was shocked that I knew so little, I had always dreamed one day of going to the 'holy land'. All the familiar names: Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Hebron, Galilee, Nazareth and so on were the places I had read about in my Bible.
But in July I heard about Gaza, a place sadly I knew very little about.
At Greenbelt a Christian summer festival this year I watched a presentation of 'Bethlehem unwrapped'. Justin Butcher a Creative Director, visited Palestine and saw the wall constructed that surrounds Bethlehem (apartheid wall ) and separates, Israel and Palestine: it is 8 metres high and it obscures Bethlehem’s holy sites and historic places. It is still under construction but runs approximately 273 miles it is (62%) completed.
On 9th of November it was the celebration of 25 years since the Berlin Wall fell. The reason given for building the wall in Palestine is that it is there to protect Israeli people from attack by Palestinian 'terrorists'. I have many thoughts about this but for now I want to say ultimately we will never achieve peace with walls.
What is understood is that it has had a massive humanitarian impact on the many Palestinians living near the wall.
Back to to Jonah
Jonah was told by God to go to Nineveh; "because its wickedness has come up before me."
I checked out the history of Nineveh and found it to be one of the oldest and greatest cities in antiquity, the total area of the city comprised about 7 square kilometres and fifteen great gates penetrated its walls.
It had an elaborate system of eighteen canals that brought water from the hills and several sections of a magnificently constructed aqueduct erected by Sennacherib one of the well known Kings.
It had as I have said 120,000 people twice as many inhabitants as Babylon at the time, placing it among the largest settlements. Some scholars believe that the Garden which Sennacherib built next to his palace, with its associated irrigation works, comprised the original Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
'The stone carvings in the walls include many battle scenes, impalings and scenes showing Sennacherib's men parading the spoils of war before him. He also bragged about his conquests: he wrote of Babylon
Its inhabitants, young and old, I did not spare, and with their corpses I filled the streets of the city."
I checked to see what countries the UK had been at war with and shockingly found that we had continuously had conflict over last 100 yrs, here are some countries we have fought against.
Russia, Afghanistan, Somaliland, Cyprus, Southern and Northern Iraq, Palestine, Korea, Cameroon, Brunei, Malaysia, Kenya, China, Greece, Sudan, Aden, Eritrea, Pakistan, Suez, Falklands.
So it seems conflict war and brutality was not left behind in the ancient world. Sadly it is continued to our current crises raging across our world- RIGHT NOW.
Nineveh was brutal and also the centre of innovation and beauty. All of humanity represented there- the good and the bad and the ugly. The reality that we are all not one thing. That nations are made up of people that live and love and hate and make war: with each other, within their families, tribes and against sadly against other countries and nations.
Back to Jonah
In Jonah chapter 1 the story starts: The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: "Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me."
The book of Jonah is in the Tanakh- the canon of the Hebrew Bible.
According to tradition it is read every year, in its original Hebrew and in its entirety, on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement, this is the holiest day of the year for the Jewish people.
Its central themes are atonement and repentance. Jewish people traditionally observe this holy day with an approximate 25-hour period of fasting and intensive prayer, often spending most of the day in synagogue services.
Jonah came from a town named Gath-hepher, near Nazareth. Unfortunately ignoring what God asked of him he boarded a ship bound for Tarshish, a city near Gibraltar in the southern part of Spain. Nineveh was located east of the Tigris River in modern-day Iraq. It was more than 500 miles east of Jonah’s hometown. Tarshish, in contrast, was west of Gath-hepher. In fact, it was more than 2,500 miles from Israel in the opposite direction of Nineveh. It was the most remote destination available to him. So clearly Jonah does not want any chance that the the Ninevites will be forgiven, certainly not from anything that he has anything to do with!
Whilst on the ship a huge storm arises and the sailors, realising this is no ordinary storm, cast lots and discover that Jonah is to blame, he admits this and states that if he is thrown overboard, the storm will cease.
The sailors try to dump as much cargo as possible before giving up and throwing him into the sea, and yes instantly the sea calms.
He is saved by being swallowed by a large fish or whale as we have come to believe where he spends three days and three nights.
So there we have it Jonah swallowed by the whale and let the children's Sunday school stories begin. For me in the same way Jesus was a story teller: this comes from the Jewish culture which was one of story telling.If you want to believe it really happened it's ok, many have looked to find if it's possible and believe it is; for me I think that Jonah in his disobedience spent 3 days in the dark of despair, knowing he had disobeyed a command from God, also trying to assimilate what this means to see the enemy of his people possibly forgiven.
Whilst in the place of disobedience he prays to God in his affliction and commits to doing what has been asked of him and go to the Ninevites. The reality is that he knew he had no choice but to do what God had asked him too.
In Jewish culture there is a word Teshuva ; which is the ability to repent and be forgiven by God. It means returning to recognise Gods presence wherever it is to be found. This means to see with spiritual eyes that whatever transpires, however good or bad it appears, God is within this. God is to be found even within the depths of the greatest despair and the most destructive evil.
Jonah knows as he states in Jonah 4:2. "I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.
So what have Jonah and Gaza got to do with one another ?
Nineveh a city of at least 120,000 people and Jonah hated them ALL ! That includes babies and children and women - all of whom never participated in war or killing. He wanted God to destroy them let's not pretty this up.
He did his job walking the length and breadth of Nineveh telling them to repent of their wicked ways and amazingly they do.
We read that:
Jonah 3:5- 10
The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. When Jonah's warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh: "By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish." When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.
So not only are the people going to wear sackcloth and ashes as a sign of repentance but even the animals.
This is the extent that the story goes too explain the complete turn around by the Ninevites.
Jonah is not a 'happy bunny' at this positive results: even though it was what God wanted it was obviously not on his agenda for the right outcome.
Chapter 4 tells us the story of his 'pity party'.
Jonah 4:9- 11
But God said to Jonah, "Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?" "It is," he said. "And I'm so angry I wish I were dead." But the Lord said, "You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?" …
And that's where Jonah ends, it just sort of tails off with God explaining to him with an object lesson of a 'gourd from the Lord'
This hatred of other is something we all can easily experience let's not be hard on Jonah. We have currently in our politics the rise of UKIP a party that thrives on the fears of 'other' of scapegoating immigrants: with the scare tactics saying - 'it's these people (immigrants) who are taking our job and homes and ruining our infrastructure.'
Gaza is an occupied territory, it is the most densely populated place on earth; a 140 square miles with approximately 1.8 million men, women and children inhabiting this space. This summer the hatred felt by both sides culminated in the 4th conflict since 2008; 2:400 men women and children were killed and many more maimed with life altering injuries. Approximately 70 Israeli citizens were also killed.
1.8 million people; let that number sink in, men, women and children.
And something is not right: here is a quote from Gideon Levy journalist for Haaretz Israeli newspaper:
"My biggest struggle," he says, "is to rehumanize the Palestinians. There’s a whole machinery of brainwashing in Israel which really accompanies each of us from early childhood, and I’m a product of this machinery as much as anyone else. [We are taught] a few narratives that it’s very hard to break. That we Israelis are the ultimate and only victims. That the Palestinians are born to kill, and their hatred is irrational. That the Palestinians are not human beings like us… So you get a society without any moral doubts, without any questions marks, with hardly public debate. To raise your voice against all this is very hard."
So Israel the nation that produced a Jonah is now faced with a huge decision: what are we going to do with this people group that for the past 70 years we have warred against?
There is an imbalance here to be sure: Israel has the occupying force must and should lead the way to resolve this terrible ongoing conflict.
Jonah came to tell the Assyrians to repent of their wicked ways.
So it seems Jonah was a somewhat reluctant 'liberation theologian'. He called on the major power of that day to come to Repentance for their wicked ways. Repentance means to turn around and stop doing what it is you have been doing. For Israel who every year at Yom Kippur read this story and speak about Teshuva, the action of repenting and being forgiven by God, I would ask, why are they not taking this teaching seriously? They have to find a better way than continued occupation and aggression against the Palestinian people. The Jews once so horrendously oppressed in the holocaust must make sure their actions are not making them culpable of the same abhorrent horrors.
Noam Chomsky a university academic and peace activist: also a holocaust survivor has spoken out for many years against the actions of the Israeli government said about the latest conflict over this summer.
"It’s a hideous atrocity, sadistic, vicious, murderous, totally without any credible pretext. It’s another one of the periodic Israeli exercises in what they delicately call "mowing the lawn." That means shooting fish in the pond, to make sure that the animals stay quiet in the cage that you’ve constructed for them, after which you go to a period of what’s called "ceasefire," which means that Hamas observes the ceasefire, as Israel concedes, while Israel continues to violate it. Then it’s broken by an Israeli escalation, Hamas reaction. Then you have period of "mowing the lawn." This one is, in many ways, more sadistic and vicious even than the earlier ones."
Here is a great quote from Pastor Martin Niemoller a German theologian who also narrowly escaped execution and survived imprisonment during WW2. After his imprisonment, he expressed his deep regret about not having done enough to help the victims of the Nazis.He turned away from his earlier nationalistic beliefs.
'First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.'
This quote was altered by Michael Leunig a newspaper cartoonist
'First they came for the Palestinians and I did not speak out because I was not a Palestinian.
Then they came for more Palestinians and I did not speak out because I feared hostility and trouble.
Then they came for even more Palestinians and I did not speak out because if I did, doors would close to me, hateful mail would arrive, bitterness and spiteful condemnations would follow.
Then they came for more and more Palestinians and I did not speak out because by then I had fallen into silence to reflect upon the appalling, disgraceful and impossible aspects of human nature.'
He said - "As a cartoonist I am not interested in defending the dominant, the powerful, the well-resourced and the well-armed because such groups are usually not in need of advocacy, moral support or sympathetic understanding; they have already organised sufficient publicity for themselves and prosecute their points of view with great efficiency.
These photos are from the latest conflict over this summer, the loss of life and damage to infrastructure was overwhelming.
'Between 2,189 Gazans were killed (including 513 children) and between 10,895 and 11,100 were wounded. 66 Israeli soldiers, 5 Israeli civilians (including one child) and one Thai civilian were killed and 469 IDF soldiers and 261 Israeli civilians were injured.The Gaza Health Ministry, UN and some human rights groups reported that 69–75% of the Palestinian casualties were civilians; Israeli officials estimated that around 50% of those killed were civilians. On 5 August, OCHA stated that 520,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip (approximately 30% of its population) might have been displaced, of whom 485,000 needed emergency food assistance and 273,000 were taking shelter in 90 UN-run schools.17,200 Gazan homes were totally destroyed or severely damaged, and 37,650 homes suffered damage but were still inhabitable. In Israel, an estimated 5,000 to 8,000citizens temporarily fled their homes due to the threat of rocket and mortar attacks.'
It is doesn't make for comfortable reading: and for sure this situation needs people to take a stand and raise awareness of the ongoing atrocities.
I wonder if today we are all called to be 'liberation theologians'?
There are many groups and individuals speaking out against injustice across our world. On their own it may seem useless but I know there have been moments in history take Rosa Parks who catapulted the issue of racial segregation into the spotlight just by refusing to give up her seat.