The Bible is full of stories about people who heard God and obeyed: Noah heard God and obeyed by building an ark. Moshe heard God and obeyed. He had some hesitation, but he did it. Abraham heard God and obeyed. He got his things together and set off to an unknown land. Little Samuel heard God and he obeyed too… the Bible is full of hearing and obeying. And then we have Jonah. Jonah heard the voice of God telling him to go to Nineveh and though he was a man of God, he booked passage to Tarshish instead.
Poor Jonah. For awhile it looks as if all is lost. First, Jonah is to be thrown overboard as a sacrifice to the raging sea. His life will surely be lost! But, Jonah somehow survives and is swallowed by a big fish. For three days, in the belly of the fish, our hero prays the Psalter and repents. Eventually Jonah is spit up on the shore, and that is when things really start to get interesting. The most interesting part of the whole book is in chapter 3. verse 1: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time…” It’s as if, after all the preceding drama — the storm, the drawing of lots, being swallowed by a fish, praying and repenting — God shrugs the divine shoulders and says, “Well, let’s try again.”
Jonah has gotten a lot of flack from 20th century commentators about his lack of obedience. It has even been said that Jonah can be esteemed less than the fish because when God told the fish to spit Jonah out it obeyed the very first time (Jonah 2:10). It is true that Jonah was not very obedient. It is also true that he got another chance.
When he got his second chance, having had his fill of drama and excitement, Jonah got up and went to Nineveh. Nineveh was not just any big city, though it was quite big. Nor was it just another cauldron of idol worshipers, though it was that too. According to one midrash (Yalkut Shimoni Exodus 176) the king of Nineveh was the former Pharaoh of Egypt! So, to Jonah’s way of thinking, Nineveh may have represented Egypt and slavery. It would have been Jonah’s enemy, and not high on the list of things he cared about. Jonah must surely have wished that God would reassign him, send someone else. But we do not get to choose to whom we will be sent. We get up every day and face what comes with as much love and compassion as we can, even if it turns out to be our enemy, even if we’d rather not. And so, Jonah went.
When Jonah’s warning reached the king, he repented right away. The Bible says that “he [the king of Nineveh] rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.” Then he issued a proclamation about it! (Jonah 3:6) It’s as if he had been in that kind of situation before and somehow learned a lesson from it. The Pharaoh of Exodus is not one of the great monotheistic heroes, but it looks like he may have gotten another chance too.
Nineveh is a city with a long history, and there have been some good times and some bad times. But let’s fast forward to this century. In August of last year Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) fighters attacked cities on the Nineveh Plain forcing over 100,000 Christians to flee for their lives. Fighting the August heat they walked across Iraq, seeking shelter in the Kurdish cities of Erbil, Duhok, and Soulaymiyia. They are now in the middle of a humanitarian crisis. They can not return home. In an interview with Asia News soon after the attack, Mgr Joseph Thomas, Chaldean archbishop of Kirkuk said that the situation was “catastrophic.” Even now, the Kurdish Peshmerga is fighting ISIS for control of cities in the Nineveh Plain. Nineveh needs another chance, it is waiting for its miracle, but the situation is grim.
Time and distance can not insulate us from the reality that many of us also need another chance; and many of us need to offer another chance too. Our institutions have failed us, mainly because we have failed them. And the same might be said of our friendships, marriages, families. Couldn’t we all use another chance?
The good news is that the universe seems to be in the business of offering second chances. God — nonplussed by Jonah’s disobedience — provided another chance. Jonah found it within himself to seek out his enemy and offer another chance. And we, our enemies, our wounded relationships, and Nineveh wait for ours.
This Sunday morning, when thousands of Christians turn to one another and say, “Peace,” that wipes the slate clean. It means that we have another chance. There’s no need to live in the darkness of the fish’s belly. Peace. Your sins are forgiven. Peace. You have another chance.
Some scholars and storytellers say that the Pharaoh of the exodus drowned in the Red Sea with his army. Another Midrash ( Mechilta, Beshalach 2:6) says that Pharaoh was the only one who survived the incident at the Red Sea. He heard the celebratory voices of the Israelites on the far shore, was tortured by the angel Gabriel, and finally became king of Nineveh. Yet another Midrash claims that Pharaoh never died, and that he never will! According to the story he is standing at the gates of hell, and whenever a world leader gets to hell, Pharaoh says, “O you fools! Why have you not learned from me?..” So, there are quite a few stories about what actually happened to the Pharaoh of the Exodus. It is not likely that any of them are factual, but each may contain truths that we can use in our understanding of God. We have these stories. The story I choose helps make the point that our God is a God of second chances. There are other stories for other days
Image: Jonah Leaves the Whale’s Belly 1577-78 Oil on canvas, 265 x 370 cm Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice. Public domain.