Lenten Reflections: Ash Wednesday, Jonah and Little Furry Things



One of the readings for today, Ash Wednesday, according to the Book of Common Prayer’s Daily Office Reading (Year 1), is Jonah 3:1-4:11.
When I opened my Bible up to Jonah this morning, I hadn’t read it since high school (I kind of had a hard time finding it this morning but it was before I had had any coffee). In high school, I deeply cared about whether the book was historically true or not; this, I think, obscured the incredible literary, theological and devotional aspects of this fascinating book, so I’m not going to talk about that. Rather, I was reminded how beautiful and meaningful it can be to read a passage of Scripture with new eyes, and I want to mention a few things about Jonah that I’ve never thought about before.

One thing that struck me about the last two chapters of Jonah is that they have much in common with, and provide an interesting counterpoint to the book of Job (another OT book that I’ve been studying lately). In Job you have a righteous man who suffers at the hand of God, and this leads him (and the reader) to have some honest questions about the justice of God. In Jonah you have a man who experiences mercy at the hand of God, and then observes God being merciful to the sinful and “violent” Ninevites, which leads him to have some questions about the justice of God. Both Job and Jonah want to die because of their encounter, of course in Job 3, you get the sense that Job wants to die because he’s in pain, whereas apparently Jonah wants to die because he’s having an crisis of faith. In God’s outright forgiveness of the Ninevites, He did something that his long time servant felt was out of His character. Jonah is suddenly confused about the nature of the God whom he serves. Is that why he wants to die? Or does want to die simply because he’s upset at God for making him do something he didn’t want to do?jonah-and-whale In other words, is he doubting what he believes about the character of God, or is he just throwing a hissy-fit, 3 year-old style?

In any event, the entire passage is about repentance, which of course is why it is a Lenten reading. There’s even a mention of 40 days–the period of time the Ninevites have before God smites them. As a result of Jonah’s reluctant obedience, the Ninevites come to radical repentance; all the inhabitants of Ninevah, even the livestock, go through a ritual of repentance that includes sackcloth, ashes and fasting! Because of this God also repents, that is, changes his mind about the calamities he was planning to send their way (in the NRSV), or as the KJV has it, God repents from the evil he was planning to do to them. Everyone changes their mind…except Jonah. Which leads me to an epiphanous (note: the liturgical irony) and mystical interpretation of this story in relation to Lent: Jonah is like a recalcitrant Evangelical who refuses to acknowledge Lent as a time of repentance and reflection because he is confused about the nature of God! It’s so clear. I know that’s the conclusion Thomas Cranmer wanted me to draw from today’s BCP reading.

Another interesting thing about this book that I’ve never noticed before is the emphasis placed on the animals. Not only do the Ninevites repent, dress in sackcloth and sit in ashes, but their animals do the same (3:8-9). How bizarre! Maybe even more interesting is how abruptly the book ends with God asking Jonah the rhetorical question in verse 11, “And should I not concerned with Ninevah…in which there are 120,000 persons…and and also many animals?” It’s a very strange way to end the book.

Apparently it was not uncommon for animals to be involved in rites of repentance and mourning. According to Raymond Dillard’s Introduction to the Old Testament, Herodotus mentions animals engaging in similar rites in his day. Judith 4:10 describes an entire household: men, women, children, slaves, and livestock engaging in repentance rituals.

The fact that God mentions the animals along with the people of Ninevah means that He is concerned about them. Could one draw the conclusion that it was not just the people’s repentance that changed the mind of God but the animal’s repentance also?  This passage made me suddenly realize that God really does have an abiding concern for animals. Why is that? What exactly are the status of animals with God? He seems to suggest that Jonah is a selfish and cruel bastard for wishing condemnation on not just Ninevites but also all their animals.  Maybe, just maybe, God is concerned about the way humanity thinks about and treats animals  (then there’s all of that stuff in Genesis about being stewards of the planet and all the animals, but since Genesis is only about proving evolution to be false, I’m sure it has nothing to do with this theological question).

What about in Acts 10 when Cornelius and “his entire household” fear God and eventually are baptized. I have long thought that given the many nuances of the Greek word for household that that term could conceivablely include small children and even infants, but I wonder if his animals feared God, and got baptized as well?

Hmm. Maybe St. Francis of Assisi and all those Episcopal churches that do animal blessings aren’t so crazy after all.



  1. James,

    I think God included the animals not because they needed to repent, but to chastise Jonah for wishing destruction on something that is not capable of being evil.

    I recognize that this argument has an unproven premise; that animals are not capable of being evil.

    We still agree on the most important conclusion; that God cares how we treat animals.


  2. James,

    I think this proves that whoever wrote the book of Jonah was just a tree-hugging, animal-loving hippie. That’s probably why they remained anonymous, so they wouldn’t get beaten up at the Synagogue.

    I say we tear this book out of our Bibles the way my third grade Sunday school teacher ripped The Song of Solomon out from mine.

    ok…. Sarcasm … subsiding… seriousness… taking…. over….

    But honestly, it’s hard for me to take from this that God cares how we treat animals when, for hundreds of years, the people or Israel had to slaughter them and sprinkle their precious blood all over alters to appease this very same God. And then, with the story of the prophets of Baal, even God himself immolated a bull on an alter. Animal sacrifice was a staple of early Jewish culture.

    It’s probably more accurate to assert that it was the king of Ninevah who was misguided in thinking the animals needed atonement as well, since it was his decree, not a command from God, to include them in the ceremonies. He was probably trying to cover all of his bases to please this God he’d never heard of.

    Suffice it to say, All Dogs Do NOT Go To Heaven. Sorry, PETA.


  3. Deb,

    Please don’t take me as being contrary because I am just fascinated by this idea and want to talk about it. I am still wondering why the Ninevites and other ancient peoples felt it necessary to include their animals in their repentence ceremonies. This doesn’t appear to strike the author of the text as being strange. Nor, does it appear to strike God as strange in this text; in fact, he seems to be quite pleased by it.
    I think I’m just going to have to take my Chihuahua to the Ash Wednesday liturgy at church tonight, and see what what the bishop thinks about it.


  4. Tony,

    I guess the underlying question to all of this is, do animals have some of spiritual significance? It was not just the Ninevites who put their animals in sackcloth and ashed but in Judith it was the Jews and they apparently did at the behest of the High Priest. Why were certain animals clean and unclean for sacrificial purposes? Why was it important for Saul to kill not just all the Amalakites, but also all their animals. If animals have no significance theologically speaking, why did God care what happened to the animals either way?

    I’ll admit that I made quite a leap from those questions to statements about how we have a responsibility take care of animals, but my reading of the first three chapters of Genesis makes that fact clear (in my mind).


  5. Oh Tony, sorry to be longwinded, what about Isaiah’s vision of the kingdom of God as it will one be established by the Messiah as a place where the lion will lie down with the lamb and infants will play with vipers. Should we take that literally or figuratively?


  6. Great post James.

    Have you read the section on “Animal Pain” in C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain?” It’s a pretty good little book, as are most of his.


  7. Is this really going to turn into an animal rights debate?

    Animals are food. All of them.

    If I was in another country and they served hot dogs made out of real dogs, I would eat them and think of all the little heal biters in the next neighborhood over. And smile.

    And cats, don’t get me started. Yo quiero tacos gato, gracias!

    *Now to be serious… once again…*

    No one here is saying we should abuse animals, or mistreat them, alright… but you can’t realistically say that God wants us to give animals special treatment.

    Cruelty = Bad.

    Food = Good.

    Now, if someone’s personal preference says that eating animals is bad, okay, fine, but don’t drag God into that debate. It’s a personal choice.

    I would respect that person’s personal preference and try not to offend them by eating tender, juicy, dripping-with-BBQ-sauce ribs right in front of them, but I certainly wouldn’t stop eating ribs altogether. When it comes to ribs, the younger the better, I say. I want my baby-back, baby-back, baby-back… ribs.

    Maybe at some time animals did (or still do) have spiritual significance to some people (say… Hindu cows thriving in a starving countryside…ah the irony).

    But let’s get real. Animals have no spiritual significance to God. They are animals. They have no souls. They are good for metaphors (like in some of the Bible references you make) and they hold monetary value for their owners (like the other, conquest-type Bible references you mention) …

    BUT: We have no great commission to go out and make disciples of all the flocks of the fields and the birds of the air. We do, however, have an amazing imagination when it comes to recipes and cooking techniques. I would say it would be a sin not to honor God by using those talents!


  8. Anthony,

    I think you’re just looking for a fight where there isn’t one. Some of the most humane people I have ever known were meat eating, steer rustling, good ol’ boys from New Mexico. They are cowboys in the truest sense, and they have also all had what seems like an inherent love and respect for nature and animals – and they all eat meat. I think the point that is being made is that metropolitan humans have lost that connection to the earth by living in concrete jungles. Some who have lost the connection over-correct their problem PETA style – animals are people. Some over-correct their problem redneck NRA style – shoot first, then shoot some more, then shoot some more, then ask questions about what the remaining bloody piles used to be before you barbeque them up in some kind of carnivorous food orgy.



  9. Anthony,

    Sarcasm or no, we agree with on the treatment of animals thing, but the spiritual significance thing isn’t so black and white for me. Why is it so black and white for you? Why can’t animals have souls? Why can’t they be sacred? These are not questions I have the answers to, nor am I trying to put myself necessarily in the PETA camp. I am, however, sincerely curious why you are so set on the idea that animals cannot have any spiritual significance.


  10. Tony (sorry but I can’t call you Anthony),

    Unfortunately, I am going to have to agree with James on this one. I think it is all too common in today’s culture, due in part to politics, to assume absolute understanding of what makes us human. I think we forget that a soul is not yet some empirically verifiable object. The concept of a human soul is a theological theory. That theory stems from a religious background that puts a high value on all God’s creations, including animals. In fact there are more religions that give a theological significance to animals than there are that don’t. One could argue that the current western view of the theological insignificance of animals is due in large part to secular humanism’s influence.


  11. Here’s another facet of the idea of spiritual significance that may help you see where I’m coming from:

    Many cultures look at geographic places or even bodies of water as having spiritual significance.

    I mean, all the River Church stuff springing up around ten or fifteen years ago (and not the first time, either), all the river songs. Hey, in the Bible, look at the them times a river is mentioned. People got healed in rivers. People got baptized in rivers, even Jesus. Well, they must be sacred, the. Some of them, at least. Or maybe all of them. Why not? Where and how can we draw that line?

    Pretty soon we can’t decide what is and is not spiritual because, at some point or another in this or that religion, it seems everything has been considered sacred.

    Now back to animals:

    Why can’t they have souls? It’s simple. We eat them, and within the Judeo-Christian tradition, even the Jews used to sacrifice them to God and sprinkle their blood onto altars. If animals have souls, how can we justify eating them? How could God justify their sacrifice, how would that be any different than human sacrifice? Just because I’m on top of the food chain doesn’t give me the right to end something’s life *if* it is a sacred being, like me. Or must we then establish an sacred hierarchy of living things in order to justify what we can kill and what we cannot. If it’s below you on that hierarchy, it’s okay to kill it? How is that not murder?

    We’d all have to be vegetarians. And if animals were sacred, I’d certainly be a vegetarian myself. No, it would not the easiest decision to make, but I can’t be that brutal to another living thing if it has a soul.

    So my question is, is there really a clear cut way to separate that? I would say there isn’t, but maybe I’m missing something.



  12. Like I said (or tried to say), we should not mistreat animals. Abuse is abuse, and that is wrong no matter how you cut it. And I’m not denying a human ‘connection’ to animals, but that’s a long way from having a soul or some sort of ‘spiritual’ significance to God.

    I don’t know… I mean, what is a genuine Christian teaching on animals, then? I know this is a little off the original topic, but I suppose it’s the direction the discussion has gone.

    Maybe this should develop into another series? I dunno.


  13. Mr. Hunt,

    Not that I neccessarily disagree with you, but please share why you have disavowed the platonistic view of body/soul duality? This is something I have not resolved for myself. That said, I would be interested in hearing why you find the argument so unconvincing.


  14. I agree with the (An)Tonys that we need to have a series about animals and the soul. Or maybe two series one about varying views regarding the soul, and the other about the biblical view of animals. Once you aquire an ear for it, you start finding the Bible saying all sorts of interesting things about animals all over the place. Those of you who went to an Episcopalian liturgy last Sunday, did you notice the strange reference to animals in the Gospel reading? Why was it important to note that Jesus went out into the wilderness with the wild beasts?


  15. “Once you aquire an ear for it, you start finding the Bible saying all sorts of interesting things about animals all over the place. ”

    Honestly, I think this is basically the same phenomenon as when you buy a new car, then suddenly you see that car everywhere. Same with a new pair of shoes or a laptop, whatever… it’s suddenly all you see.

    With animals, or anything else a person is interested in or happens to take special note of at one point or another, a person naturally begins to ‘notice’ that thing more and more. But that doesn’t necessarily mean anything other than the fact that you are noticing it more than you used to, and you now *notice* that you notice. To be completely redundant, that is… (it’s a bad habit… sorry)

    That’s the parallel I was drawing with the river phenomenon I mentioned earlier. I wasn’t suggesting rivers had souls. I hope that would be obvious.

    I was suggesting that someone probably ‘noticed’ all the river scriptures at some point, then went overboard interpreting all those instances as more spiritually significant than they actually are.

    Anyway, for the time being I guess I’m beating that dead horse again, cause this is just rehashing by now.

    So… who’s gonna take this one on? One two three not me!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s