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? 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.