Alibris Secondhand Books Standard

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

jonah the false prophet

A little over a month ago, Henry Neufeld had a post titled The Advantages of Stoning False Prophets. Just prior to the U.S. election, he heard a woman on the radio explain how she decided who to vote for:

She hadn’t been sure, and she had been inclined differently herself, but the good Lord told her to vote for Obama, and she trusted God above all, so that’s what she was going to do.

God said it; I believe it; that settles it. Right?

It should shock nobody that it only took a song and a commercial break for another caller to inform the host that she had heard from God as well, who had told her to vote for McCain.

It turns out God was an undecided voter. Or maybe he was just hedging his bets.

Henry make a great point about hearing from God:
[Our] tendency when someone claims they heard from God is to focus on the word “God.” God is omniscient and won’t lie, though one should remember that he might send a strong delusion (2 Thessalonians 2:11). So what we hear must be true, right?

Hardly! Even if one admits, as I do, that God speaks, there is always the listener.

I'm reminded of everyone's favorite false prophet: Jonah.

The biblical story of Jonah is one of my favorites. Every time I read it I find something new.

In summary, the story of Jonah (in case there's anyone out there who hasn't heard it) is this:

God calls Jonah to deliver a message of rebuke to the city of Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, and was located across the river from the present-day city of Mosul in Iraq. So Jonah buys a ticket for a boat to Tarshish, or as the Good News Bible translates it, Spain. That's a few miles in the wrong direction.

So God sends a storm, which frightens everyone on the boat. They cast lots; Jonah loses, and is thrown overboard. A big fish swallows Jonah, and three days later spits him up on a beach near Nineveh. Jonah goes to Nineveh and spends a day walking through the city telling the people they are doomed because of their wickedness. The people repent, and God changes his mind and decides not to destroy the city.

Now I've read probably ten or more versions of this story to my 5-year-old, and nearly all of them end the story at this point. And that's a shame, because this is where the drama really begins.

Jonah is angry at God. He goes outside the city and builds a booth. God makes a plant grow to provide shade for Jonah. Jonah is appeased temporarily, but the next morning God makes a worm to eat the plant. Once more Jonah is angry, "angry enough to die".

But God says to Jonah:

You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?

It's a serious indictment: How can Jonah be upset about the death of a plant and yet not care about the lives of so many people who simply didn't know any better? And also many animals?

And yet, I think Jonah has a good point. He may have resisted — who among us hasn't? — but he did stick out his neck for God. He went into hostile territory and said something that was bound to be unpopular. He risked his life to deliver God's message, and then … God backed down. What's up with that? Jonah heard from God, and faithfully repeated the message. In this case it was God who didn't follow through.

To be sure, God's decision not to destroy Nineveh was much more compassionate than the original decision to destroy it. But hadn't he at least considered the possibility that the Ninevites would repent, before he told Jonah to proclaim a message of destruction?

Now on the one hand, as an Arminian I like this because it shows that God doesn't have every little detail planned out from the beginning of time as the Calvinists claim. People really are free to respond to God's call. On the other hand, I'd like to believe God at least makes contingency plans based on a few likely outcomes.

So what's the answer? I really don't know. I've been wrestling a lot with God lately, not just over this but about many things. And frankly, I find a lot of comfort in stories like Jonah's. Many of the heroes and the writers of the Jewish Bible — Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Job, Jeremiah, Koheleth, the Psalmist — either questioned God or outright argued with him. I think that's something Christians ought to do more often.

What do you think?

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