Saturday, August 21, 2010

Old Testament Lesson #33: Sharing the Gospel With the World

Jonah 1-4; Micah 2; 4-7

The book of Jonah is another beautiful piece of Hebrew poetry, that delivers multiple lessons through its langauge and symbolism.  If you were to ask a class, "What is the major message of the book of Jonah?" you could get many answers that could all be right.  Of course, the title of the lesson involves missionary work.  This blog entry, however, will focus on two different but related themes of the book of Jonah:  being temple-oriented, and receiving peace by forgiving our enemies.


The story of Jonah is a katabasis: a journey down.  Jonah went down, down, down: down from Joppa, down into the ship (1:3), down into the bottom of the ship (1:5).  We consider the bottom of the earth to be the ground, but you can get even deeper if you go to the bottom of the sea, which is what Jonah did (2:3-6).  But what's interesting is that Jonah chose to say he went "down to the bottoms of the mountains" (2:6), when clearly he was describing the bottom of the sea ("the waters compassed me about...the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head") (2:5).  Of course, the ocean floor has mountains, but there is a particular reason that Jonah chose to refer to it this way.  Jonah's story is about a journey down from "the presence of the Lord" (1:3, 10) (David Bokovoy).

In the stories of Moses receiving the Law, or Abraham sacrificing Isaac, everything is "up."  They go up to the mountain, which is where they can visit the Lord in a temple-like environment.  The word "mountain" in the scriptures often indicates an outdoor holy place or temple. 

The word for "temple" in Hebrew means literally "the presence of the Lord" (David Bokovoy). Which, of course, makes perfect sense. So you can substitute "temple" for "the presence of the Lord" or for "mountain" in this story and in most of the Old Testament.

Also, the Lord comes to his children "from the east" in scripture (Matt. 24:27; Zech. 14:4-5; Ezek. 43:1).  Moses' tabernacle and Soloman's temple both faced the east (Bible Dictionary "Tabernacle") for that reason.  The garden of the Lord was "eastward in Eden."  Which direction was Jonah running?  West, of course.  The temple and Jerusalem were on the east end of the Mediterranean Sea.  Tarshish, where Jonah was going, is presumed to be in present-day Spain (see Bible Dictionary), on the very far west side of the Mediterranean, as far west as you could go in Jonah's world.  Tarshish was also a worldly place, the center of commerce on the sea, materialistic--once again, the opposite of the temple.

So Jonah was not only running away from his mission, he was running away from the temple and his covenants.

Of course, you can't run away from the Lord, since he controls the elements, and there was a tempest on the sea, which threatened the lives of the sailors.  Jonah confessed to be the fault and the sailors threw him overboard (1:12).  The Lord had prepared a whale to swallow Jonah.  It is no coincidence that Jonah was inside the whale for three days and three nights: the space between the Atonement and the Resurrection (1:17).  Jonah's story is an obvious type of the resurrection of Christ and the power of the Atonement (Matt. 12:39-41), and also a type of baptism.  Jonah was completely immersed in the water, and after the whale spit him out, he had the chance to start over, to become a new man, and to join the Lord's purpose, to preach repentance to Ninevah.


Jonah's psalm is representative of anyone who has left their covenants, suffered because of their sins, and had the opportunity to return, through the Atonement, to the presence of the Lord.  (Jonah uses the Hebrew poetic form, enallage [en-ALL-uh-gee] in which he begins by referring to the Lord in third person, and ends by referring to the Lord in second person, indicating that their relationship changed during the story, and he drew closer to the Lord.)

"Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord his God out of the fish's belly, and said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice.  For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me.  Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple.

"The waters compassed me about, even to the soul [to the death]: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head.  I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord my God.  When my soul fainted within me I remembered the Lord: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple" (2:1-7).

Perfection is a process, though, and Jonah didn't allow God's perfect love to cast out his fear (1 John 4:18).


Why did Jonah go to such great lengths to purposely run away from the presence of the Lord, from his calling as a prophet, and from his covenants?  Why was he so unhappy about sharing the gospel in Ninevah?

Well, Ninevah was the capitol of Assyria.  The story of Jonah is unique in the Old Testament in that Jonah was called to preach the gospel to enemies of the House of Israel.  Israelites had always been counseled to stay away from the heathen nations, definitely not to marry them, and even, in the time of Joshua, to kill them all before entering the Land of Canaan so that their idolatry would not seep into the culture of the Israelites.  Prophets previous to Jonah had all been charged with calling only Israel to repentance; this was a different thing altogether.  And not only was Jonah called to idolatrous non-Israelites, but to THE great enemy, Assyria!  They were powerful, and they were ruthless and they had caused a great deal of sorrow in Israel over a long period of time.

Jonah's calling to carry the gospel to the enemy has parallels in the New Testament and the Book of Mormon.  In Acts 10, the prophet Peter had a dream about a great tablecloth that came down from heaven with non-kosher foods on it, and he was commanded to eat them.  Then messengers arrived from Cornelius, a Roman who was seeking the truth of the gospel.  The Romans, of course, were ruling over the Jews and oppressing them: enemies!  Peter realized that the Lord was telling him that Cornelius, a Roman and a non-Jew, could be baptized, and a wonderful harvest of Roman souls was reaped that Cornelius had gathered and prepared.

In the Book of Mormon, the sons of Mosiah went on a 14-year mission to the Lamanites, at great peril of their lives (Mosiah 28; Alma 17-26).  They were not the first to try a mission to the Lamanites (see Jacob 7:24), but they were the first to succeed.  A great number of Lamanites joined the Church and became among its most stalwart members.  All of the "sons of Helaman" were a product of this harvest.

Jonah, likewise, had tremendous success, once he decided to go.  120,000 Assyrians repented (if the number is literal and correct) and accepted the gospel (Jonah 4:11).  But Jonah was different than Paul and Ammon: He did not rejoice in his harvest.


Jonah's message was that destruction would be coming after the symbolic 40 days, the Biblical trial period.  Ninevah was such a huge city that it took three days to walk across it (3:4).  Yet even though Jonah only walked a third of the way into the city delivering his message (he was a little half-hearted), word quickly reached the King of Ninevah (3:7-9; note the JST footnotes).  Jonah, undoubtedly, was shocked when the King of Ninevah believed him!  The king took off his royal robe, and repented in sackcloth and ashes, in the Hebrew manner (3:6)!  He required everyone in the land, even the animals!, to do likewise, to pray to the Lord, to fast, and to beg forgiveness.  Where else in the Bible do you find anyone, even the Israelites, going so far as to have the animals fast and sit in sackcloth and ashes?  Remarkable!  This man was sincere!  "Who can tell," he said to his people, "if we will repent, and turn unto God, but he will turn away from us his fierce anger, that we perish not?" (3:9 JST)

God saw their sincere repentance, and forgave them (3:10 JST).

Jonah, however, did not.  Disappointed and angry, he went and made himself a little shelter outside the city, where he could sit in the shadow [away from The Light], with the hope that he would still get to view the destruction of Ninevah (4:1-5).  Perhaps he didn't trust the Assyrians to remain sincere, and was afraid they would change back to their old ways and threaten the Israelites.  If they were all destroyed, the threat would be completely gone.

How long he sat there we don't know, but it was apparently long enough for the little shanty to fall apart so that he was unsheltered.  The Lord, always reaching out, even when we create our own misery, grew a castor bean plant (see footnote for "gourd") over Jonah's head, to shelter him, "to deliver him from his grief."  Castor bean plants can reach 40 feet in height, growing up to 10 feet in one season.  The leaves alone can be 3 feet long.   A caster bean plant would make a quick and excellent shade from the sun.  It had come as a free gift of God's love to him, which he did not have to qualify for on his own merits (4:10).  Perhaps it was even a type of the Atonement, which will comfort us and free us of the bitter abuses others have brought upon us, if we will let it.

But Jonah refused be delivered of his grief, prefering to sulk and stew about Ninevah and hope for vengeance.  So the Lord sent a worm to destroy the plant.  With his shelter removed, Jonah was subject to the "vehement east wind" and the hot sun (both symbols of God), and ironically Jonah, who had been saved from death while running from the Lord's errand, now having completed it with huge success, wished for death to return.  He could not relent and love his enemies as God did.  He could not recognize that the Assyrians could not "discern between their right hand and their left hand" (4:11), or to say it another way, were "only kept from the truth because they [knew] not where to find it" (D&C 123:12).


Jonah seems so hardhearted, refusing the offer of the Lord for freedom from grief through forgiveness. But maybe if we look a little closer, we will see that Jonah was just exactly like us.

James Ferrell has interpreted the book of Jonah to be a rather broad chiasmus (pronounced "ky-AS-mus"), the Hebrew literary tool in which all the lines of the poem lead to the main point, after which they all repeat in reverse order with slight variation.  The central point of the chiasmus, according to Brother Ferrell, is found in Jonah 2:8:  "They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy."  What does this mean?

Jonah, being of the House of Israel, as we also are, had a feeling of superiority over the wicked, wicked Assyrians.  Of course!  He was more righteous, right?  He had kept the commandments, he had observed the covenants, he was a prophet or missionary of God.  Jonah and the entire Hebrew nation had been greatly wronged by Assyria.  It was a huge part of their history for many, many years. Likewise, we have each been wronged by some person, or even by some nation. We all have, or we all will; it is a part of the test of life.  Sometimes it is a major part of our life's history.

Jonah's story, and often ours, is a little bit like two parables of Jesus's: the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), and the laborers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16).  In both of these parables, one person or group of people feels that they are more righteous, more deserving than another, because they have been in the household of the Lord longer.  They resent the Lord offering his Atonement to those who did less or who came later.  This is the "lying vanity" central to the book of Jonah.  If Jonah despises Ninevah and considers it to be unworthy of salvation, Jonah makes himself unworthy, and "forsakes his own mercy."  The greater sin is always the sin of being unforgiving (D&C 64:9).

The truth is, we all have fallen short of grace.  "What then? Are we better than they?  No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin; as it is written, There is none righteous, no not one" (Rom. 3:9-10).  Even one sin casts us out of the presence of God, and we are completely dependant upon the grace of God to sanctify us so that we may return.  Relative righteousness is irrelevant!  "Love and salvation are gifts offered to us, not because we deserve them, but even though we do not...[We] have no cause to feel entitled; [we] only have cause to feel grateful" (James Ferrell).

So Brother Ferrell's chiasmus of the book of Jonah is as follows:

1. The Lord issues a command to Jonah: Preach in
     Ninevah (1:1-2)
     2. Jonah sins by not wanting Ninevah to be saved (1:3-17)
          3. Jonah repents; the Lord saves Jonah (2:1-7; 9-10)
               4. "They that observe lying vanities forsake their
                    own mercy" (2:8)
          3. Ninevah repents; the Lord saves Ninevah (3:1-10)
     2. Jonah sins by not wanting Ninevah to be saved (4:1-3)
1. The Lord asks Jonah a question, "Should I not spare
     Ninevah?" (4:11)


Immediately following the book of Jonah, in which the evil Assyrians repent, the book of Micah begins abruptly with a call to repentance--to the Jews, and their mixed-race relatives, the Samaritans! (Micah 1:1-2)  The book of Micah also makes the call to us, the members of the latter-day church, the House of Israel.  Here is the beautiful promise if we repent and turn back to "the presence of the Lord:"

"But in the last days it shall come to pass, that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established in the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills [now we are really going up!] and people shall flow unto it.

"And many nations shall come, and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob, and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for the law shall go forth of Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

"And he shall judge among many people [maybe our personal enemies], and rebuke strong nations afar off [maybe our national enemies]; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

"But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the Lord of hosts [armies] hath spoken it.

"For all people will walk every one in the name of his god, and we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever" (Micah 4:1-5).

Today we go up to the mountain of the house of the Lord to participate in the temple ceremonies.  It doesn't matter if we are brand new to the church, life-timers, or returning after repentance, we are all alike there.  It doesn't matter if we are old or young, fat or thin, dark or pale.  It doesn't even matter what language we speak.  Only one thing matters: if we have "unkind feelings" we are "invited to withdraw."

The question at the end of the book of Jonah is not answered by Jonah, in order that we may answer for ourselves. Our answer determines our salvation, as well as our peace and happiness in this life. Will we join with the Lord and rejoice in the sparing of Ninevah (our relative, our ex, our neighbor, our national enemy: that person or people who has caused affliction in our lives)?  Will we free ourselves from the grief and abuse of the past and enjoy the comfort and peace the Atonement brings and sit under the castor bean plant?  Or will we be found with Jonah, on the hill, overlooking the city, suffering in the heat and the wind, refusing to be comforted by the Lord, as we watch hopefully for vengeance to fall?


Check out the cutest telling of the story of Jonah that I have ever seen, done by a tiny little girl at the Corinth Baptist Church, at this link.  It's eight minutes long, but absolutely wonderful.


David Bokovoy, Know Your Religion Lecture, Logan, Utah, February 15, 2002, and BYU Education Week Lecture, August 2001.

James Ferrell, The Peacegiver, p. 91-114.


Debbie said...

Thank you so much for your wonderful insights. My understanding is greatly increased after reading your ideas and is helping me gain a greater love of the scriptures.

Anonymous said...

Your blog is the best!! You have helped me understand and relate to Jonah. The chapters mean so much more when I get the kind of help and insight that you offer.

Jennifer said...

I can't thank you enough for this blog entry, which was just what I needed to kick off my lesson preparation. You've helped a newly sustained Gospel Doctrine teacher better understand (and love) the book of Jonah. Thank you!

Unknown said...

Wish I would have read this during research for my song by Jonah! Great insights! To hear a rough cut of the MP3 from the musical Old Testament Records, click here:

Aleisa said...

Great insights. I appreciate all your research and work, very helpful.

Sheryl Bullock said...

Nancy, do you happen to have a link to that Education week talk by David Bokovoy in August 2001? I'd love to be able to share that with my class if they ask for it. I've google searched it and I can't find it.

Nancy Wyatt Jensen said...

There is no recording of that lesson that I'm aware of. It just comes from my personal notes.