I’ve had some time to reflect on the Old Testament this year and opportunities to teach Sunday School. My research interests have been largely focused on the historical development of Joseph Smith’s revelations, but I’ve enjoyed brief excursions into the Hebrew Bible.
In class, sometimes I find myself wearing the hat of the anthropologist or cultural cartographer, trying to understand how Latter-day Saints think about gospel instruction, biblical interpretation or the role or purpose of devotional settings and the methods we believe get us there. It’s a hard habit to break. This post will be a mixture of my thoughts on teaching and the Book of Jonah.
The Jonah Text
Generally speaking, when I prepare for a given section of Bible study, I examine the text itself, usually preferring The New Oxford Annotated Bible NRSV with Apocrypha. I’ll do a reading of the text once through and keep a note of impressions or thoughts that come to my mind. I’ll try to read the text without any preconceived notions or ideas, emptying my mind and trying to let the text speak for itself (knowing that we always bring something to the text, because we read the text as filtered from our own life experience, but work with me here). However, I also try to keep in mind how I learned the Jonah story in the past, broad strokes or brushes of the narrative, universal themes, etc. After I read the text I read it again, specifically asking what the author is trying to accomplish, why discuss this, why mention that, etc. I’ll look at the themes, the characters, etc. Here are some of my thoughts.
The Jonah Narrative
Our story begins when the Lord tells Jonah to “cry out against [the great city of Nineveh]; for their wickedness has come up before me.” Immediately, we know (or think we know) the overall idea. Jonah is often portrayed as the story of a reluctant prophet who, for understandable reasons, does not want to do what the Lord commands. He heads in the opposite direction of Nineveh and ironically decides to travel by sea (not exactly the best idea if one is trying to get away from God).
What are other ways of understanding the story? Jonah is also a story about servant’s of God and their inability to show empathy and compassion for the plight of others. Jonah “sleeps” when the Lord causes a great sea storm that endangers his life and the life of the others.
The Sailors. They are surprised at Jonah’s indifference or obliviousness to the situation. When they find out that Jonah is the cause of the storm, they don’t immediately throw him overboard but ask him “What shall we do to you, that the sea my quiet down for us?” Jonah is reconciled to the fact that he should be thrown overboard, because he knows he deserves his punishment. He seems resigned to his fate. Yet, despite this, the non-Israelite sailors first risk their lives and try to make it back to shore. (I often note comparisons between the Israelites and foreigners, which is common theme in Hebrew literature). At this point, the non-Israelite sailors appear to convert to the Hebrew religion (Jonah 1:16). It was never Jonah’s intention, however, to teach the sailors anything about his God. Jonah only tells the sailors because they ask him in their attempts to discern the cause of the storm. It is the non-Israelite sailors who fear God, not Jonah.
Jonah. Jonah appears to recommit himself in the belly of the large fish, and it looks like Jonah has seen the error of his ways. As is common in most stories, our protagonist undergoes some sort of change as the story unfolds. He goes to Nineveh and preaches complete destruction. Note, however, that Jonah never calls the people of Nineveh to repentance! His prophecy is not conditional. Nineveh will be destroyed, period.
The King of Nineveh. The King of Nineveh, apparently without any hint from Jonah, gets the novel idea that if he and his people cry to God and turn from their evil ways then “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind.” Jonah never offered this alternative, but the King still decides to repent. Not only do the people fast and wear sackcloth and ashes but also all the animals are caused to fast. Not surprisingly, God does change his mind (Jonah 3:10).
More on Jonah. At this point, Jonah asks God to put him out of his misery and end his life. He would rather die than live. We are supposed to find Jonah’s behavior to be silly. Jonah complains that his mission was rather pointless. God, why should I go to Nineveh if you are just going to change your mind? Jonah forgets that God showed mercy on Jonah by delivering him the belly of the fish, and doesn’t seem changed at all by his experience. Jonah forgets that he brought destruction upon the sailors who showed him mercy. The people of Nineveh experience a change of heart and Jonah does not. Again, the message here seems to be that it is the non-Israelites who appropriately fear God, not the Hebrew, Jonah, who represents Israel.
We then get a final scene where God causes a plant to grow to give Jonah shade. In Pavlovian fashion, Jonah is happy. Then God causes the plant to be destroyed and the wind and sun to beat upon Jonah. He becomes angry and decides he wants to die again. Jonah is completely governed by external factors. He has absolutely no inner strength. The Lord uses this event as an analogy to show the difference between Jonah and God (or to show the inconsistency of Jonah’s behavior). Jonah is concerned for a plant but not for the welfare of an entire city of people. Yet, even here, Jonah is not concerned for the welfare of the plant, but only angry because he lost the shade. He doesn’t care for the plant itself.
Thoughts on Devotional Methodology
Once I’ve formulated a basic understanding of the text, then I’ll begin to formulate discussion questions (especially if I’m teaching). I’ll also review at the manual to see how Latter-day Saints are typically taught using this material. I’ll read the suggested questions to see whether I can use them. (I’ll look at the KJV and see whether it still makes sense in the KJV).
Lesson 33 is titled “Sharing the Gospel with the World” and comprises all of Jonah with a few chapters in Micah. These two books are quite different from each other. Jonah has a simple narrative that is easy to follow and memorable. Micah, on the other hand, is not a story about the travels of the prophet Micah but rather his prophetic indictment of Israel (and doesn’t readily lend itself to a devotional setting).
It isn’t clear that Jonah’s message has anything to do with preaching the Gospel, or even preaching repentance. What does Jonah, if anything, have to do with “missionary work”? The lesson heading and several quotations by President Kimball (“every young man should serve a mission” 1974) indicate that the curriculum writers suggest using Jonah to teach that young men can learn that they shouldn’t behave like Jonah if they are called to serve a full-time mission. They should do it, rather than run away like Jonah. (Yet, missionary work seems merely incidental to the Jonah text. Jonah’s call was not given to him within an ecclesiastical organization. Does the Lord call us to serve others outside formal church callings?)
This is a common devotional technique. Be like the heroes in the scriptures and avoid being the bad guys. Don’t be like Laman and Lemuel. Be like Nephi. Don’t be like Jonah and away from the Lord (manual interprets this as running from the mission), etc. The focus becomes how to not be like Jonah, not be like King David, etc. Along similar lines, though slightly different, I like to think of the scriptures as mirrors. They reflect our human instincts and behaviors. They are descriptive as much as prescriptive: “How are we like Jonah as we live our faith and religion?”
In addition, there are characters in the story to consider besides Jonah. First, there are the sailors, who apparently believe Jonah’s life has value even when Jonah does not. They make vows unto the Lord. Jonah tells the sailors, “I worship the Lord, the God of Heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Jonah says the right words, but does Jonah really worship the Lord? Does he really fear the Lord? His actions say otherwise. (By judging Jonah the scriptures trick us into judging ourselves).
Second, there is the King of Nineveh and his people. Notice that none of Jonah’s preaching included a message of repentance. Jonah does not want Nineveh to repent, they deserve to be destroyed, and if they are not destroyed, Jonah’s mission is a failure and his prophecy fails. What does this tell us about how we are to perceive our missions? Do we sometimes misunderstand what the Lord wants us to do? Do we sometimes perform our calling in a way to vindicate ourselves, rather than to vindicate the Lord? The King got it in his mind that the Lord could be merciful, without any suggestion by Jonah. How did that happen? Isn’t this the case of the non-Israelite getting the message despite the Lord’s servant failing to deliver it? Might this provide comfort to those who are concerned their flaws will harm the work of the Lord? Or does this simply encourage people to be lazy in their callings (whether you work hard or wing it, the result will be the same)? The people of Nineveh follow their king and repent. Does Israel follow her King and repent? Or to translate into modern language: “In what ways do people outside the Church do a better job being obedient to God than those within the Church?”
Finally, there is the Lord. What does the author of the story specifically teach us about the ways of the Lord? Jonah is not the sharpest tool in the shed. But it doesn’t seem to matter. God is able to achieve his purposes despite the human flaws and failings of Jonah. What does this tell us about the sovereignty of God? The Book of Jonah, in my mind, is largely the story of how God will achieve his purposes, despite having to use such imperfect tools such as ourselves.
The manual includes a quotation taken from the Wentworth Letter written by Joseph Smith, which speaks to the Sovereignty of God.
“No unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done.”
This quote is usually understood to mean that the enemies of the Kingdom cannot stop it. Yet, in the context of the Book of Jonah, isn’t there a lesson that Jonah’s lack of willingness and utter ineptitude did not prevent God from doing his work? In fact, how do we explain Jonah “inadvertently” or “accidentally” converting the non-Israelite sailors to the God of Israel? This certainly wasn’t Jonah’s design. Jonah was completely oblivious to the situation on so many levels. Could it be said that even Jonah’s disobedience was used by God to further his purposes?
A thirty minute lesson isn’t enough time to to discuss Jonah (let alone Micah). I would select a few main points and questions and mull over these thoughts during the week and then have faith that the Lord will use this Jonah to achieve his purposes for the class, even if, from God’s perspective, I’m oblivious to those purposes.