Gath-hepher, Lower Galilee.
A dry wind envelopes a tousle-haired man mumbling to himself as he digs his staff into the ground to vault a stray boulder.
“Crazy,” he says. “No way. I did not just hear that. Over my dead body.”
He races on through the night, fleeing as if he were invisible to the force pursuing him. Tucking his cloak into his belt, he keeps his head down to avoid conversation with anyone he might meet.
“Madness,” he spurts. “Utter madness. I can’t do that. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”
Judging from his choice of words, you might think that they are coming from one Ben Kenobi traipsing across the foreboding sands of Tatooine. But they came from a ben Amittai. Jonah ben Amittai, that is.
Jonah had been asked by his Creator to go to the Las Vegas of the Middle East, a populous and rancid armpit called Nineveh. Who in their right mind, pray tell, would go to Nineveh? Besides, it was a full hundred miles away. The request was beyond what he could bear.
If evil lie to the east, Jonah would go west. He fled to a seaport called Joppa and paid his fare to hop onto a ship headed for Tarshish. If God wanted to save Nineveh, God could do it without his help.
God, who coincidentally had to ability to see everything Jonah did, wouldn’t have it. After the ship left shore He caused nature to rise up in chaos, whipping up a storm so violent that it threatened to break up the ship. Men on the ship called out to their various gods for help, but none of them answered. It’s hard to hear when you’re made of wood and stone.
But where was Jonah? Despite the fierce gale that had the ship’s passengers staring into the face of death, he was below deck. Asleep. Jonah was sound asleep, oblivious to the mayhem surrounding him.
“Wake up! Dude! Wake up!” the captain yelled. “Call on your god! We’re gonna die, brother!” In the meantime, the sailors decided that someone onboard had done something very bad to cause the storm. When they started doing the modern equivalent of flipping coins to find out who the guilty party was, all signs led to Jonah.
The terrified sailors circled him and demanded to know more about him. “Who’s doing this? What do you do for a living? Where are you from? What’s your nationality? Who are your people?” In their guts they knew there was something different about this man besides the fact that he could sleep through anything.
The gravity of the situation is dawning on Jonah by now. He answers, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” He then admitted that he was running from God.
“What did you do?!” they asked, horrified that they were about to die because their fellow passenger was running from someone bigger and more powerful. The storm screamed even louder; waves slammed down on the ship as if it was all the boat’s fault. “What should we do to you to make this stop?” they shrieked.
“Throw me in,” Jonah replied. “This is my fault. I’m sorry. Throw me in and the sea will become calm.”
But the sailors wouldn’t do it. Instead, they tried to row back to land because by now the ship’s sails had been obliterated.
The storm grew even more intense. The furious water was black. The sky was even blacker. Overcome by the darkness and the elements, they looked at each other sorrowfully as they knew they had to make that looming, tough decision. Sickened but needing to sacrifice one to save the many, they finally threw Jonah overboard.
The storm stopped. The men realized Jonah’s God was real. They prayed to Him and thanked Him for saving their lives.
Not long after he hit the water, Jonah saw a hideous form rise to the surface of the sea just before he was sucked down a long, slimy tube, splashing into a pool that smelled worse than Gath-hepher’s community dump. “Really?” he said, “a fish… a whale?”
Jonah spent the next 72 hours amongst mackerel guts and random flotsam that the gargantuan creature had swallowed. Somehow he was protected from its gastric juices, and he prayed to God during his unconventional three day and three night Mediterranean cruise.
Satisfied that Jonah had accepted his mission, God caused the fish to vomit Jonah onto the shore. (You can just imagine a little boy idly building sand castles when he looks up and sees a finned behemoth heaving out a fully grown man. He runs over to his mother, yelling, “Mama! Mama! That man just came out of that fish!” “Yes, Zamri, uh huh” his mother says. “Next thing you know, we’ll see a Nazarene walk on water.”)
So Jonah went to Nineveh. He stood before their people and issued a 40-day warning that gave them time to turn things around before God wiped them from the face of the earth.
Now imagine how bold and empowered Jonah had to be to pull that off. He had to walk into a strange city where he probably didn’t know anyone and tell them they were all about to die. How many people do you know who would walk into a red light district in New York and declare that in a time period not much longer than it takes to watch the FIFA World Cup they would perish?
The deadline had a deep impact upon the Ninevites. Casinos shut down. Tax collectors stopped ripping off elderly women. Wild parties came to a grinding halt and thugs stopped mugging travelers on the side streets. The news traveled fast, and when the king heard it, he instructed everyone to put on sackcloth and call on the Hebrew God to save them.
God did. He saw that through his willing servant Jonah, their eyes had been opened and they had truly changed their ways. They were serious about ending their self-absorbed, narrow-minded days of wine and roses and living for a cause greater than themselves. They were sincere.
In most Sunday School versions, the story ends here. Jonah came around, he spoke out, and Nineveh survived because of their respect for God. But here’s the part of the story I can sometimes relate to, and it’s where the pumpkins come in. This is a side of Jonah we don’t often hear about.
Jonah was FURIOUS that the Ninevites had been spared. Filled with disgust that God would send him on such a journey just to see it have a happy ending, he prayed to God angrily. “Isn’t this what I said would happen? When I was back home? That you are compassionate and merciful and could do this anyway?” You could imagine him saying, “Okay, then whaddidya need me for?!”
Jonah was so mad he wanted to die. God asked, “is it right for you to be so angry?” Jonah didn’t care. He was MAD. He walked east and set up a shelter to avoid the searing heat of the sun. Sprawled on the ground under his impromptu lean-to, still uncomfortable and extremely ticked off, he stared at the city to see what would happen next.
To Jonah’s surprise, a large, leafy plant grew up over him and eased his discomfort. “What a wonderful plant,” he thought. “Plant, I’ve had a rough day. I’m a hundred miles from my people, I’d really like some good down home cooking, and I can’t believe I came all this way and these morons aren’t going to get dematerialized.” Jonah loved that plant.
The next morning when the sun first peeked over the horizon before embarking on another mission of scorching weary travelers, the same God who sent the plant sent a worm to eat through the stem of the plant. The plant died. When the sun was fully awake, God added an unbearable east wind to the mix.
Jonah wanted to die now more than ever. Squinting toward heaven with his skin cracking like a dry lakebed, Jonah told God, “it is better for me to die than to live. The plant died, now it’s no use; I want to die. And I am ANGRY!!! I am outraged about this trip, and these people, and this shelter, and now the vine that has died– I’m done! Let me go!”
God, however, would not finish off Jonah. Instead, He asked, “is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”
“It is!” rasped Jonah. “And I am so angry about it I could die!!! AAAHHH!!!”
In His patient wisdom as He conversed with his frazzled, indignant creation who was SO MAD HE WANTED TO DIE, God reveals the moral of the story: “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. Shouldn’t I be concerned about the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
Do you get the feeling that Jonah finally understood what was going on? Maybe he stewed a little more, but I’ll bet that he got up off the ground and picked up a nice McMutton burger before heading for home to share the amazing story with his family. I’d even go so far as to say that he probably went home with a renewed perspective that enabled him to do great things for others the rest of his life.
Was his brief companion the vine a pumpkin? Some say it was a type of gourd. I’ve been entertaining the idea that it was a pumpkin lately, because I’ve had a withering vine drama of my own.
Disgusted with the price of pumpkins last year, I decided to grow my own for the first time. I was thrilled to see healthy vibrant green sprouts come out of the fortified soil I bought for this exact purpose. It was so exciting– I could grow loads of pumpkins and decorate with them indoors and out.
Over a week ago, I noticed that some of the leaves of the pumpkin plants were turning brown and dying. Concerned, I let it go for a bit, but finally bought some organic fungicide. I doused the tops and bottoms of all the leaves and the vines with the concoction and hoped I had saved the plants.
One pooped out. The others are worsening and struggling to survive. For months I’ve been admiring these large, beautiful plants and thrilled about the fruit they would produce. I hope that some will make it, but I feel like I’m losing the battle. It’s very disappointing.
Now I know how Jonah felt. It’s hard to let go when you’re angry. You had something beautiful, and alive, and it was yours, and it would have created some happy memories that you could have shared with others. But they are withering. I’m not happy about it. I’ve been looking forward to having my own pumpkins all year and being the pumpkin supplier for my family.
So I have to step back and ask myself what God asked Jonah. Did I make those vines? No. Do I have a right to be angry about what’s happened to them? Well, I have been tending them and I’ve been trying to save them, so that’s more than Jonah did. But I’m also not suffering from heatstroke and dehydration like Jonah was.
Let’s zoom out to the bigger picture. Is it maddening sometimes when God seems to let people get away with evil? Yes. Do some people deserve the worst? Yes. There have been times I’ve said, “God, are you kidding me?! You’re going to let them get away with this for now?!! But look at how wicked they are and what lengths they were willing to go to in order to pull off their deception! Look at how many people they’ve hurt! Look at the lives they’ve destroyed!”
He sees this. He also cares about their future as much as He cares about mine, which can be a bitter pill to swallow. God cared about the people of Nineveh even though their offenses were so egregious that He was willing to destroy them. He loved them enough to give them another chance. They did the right thing. They took Him up on His offer.
Yeah, if I were Jonah, I might be mad that I was sent all that way to see troubled people get a free pass via God’s forgiveness too. I’m sure I’d be ticked about the vine, especially because I am ticked about my vines, my poor pumpkin plants that are struggling.
It’s funny how God can use a real-life gardening experience to lead you to a scripture that says, “but did you make the vine?”
“Should you be mad about the vine?”
Okay, God. I’m trying not to be. But I can sure relate to how Jonah felt, about both the people and the pumpkins. I just have to remind myself that You made both, You are in control, and You have everyone’s best interests in mind.
My, my, that ben Amittai guy. I love his honesty and the way he told God exactly what he was feeling. Despite his evasive maneuvers and anger issues, through him 120,000 people and their animals were spared from death.
The only casualty was a short-lived (pumpkin?) vine.
God is burning out of you everything which is unlike himself. -Mother Teresa
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