Grasping at Belief : Week 2
(Note: For those that are stumbling upon this enterprise for the first time, an explanation of of my Grasping at Belief posts can be found here.)
Jonah 3: 1-5, 10
1 Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” 3 Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. 4 Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” 5 The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth…
10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.
More so than any of the scriptures I have been asked to read over the past two weeks, this story from Jonah is the hardest not to approach from my secular mindset. It is also, ironically, the one that speaks the most to me about both the power of belief and the desire for belief.
The point of the fable seems obvious enough. God looks down and sees a city full of sin, and reacts much the way I do when I find dirty dishes under our kids beds. He sends his messenger Jonah to let them know that “Hey! When the smitin’ comes, this is basically why.” But the citizens en masse do something that those warned in Old Testament stories rarely ever do. They believe Jonah, and in their shame they truly repent. In the story they do not offer this as a quid pro quo; rather, they just seek to humble themselves. I did what I always do, which is read the parts that have been taken out of the story. In this case, the missing chapters 6-9 hammers home this repentance even more:
6 When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. 7 This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. 8 But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. 9 Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”
In this part the Church leaves out, there is the hope of a quid pro quo voiced by the King, but the image of the leader of the people in ash and sackcloth is a powerful image nonetheless.
And in the face of all of this humbleness and repentance, God does a very un-Godlike thing. (At least unlike the Old Testament God of similar stories.) He relents, and stays his hand. When you think about it, this vision of God is quite remarkable, and quite at odds with our vision of Him being omniscient. In this story, God seems genuinely surprised by the people he has created. I like this God.
However, as I said earlier, I cannot stay my own secular hand when confronted with this story. Because for me, there is another conclusion that I come to when a proclaimed prophet tells everyone that the end is nigh on a very specific date, and then explains that God changed his mind when the Big Show is a no-show.
As humans, we love myths, and tend to find the measure of meaning in them in direct relationship to their distance from us chronologically. There were two Christian sects I used to find particularly unbelievable, the Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Because of what I viewed as their failed beginnings, I could never figure out why anyone would still willingly belong to either church.
If you don’t know much about the history of either church, each was founded with a belief in a coming apocalypse; in each case the date of the end of the world was very, very concrete. For the 7th Dayers that day was declared to be sometime between the spring of 1843 and 1844. When the Spring of 1844 came and went, the date was changed to the more concrete October 22, 1844. For the people of The Watchtower, the day the nonbelievers would perish was pegged as coming in October of 1914. None of these came to pass. And yet each church still has followers. I think it must be easy for many to say that this is because “those people are gullible, not like those of us in the mainstream faiths!” And yet here we have the story of Jonah in Nineveh, turning that mockery back on the tongues that voiced it. When you need early converts to your faith, nothing quite gets the buts in the pews like fear of The End.
So what am I to take from this story, other than:
A). If people are not sufficiently humble, God will punish them. (Which the world itself constantly refutes.) Or,
B). People who want to believe in something enough are able to do so in the face of all kinds of evidence to the contrary.
Reading scripture is designed to help me find and strengthen faith, but the story of Jonah in Nineveh is making me turn away from it.
Additional readings for this week were Psalms 62: 6-14, Corinthians 7:29-31, Mark 1:14-20
Communion & Dismissal
Due to a travel schedule & family visiting there is no real Communion & Dismissal section for this week. Two books that I am starting are The Case for God by Karen Armstrong and God: A Biography by Jack Miles. I will most likely write about one or the other of these for next week’s Communion. I will most likely be writing on my experience with prayer next week as well. Apologies on making this a shorter entry, but family is family, and I get to see my Oklahoma brethren too seldom to take too much time away from their company.