Jonah and Joseph
Christians and Jews are familiar with the Biblical account of the prophet Jonah. Jonah was instructed to go to Nineveh, a large, ruthless, and brutal city in ancient Assyria, and warn them of God’s wrath. Archeological evidence confirms the biblical records of how brutish the Assyrian leaders were. Many monuments detail the torture and heinous methods of execution they would impose on any who would oppose them. The Israelites knew as well as anybody the savage violence of the Ninevites, and they both hated and feared them.
The level of hatred the Israelites felt towards Nineveh was far outstripped by the love that God felt towards them. God commanded Jonah to warn the Ninevites that their wickedness had come to His attention. God wanted to love the city, not destroy it. He sent Jonah there to straighten them out, but Jonah didn’t share the same sentiments. He ran. In a story that is well known to both Jews and Christians, Jonah hopped a boat and ran as far away as he could. He quickly found out, however, that you can’t really run from God. A terrible storm arose and threatened to rip the boat apart at the seams. The captain was scared and pleaded with Jonah to pray to his God that they may be protected. Jonah admitted to the seamen that the storm was punishment for his disobedience. He told the men that if they threw him overboard the sea would calm down. They refused to do that and attempted to row back to shore.
The tempest only grew more severe, however, so the sailors gave up and cried out to the Lord “O Lord, please do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O Lord, have done as you pleased.” (Jonah 1:14) Only after the men threw Jonah overboard did the squall die down and the sea grow calm. This terrified the mariners, and they immediately made sacrifices to the Lord. Meanwhile, God provided a great fish to swallow Jonah and he stayed there three days and three nights before the fish spit him back onto land. Jonah used that time to repent and get straight with the Lord.
Many people find themselves stuck on this part of the story and they never really get past it. A lot of children hear it and they think “Wow! Cool!” Some adults hear it, take it as gospel truth, focus on the semantics of how he survived inside the ‘belly of a whale,’ and how God’s sufficient grace helps us in our time of need. Some people see the Book of Jonah as a parable, rather than an historic seafaring account. Others read it and scoff. They find the concept too ludicrous to believe, and use it to fortify their own preconceived beliefs that the Bible is a book of fairy tales. Of course, the Bible never says that it was specifically a whale who swallowed him, or that Jonah was inside the stomach. It only says that Jonah was “inside a great fish.” This could mean any sea animal, or even a heavenly being that God sent down specifically for the purpose of saving Jonah.
In my distress I called to the Lord, and He answered me. From the depths of my grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry.— Jonah 2:2
Regardless of how one views this ‘fish story,’ it is a minor footnote to a larger narrative. To be stuck on that part of the story is to miss the much larger point: Jonah was unwilling to issue a warning to the Ninevites. He ran, God got his attention, and he repented and eventually did the right thing. Jonah went to Nineveh and declared: “Forty more days and the city will be overturned.” (Jonah 3:4) immediately, the king repented, and issued a decree that all the citizens, all the domestic animals, and all wildlife must fast, be covered in sackcloth, call out to God, and turn from their evil and violence. The whole city, a bustling metropolis, repented of their sins, and cried out for forgiveness.
God saw all that they had done and He had mercy on the Ninevites. In His compassion for the great city, He did not bring on the destruction that Jonah had prophesied. Of course, this is what Jonah had feared all along. He didn’t want God to have pity on those sinners, he wanted God to punish and destroy them for their evil ways. God knew that His decision had caused Jonah grief, indeed, Jonah so greatly lamented God’s solicitude for the Ninevites that he told God it would be better for him to die than to live. Ever a deep fountain of patience, God explained to Jonah that the city had more than 120,000 people who were so corrupt they couldn’t tell their right hand from their left. He asked Jonah why He shouldn’t be concerned about such a great city. And there the book ends. We will never know how Jonah responded, but we are treated to yet another example of God’s grace and love.
It’s easy to read the book of Jonah and conclude that he’s a bad guy, especially contrasted with the love of God. Jonah didn’t want to save the bloodthirsty Ninevites. They were cruel, ruthless, wicked people, Jonah wanted them punished, not saved. The book is clear that God has mercy on all creation, He even rebukes Jonah for his lack of compassion. And to be clear, we should all strive to be as merciful as God, but are we really? How many reading this would be willing to travel to Syria to preach the gospel of Jesus to ISIS? You needn’t travel that far, how many would be willing to drive to Oklahoma to bring the true light of God’s love to the KKK? Who reading this is prepared to sit in a South Carolina prison and help Dylann Roof find God before he’s executed for murdering nine churchgoers for the sole purpose of sparking a race war?
The laws of the prophets were commanded to teach us to be more compassionate. Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek and love our enemies. We are to be forgiving, but as we all know, it’s a command that’s much easier said than done. Jonah wasn’t a bad person, he was just a wounded human who was caught up in his own emotions. However, we are called to be better than that, to imitate the godly nature of our creator. Do we rise to the occasion, or do we behave as Jonah did; running from God, only to be ultimately consumed by monsters?
But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand to from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?— Jonah 4:11
In contrast, Genesis tells us about Joseph, son of Jacob. Joseph was the son of Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife. Joseph had an older half- sister, ten older half-brothers (sons of Jacob by his first, and regrettably, unloved wife, Leah) as well as a younger brother named Benjamin. Tragically, Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin, so Jacob transferred all of his affections for her to his sons Joseph and Benjamin. Naturally, this led to feelings of resentment, jealousy, and rivalry between the twelve sons. Joseph was pampered, spoiled, and naïve, and we have reason to believe that he may have flaunted his status as favored child.
One night, Joseph had a dream that his brothers would one day bow down to him. Naturally, when he boasted about that dream to his brothers, they weren’t quite as gracious about it as he might have hoped. Rather than be impressed, they were enraged and they plotted to kill him first chance they got, and throw his body in a well. At the last minute, they sold him to a group of traveling merchants. Thinking that that was the end of that, they told poor Jacob that Joseph was killed and eaten by some “ferocious animal.” (Genesis 37:33) Jacob immediately went into mourning, refusing comfort from his remaining sons and daughter, and told them all that he would grieve for Joseph until he died.
"Here comes the dreamer!" They said to each other "Come now, let's kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we'll see what comes of his dreams."— Genesis 37:19-29
Meanwhile, the merchants sold Joseph as a slave to an Egyptian named Potiphar, who, as luck would have it, was captain of the guard to the Pharoah. Joseph lived pretty well in Potiphar’s house, until, that is, Potiphar’s wife made her moves on him. Joseph resisted, and proving that hell has no fury like a woman scorned, she falsely accused Joseph of taking advantage of her. This infuriated Potiphar and he had Joseph arrested. Joseph remained in prison for a few years where he gained quite the reputation as a man who could interpret dreams. This eventually led to him getting released from jail and employed by the Pharaoh himself.
Pharaoh made Joseph his second-in-command and put him in charge of Egypt. He dressed him in the finest robes, gave him the Egyptian name of Zaphenath-Paneah, and married him off to an important Egyptian family. Joseph’s past and nationality were erased, and by all accounts he was quite happy. As it happened, there was eventully a severe famine throughout the entire region. (Which Joseph had predicted and for which Egypt had prepared.) Jacob sent his remaining sons to Egypt to buy grain. However, fearing that the trip might be dangerous, he instructed that Benjamin remain with him in Canaan. An act which suggests that he still played favorites with Rachel’s offspring.
Once in Egypt, the men met with Joseph, who had been so Egyptianized that his own brothers didn’t even recognize him. However, he recognized them. Rather than admitting that he was their long lost brother, freed from slavery and the second most powerful man in the nation, he accused his brothers of being spies and stealing valuable silver. To prove that they were innocent of espionage, he made them go back and retrieve Benjamin. After they returned with Benjamin, Joseph treated them well, then once more accused them of theft and summoned them back to the palace. Eventually Joseph broke down. He wept so loudly that his wails traveled through the presumably stone walls of the palace and were heard by the people in the next room.
To Err is Human; To Forgive, Divine
Joese's grief terrified the eleven brothers, whose fears were exponentially increased when Joseph finally revealed himself. True, Joseph may have been a boastful and bratty little brother, but they knew that they were guilty of a far, far greater sin. They knew that they deserved to be punished for their hatred and their crimes, and Joseph was in just such a position to dole out the retribution that they deserved. However, Joseph showed them kindness and the whole family was reunited. Jacob and his sons were regarded as important citizens and when Jacob eventually died of old age he was mummified by the physicians of the palace court. He was mourned by all the dignitaries of the court and indeed, all the dignitaries of Egypt, who traveled with Joseph and his brothers to bury their father in his own beloved land of Canaan.
After Jacob had passed, Joseph’s brothers feared that he might still bear a grudge against them for the way they had wronged him. They threw themselves at his mercy, begging his forgiveness and offering themselves as his servants. But here again, Joseph forgave them. He reassured them that he felt no ill will. What they had meant for evil, God had used for good. (Genesis 50:20) He told them that without their misdeeds he never would have made it to Egypt where he was put in charge of agricultural resources and able to save thousands of lives. He vowed to provide for both them and their families. A promise he kept until his death.
Under ordinary circumstances, sibling rivalry can get pretty intense at times. The relationship between brothers and sisters is very often a complicated one. Nobody knows you, cares for you, roots for you, gets disappointed in you, frustrated with you, angry with you, annoyed by you, or loves you as much as a sibling. The lucky ones grow up to have a positive relationship with each other. However, others can grow distant or resentful. Some siblings have wounds that only fester with time, their bitterness growing stronger with every passing year. Jospeh had every reason to bear a grudge. His own brothers had intended to kill him, but found it more profitable to sell him into slavery instead. In Egypt he was enslaved and later imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. But God smiled on him, and Joseph, acknowledging the mercy he had received in his own life, was only to happy to pass that same grace on to his brothers.
In life, we are often wronged by one person or another. After every sin against us we have a choice. We can forgive or we can hang on to our hurt and anger. Wrapping ourselves in a blanket of bitterness can be comforting sometimes. We often nurse resentment with more tenderness than we do our loved ones, or even a houseplant. For Jonah, he was so angry at the Ninevites, that their salvation brought him misery. He was so upset by God’s forgiveness that he wanted to die. The Buddha once said that “being angry is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies.” That was certainly true for poor Jonah. His hatred of the people of Nineveh ultimately hurt Only himself.
On the other hand, we have Joseph, who forgave his brothers. He paid back their abuse with love and kindness. He lifted them up and acknowledged that the Lord Almighty had a bigger plan for him. Joseph forgave and lived a very peaceful, happy, and even prosperous life. We all know that we should strive to be like Joseph. Unfortunately, more often than not, we find it much easier to be like Jonah; sitting away from the crowd, licking our wounds under a fig tree. It takes strength to forgive, but everything becomes easier with practice. And though it may sound impossible to love Neo-Nazis, pedophiles, rapists, or murderers; God has called on us to love all of His children. If we can’t forgive others for their sake, then we should at least do it for our own.
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© 2017 Anna Watson