Considering Jonah and Noah in Light of Harvey and Irma

I said earlier that  I’d been re-reading the flood narrative in Genesis.

The devastation from Harvey, and, soon, Irma, compels me to say something about what God isn’t doing.

God is not sending these storms as a punishment on America.

God is not sending these storms as a punishment on the world.

God is not sending these storms, period.

Remember the story of Jonah?

God (Yahweh in the text) calls Jonah to cry against the city of Nineveh, “for their wickedness has come up before me.”  Jonah wants nothing to do with this mission, and embarks for Tarshish instead.  He doesn’t get far.  Trapped in the belly of a great fish, Jonah offers an incredible prayer:

“I called to the Lord, out of my distress,
    and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
    and thou didst hear my voice.
For thou didst cast me into the deep,
    into the heart of the seas,
    and the flood was round about me;
all thy waves and thy billows
    passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am cast out
    from thy presence;
how shall I again look
    upon thy holy temple?’
The waters closed in over me,
    the deep was round about me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
    at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
    whose bars closed upon me for ever;
yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit,
    Lord my God.
When my soul fainted within me,
    I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to thee,
    into thy holy temple.
Those who pay regard to vain idols
    forsake their true loyalty.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
    will sacrifice to thee;
what I have vowed I will pay.
    Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”

“And Yahweh spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.”

Jonah preaches a warning from God in Nineveh: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The people, from beggar to king, repent of evil.  God responds in kind.

Jonah gets lit.

“But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

I’m going to repeat the most important part of this passage, ignoring, for a moment, Jonah’s impossible dramatics.

“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”

God could have left Nineveh tore up from the floor up.  (The justice of such an action is another matter.)  Rather than sending calamity, God sent a prophet.  Rather than a tidal wave or a series of storms or an earthquake, God sent correction.  Jonah held Nineveh in contempt; God wanted its people to repent and flourish.

In Jonah, God does not send calamity.  God sends correction.

The devastation from Harvey, Irma, and other natural disasters are not punishments from God.  Modern-day Jonahs, eager to see the things they despise brought to ruin and claim the destruction as mighty acts of God, be warned.

As for Jonah’s (and would-be Jonahs’) histrionics:

“Yahweh replied, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’

Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, ‘It would be better for me to die than to live.’

But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?’

‘It is,’ he said. ‘And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.’

But Yahweh said, ‘You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for 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?'”

This stands in quite the contrast to the moody, brooding God of the Noah’s Ark narrative.  In that story, Yahweh (still smarting in familial dysfunction?), kills almost every man, woman, child, and animal on Earth with a great flood.

One of these stories is partly about the nature of God.  One is partly an attempt to explain an historic calamity in concert with the notion that God is all-powerful and good, and is also a claim that God has established a certain covenant with a certain elect band of people.  “Good” people.  And whatever these stories seek to say about God, they say an awful lot about the nature of people.  Jonah longs for the destruction of people God would rather save.  The writer of the flood story hedges that the payoff of a national god who can control nature will be worth the scandal of having that god kill innocent children.

These stories are “about” God, but they are more fundamentally about how we can only understand God in conversation with others.  Left to our own devices, we inevitably cast God in exclusionary terms.  We become like the writer of the flood narrative’s darkest moments.  We become like Jonah.

As I said yesterday:

It’s important to remember that when we study the Scriptures, we’re not simply interpreting a set of neutral or sacrosanct writings.  The very act of reading Scripture is an act of encountering a diverse collection of people’s perceived, longed-for, and actual experiences with God.  There is incredible richness in such and undertaking.  Whatever else they’re meant to do, these stories, poems, parables, and teachings are meant to put us in conversation with ourselves as much as with each other.  With our own preconceived notions about God and everything else.  Understanding the Scriptures, even a little, requires engagement with other people.  That’s incredibly important, especially if you believe or want to believe in a God who’s still speaking, a God who lives beyond story and page, beyond symbol or sacrifice.

I don’t know what God is literally able to do in the face of calamity.  But I know God does not send it.

For the victims of these and all raging storms, let us pray with Jonah:

“I called to the Lord, out of my distress,
    and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
    and thou didst hear my voice.
For thou didst cast me into the deep,
    into the heart of the seas,
    and the flood was round about me;
all thy waves and thy billows
    passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am cast out
    from thy presence;
how shall I again look
    upon thy holy temple?’
The waters closed in over me,
    the deep was round about me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
    at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
    whose bars closed upon me for ever;
yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit,
    Lord my God.
When my soul fainted within me,
    I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to thee,
    into thy holy temple.
Those who pay regard to vain idols
    forsake their true loyalty.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
    will sacrifice to thee;
what I have vowed I will pay.
    Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”

Amen.

 

2 thoughts on “Considering Jonah and Noah in Light of Harvey and Irma

  1. Pingback: God Did Not Send Irma | Food Truck Pastor

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s