Bible studies on the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace
"Jonah and his Selective Ecological Concern" (Jonah 1:4-5 and 4:1-8)
Liz Vuadi Vibila*
4 But the Lord sent out a great wind
into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken. 5 Then the mariners were afraid, and cried every man unto his god, and cast forth the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it of them. But Jonah was gone down into the sides of the ship; and he lay, and was fast asleep.
1 But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 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. 3 Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?” 5 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. 6 Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant[a] 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. 7 But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. 8 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.”
In studying the book of Jonah, the reader is fascinated to observe the deep ecological concern that tries to explain God’s color for his creation (human and non-human) and a consentient Jonah who is made powerless to the point that he could choose death over life, which throughout the text also remains in God’s control. The doom to be proclaimed will result in the destruction of humans, animals and their environment.
On the other hand, the calling to life of a plant at the end of the book, and letting it die, show another face of this God. God can bring death, and not only call to life but also spare it. The reader may notice what Jonah does with the plant, even though he is upset about the sparing of life in the city of Nineveh, and observe the (meteorological) events in the text.
How does this process work and what are our concerns today? How doing justice to the environment remain crucial to our world? As we see today, ecological disasters have affect many lives, human as well as non-human. The devastation of our environment impact many countries that are submerged by water, and the ecosystem and many aspects of life change as a consequence – economic, political, social and even spiritual life are in mutation.
The environmental catastrophes affect people and their relationships by destroying the harmony between themselves, and between them and their place of living/working (see Jonah chapter 1). This can be explained by the fact that confusion and a survival instinct are often byproducts of natural disaster.
In the book, the sailors who were confused and taken by panic “threw their goods overboard”, their merchandises, their economies. After seeking help from their own gods, becoming suspicious to one of the member, Jonah, the captain’s question described their trouble: “How can you sleep in a time like this? Get up and pray to your God! Maybe he will have pity on us and keep us from drowning?” (1:6).
Those questions express panic and show that for those men, as for many, the last hope is the divine. The human role here is to seek this God who is in control of the environment. Humans and environment are presented as two faces of one coin.
From the beginning to the end of the book, there is a confession of faith for Israel, represented by Jonah. It is not necessary to prove the historicity of the book, even though it has to be noted that Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, the most hated and feared of Israel’s persecutors. The applied narrative method here looks at the narrative as a parable.
Object-lessons or different manifestations of the divine
From the reception of the message for the people of the city of Nineveh, the scenes are antithetical: submerge and wet, dry and desolate. The first climatic manifestation ended up in the submerge and wet scenery. Jonah himself contributes to this wet mode in choosing his journey route and attempting to run away. Even there, the manifestation of God to “his emissary” could not be stopped. The last chapter of the book brings Jonah’s wilderness experience, which is characteristic of the dry and desolate scene.
The ecological phenomena, controlled and used as divine appointees, offer scenes with disastrous consequences: first a “strong blowing wind” (1:4) and second “a scorching wind” (4:8). The prophet is thrown in and is submerged by the water and the story of the huge fish will be the climax in the “wet mode.” In his wilderness and last experience, everything was dry, yet a plant appears as agent that brought enjoyment to the dry scenery; Jonah experiences the heaviness of life after a short time of happiness. It was an unbearable situation in which he let his emotional side take over, leading him to ask for death over life while living in hardship and being disappointed.
The above dramatic events happen under God’s control and all others are seen as divine agents: “a blowing strong wind” and “a scorching wind” are divine appointees in the book. These climatic events shape all other environmental concerns that the book presents: the sea calming down (1:15), making a plant grow (4:6) and the sending of a worm (4:7); all play a particular role in God’s plan. Clearly, the events in the atmosphere and nature (plant or animal) are used in the text as divine emissaries, but is there accountability for the human (Jonah) in all the scenarios? Does not the intractability in Jonah’s character picture a conflict of wills and interest in this God created world? Being part of this world, the human is the only one to oppose God’s will in these dramatic scenes and also the only one to manifest selective concern.
Before attempting to answer how the selective concern leads to injustice and unfairness in our world today, let us mention that the interrelation of all creatures in the nature is one of the affirmations that the book offers; in this created world according to the narrative, the divine emissaries can be humans (Jonah) and non-human (other elements as said above). A theological approach that places humans inside an interconnected nature, and “an ecological doctrine of creation” can be worked out here. For Jurgen Moltmann, this doctrine will work out a new kind of understanding of God which has to be developed; no separation between God and the world will be possible since the awareness of the presence God in the world, and of the world in God, will regulate the unrestrained enjoyment of natural resources. The recognition of presence of God in the world and vice versa will render justice to all.
Going back to the questions raised above, the dramatic didactic materials, procedures or the objects-lessons to teach lesson to the one of the emissaries (Jonah) are also seen as different manifestations of God in his world. The place of human being as divine ally and part of this created world is as important as that of all others.
Worthiness vs. Weakness
Jonah was a prophet, but he hated the people to whom God’s mission was addressed. Called as a messenger, the entire book does not picture his worthiness. From beginning to end, he does not show any compassion to the people of Nineveh who associated their animals in their repentance prayer. These people and animals did not deserve the love and hospitality of God, which Jonah was enjoying in the wilderness.
His compassion for this God’s gift (vegetation) is for his own life preservation, when the shifting from hospitality to hostility happens – not because of the plant, but because it offered hospitality, security and happiness. He does not show any sign of solidarity to humans and animals of Nineveh.
Similar “profit oriented compassion” can be observed in today’s context. As soon as profit becomes sacred, the economy through different tools of production will ensure more production and more consummation. In this vicious circle, many are left behind; the misuse of natural resources and the destruction of the environment continue. In the profit-making context, distributive justice remains a utopia.
Jonah expressing more concern for the plant than the destruction of humans and animals highlights the dichotomy in human behavior. One might be more concerned about the preservation of gorillas or natural parks, and making profit from local mineral resources, but not care about depopulation by war or killings.
God’s relationship with creation has no “hierarchical valuing of creatures.” The ecological problem and the attributes associated with the creatures remain a fundamental issue, from Jonah to our current daily reality. The worm, a lowly creature, is elevated in the narrative, as well as the ephemeral plant.
Jonah, who neither created the plant nor labored at it, has to learn that the plant is appointed by God. As the plant saved Jonah from “a scorching sun”, the love of God saved the creation in Nineveh.
God being the origin of all existence, has concern for the creation. From the storm to the death of the plant, Jonah did not learn because he was expecting disaster and chaos upon the city and its inhabitants. The destruction of the plant was not the end of the book. Transformation of the society will occur only when people are made worthy by God.
Questions for reflection and discussion
- Who are the emissaries of God in the story? What are their strengths and weaknesses?
- In chapter 4, does Jonah care for the creation?
- How do we react when God’s way of doing things does not meet our own plans?
Invitations for actions
In the interconnected world, we should develop awareness that a selective ecological concern has worldwide impact. How can we in our communities become agents of transformation
- i. in using, reusing and recycling what we have?
- ii. in knowing where the resources that we consume come from, and the living conditions of the people from those areas?
- iii. in learning how the environment is destroyed to satisfy the pursuit of high technological standard of the world today?
- iv. in sharing information about the economic and ecological war that multinationals wage throughout our world?
- v. and in acting locally with small steps for the betterment of global situation?
* Dr Liz Vuadi Vibila is a theologian from the Democratic Republic of Congo
Fretheim, Terence E., The Message of Jonah, Augsburg Publishing House, 1977.
Moltmann, Jurgen, God in Creation: An Ecological Doctrine of Creation, London SCM Press, 1985.
Perry, Antony T., The Honeymoon is Over – Jonah’s Argument with God, Hendrickson Publishers, 2006.
Stein, Robert H., The Method and Message of Jesus' Teachings, Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.