The next surah of the Quran I’ll be reading is called Surah al-Yunus, “Chapter of Jonah.” Now, as is the way with the Quran, there might not be very much about Jonah actually said in the surah. But still, I think that Jonah is one of the most mis-represented Bible characters in Christian culture, and before hearing the Quran’s version I thought it would be worthwhile to visit his biblical story and refresh the picture.
With its colorful details, the book of Jonah (particularly the “Jonah and the Whale” half) tends to get consigned to children’s lessons in Sunday school, which is a pity. Sunday school lessons almost invariably wash down stories to moralistic drivel, in my experience. There is a pressure to make (very adult) Bible stories child-friendly, and thus often the flaws of the main characters get played down to a trivial level. They also don’t want to show any character who has not learned their lesson through either punishment or repentance. With those self-imposed limits, there’s not much to make of Jonah. It boils down to this: Jonah disobeys God out of fear for the Ninevites. After being punished by being eaten by the big fish, he repents and puts his trust in God. Then he is freed from the fish and goes on to fulfill his ministry. Nineveh repents and is saved. Bad earns bad, good earns good. Be good and color quietly, and you’ll get a graham cracker!
This “Jonah and the Whale” telling is so ingrained that I don’t see the average church-going adult challenge it, certainly not when around fellow indoctrinated Christians. I didn’t even bother to reevaluate it myself until in recent years when I came across this analysis by The Bible Project. More than anything, that analysis blew my mind for its take on the obvious, underrepresented aspect of Jonah’s character: that he hates God for loving his enemies.
In short, Jonah is not motivated by fear, like in the Sunday school tellings. He’s motivated by wrath, and maybe even justice.
Now isn’t that a more interesting story to tell?Continue reading