Church Write-Up: Jonah and the Ninevites

Here are some items from today’s adult Bible study. We talked about Jonah.

A. The pastor addressed the topic of mission. Mission is both centripetal and centrifugal. Centripetal mission is when people see God’s ways in the Christian community and become attracted to them. Centrifugal mission is the church going out to the world to preach God’s word. The pastor went through the Old and New Testaments to demonstrate that God loves the nations and wants to be their God. I have been thinking about this topic in my own daily quiet time. Frequently in the Old Testament, God acts so that the nations may know that God is the LORD. Is God’s motivation missionary here? Well, not always, it seems, for there are cases in which people discover that God is the LORD, right before they die from God’s punishment. Not much time for repentance, is there? Plus, I have often suspected that the idea that God is a missionary is projecting evangelical emphases onto the Hebrew Bible. And yet, why else would God be concerned about what the nations thought about him? If it is not so he can be their God, what is the point? But, at least in the Old Testament, God has limited success in bringing the nations to the worship of him. You have Rahab and Naaman, but not too many.

B. Why were the Ninevites receptive to Jonah’s message? First, Assyria was experiencing political turmoil. Kings ruled briefly, for ten years or so. Usurpers were on the scene. The military was growing more powerful than the king, with civil war as the result. The Ninevites may have identified with Jonah’s dismal message because those were dismal times. Second, wandering prophets were widespread in those days, and their words were respected. Third, Jonah was barfed out of a fish, and that may have impressed the Ninevites, whose patron goddess was a fish.

C. There is debate about whether the Ninevites’ repentance was authentic. Tim Keller states that it was based on fear, not a love for righteousness, and he notes that they refer to God by the general term “Elohim” rather than his personal covenant name, “Yahweh.” They lack a personal relationship with God. The pastor expressed reservations about this argument, for the Bible frequently alternates between Elohim and Yahweh, as if the two are interchangeable. I wondered to myself if Keller dismisses their repentance as inauthentic because it was not lasting: the Ninevites relapsed back to their old ways and were destroyed a hundred years later. For Calvinists, however, authentic repentance will be lasting. Perhaps, but it was Nineveh as a collective who relapsed. The individuals who repented at the preaching of Jonah may have persevered in their repentance.

D. There was some discussion about whether Jonah actually died in the belly of the great fish, meaning that God literally raised Jonah from the dead. The pastor treated Jonah’s death and resurrection as metaphorical, yet he could understand the argument that Jonah literally died. Jonah speaks about going to Sheol and the bars overtaking him; at the same time, someone pointed out that Jonah seems to present God as rescuing him when he was about to die, implying he did not actually die. The pastor said that Jonah could be describing salvation from near death, or salvation from actual death; the language is ambiguous. Jesus called himself, though, greater than Jonah, so there is some differentiation between his death and resurrection and that of Jonah.

E. Jonah is called the some of Amittai at the beginning of the book, which may be ironic: Amittai means faithfulness, and Jonah was far from faithful, for he fled from the mission that God had for him. Later in the book, when Jonah is recommissioned, he is not called the son of Amittai.

F. Someone asked where Christians should start in preaching the Gospel to people who know nothing about God, who lack a foundation. The pastor replied that people’s beginning is where they are. What is working for them in their lives? What is not working for them? What are they experiencing? Is there a way that the Gospel can connect with their lives and their crises, offering them hope?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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