A letter from the Churchwardens

Jonah revisited : the far side of the rabbit hole


Writing a letter to a group of people is a curious thing : it is launched into the void, and one never knows if it gets read or rapidly filed in a round filing cabinet. How delightful, then, that several people – thank you – responded to the churchwardens’ letter in the previous newsletter, and one with reflections that suggested there was enthusiasm to dig a bit deeper into the narrative with which we started – that of Jonah. So by way of response, and to maintain the dialogue (and whether or not you agree or otherwise with what follows, it would be great to hear from you), here are a few more reflections…

The whole narrative of Jonah is remarkable – it is one which largely defies categorisation, and is perhaps better known (despite weighing in at just four chapters) than almost any other in the Old Testament, with the possible exceptions of Joseph (courtesy of Lloyd Weber) and perhaps the Fall.

It could be said that the pivotal moment in the narrative – one to which I alluded last month – is:

…the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah onto the dry land…

It’s a remarkable moment, not just from a biological point of view, but also because it is the point in the narrative that the “unexpected” really invades. In Jonah 1, the prophet is reluctant to preach forgiveness to the Ninevites: they are Israel’s mortal enemies, and the risk Jonah perceives in a spiritual rescue mission isn’t that it will fail: it is that it will succeed, and that God – Israel’s God – will start to look with mercy upon the Ninevites. It is perhaps no surprise that Jonah defies God and heads to Tarshish.

In practice, the number of Old Testament prophets who persuaded their hearers of the need for repentance can be counted on the fingers of one hand. By all accounts, Jonah had no need to fear.

But once outside the fish, Jonah makes the journey to Nineveh, preaches a message of brutal bluntness, and is met with this:

When the news [of Jonah’s message] reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink… … Who knows? God may yet relent…”

Such repentance outstrips almost any other reported in the Bible. It’s so surprising it feels a little like Alice in Wonderland : read the whale as the rabbit hole, and on the other side, Wonderland: a world turned upside down (or transformed), a surreal reflection of itself, where the prophet “succeeds”, and where a whole city formerly devoted to destruction repents – and is forgiven.

But this vision of Wonderland also provides a forthright challenge. The Ninevites, far from God, thoroughly evil (Jonah 1:1), reflected on their sin and extravagantly renounced it. Jonah 3 naturally raises the question: how much more should we, likewise, be keen to appreciate our own need for forgiveness, and passionate in seeking the abundant mercy that God promises?


Adrian Stacey

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