An Excerpt from “Who Knows” — Throwback Thursday Books

The Prayers of Pious Pagans

The Apostle Paul can explain how such a pious pagan might know the potentials of God.  We read in Romans one, verses eighteen through twenty, about the natural law as written into the fabric of Creation.  Paul puts it into the context of Gentile accountability for sin, but the assumption remains clear.  “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made….”  The book of Jonah assumes that everyone really knows how the system works.

The sailors said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah.

The sailors use a time-tested method of allowing God or the gods to decide something.  In all likelihood, they used stones or pieces of pottery with a simple yes/no system.  Is the offender in this half or that half of the crew?  Is the offender in this half or that half of the remainder?  Eventually the lot narrows the field to two men, and then to one—Jonah. 

The LORD had indeed spoken, and the mariners listened.  But they did not act immediately.  Notice the change in tempo in the story.  In the midst of tossing all manner of cargo overboard, hauling sails, pulling at oars, and crying out in prayer, the men conduct a board of inquiry.  They are models of patience, compassion and justice.

Then they said to him, “Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?”

The questions pour from their anxious hearts, almost faster than the story-teller can record them.  The reply must have been astonishing.  The remedy for their crisis was sitting right in front of them!

“I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”

Limburg points out that verse nine is the structural center of this scene.  Ninety-four Hebrew words lead up to this verse, and ninety four Hebrew words succeed this verse (that is, if you allow Limburg’s contention that verse sixteen is a conclusion outside of this structure).[1]  Thus the hinge of this scene is Jonah’s confession of faith.

His confession reflects exactly the terms of Genesis, chapter one.  “And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’  And it was so.  God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together He called Seas” (verses 9 and 10).  Jonah gets the words right, but the music isn’t there.  In terms of Jonah’s actions, this confession rings hollow.  But it certainly describes who exactly is in charge of this scene.  The mariners know this even if Jonah does not.

Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them so.

Every disaster has a “tipping point” at which all the previous errors, mistakes, and broken systems cascade into one massive failure.  We get the sense from the mariners that they have passed the tipping point in their own disaster experience.  Now they must figure out what to do in the face of the inevitable.  Those who lived through Katrina had similar moments.  I wrote in my journal on July twenty-fifth about the testimony of a St. Bernard Parish firefighter.

“On Thursday nights at Camp Hope, local speakers come in to talk about their Katrina experiences. We were fortunate to hear from one of the veteran firefighters from the St. Bernard parish. I took notes as quickly as I could.

Chalmette High School (the location of Camp Noah!) was a “shelter of last resort.” Frank, the firefighter, stayed there with some of his colleagues. Two children in the parish were on ventilators when the power went off, but the fire fighters had generators to provide backup from both department stock and personal resources.

On Monday morning they thought the storm was over. The eye of Katrina had passed and the “right punch” of the storm was not as bad as they had anticipated. They thought they were safe. Then the surge came and the water started to rise. In twenty minutes the water was chest-deep. So the firefighters and others who had gathered there moved to the second story.

There was no FEMA or military presence discernable for ten days. The levee broke in the Ninth Ward and the Mississippi over-topped the local levee–thus the water levels. The folks moved to the Bell South building as the water kept rising. It was the highest local building. The water continued to rise. They stayed in the Bell South building for eleven days. Frank was there five days before he could contact his family in Arkansas.

The mariners knew that accounts had to be balanced.  Jonah had already fled.  The point of no return had been passed.  Actions would now be taken that would never have been considered under normal circumstances.

Now What Do We Do?

Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.” Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them.

Let us begin with the last words of this paragraph.  “Nevertheless!”  In the face of the facts, they still resist pitching the troublemaker overboard.  The men are absolute paragons of virtue, justice, and compassion.  The story-teller leaves no doubt that they do everything humanly possible to save Jonah.  But, of course, saving Jonah is not their vocation.  As the waves grow higher and higher, they discover that someone else will have to rescue the stupid seer.

They assume that a scapegoat ritual is the necessary way to resolve the situation.  This point is absolutely critical in my analysis of Jonah, Noah, Katrina and Christ.  I am arguing that the Noah account records God’s commitment to renounce Divine violence as the means of resolving sin and evil. 

This does not mean that humans are freed from the use of violence in the face of sin and evil—at least in terms of the Flood account.  Two bits of poetry contain the tension arising from Noah’s experience.  First is the Divine promise.

As long as earth endures,

Seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,

Summer and winter, day and night,

Shall not cease.

(Genesis 8:22).

Here is yet another example of the Divine commitment to renounce world-destroying violence as the means of resolving sin and evil.  But human vengeance shall remain as a mechanism for resolving specific incidents in the history of sin and evil.

Whoever sheds the blood of a human,

By a human shall that person’s blood be shed;

For in his own image

God made humankind.

(Genesis 9:6).

This text certainly limits the blood-vendetta cycle to the two human beings involved in the murder and its aftermath.  That limitation is still a revolutionary idea—just think about the cycles of retribution that continue to play out in the Middle East and in our own streets between rival gangs.  Nonetheless, the opening remains for what can only be called the process of scapegoating—blaming another for my own brokenness and then requiring that other to pay the price.

I am arguing that the message of Jonah is the Divine commitment to renounce the scapegoat as the method, Divine or human, of resolving sin and evil.

The idea of scapegoating as a basic human practice has been most fully developed by those who follow the ideas of Rene Girard.  Here is a technical description of this idea.  “When groups are under mimetic stress, the group is on the verge of destruction and must find a way to deal with the negative consequences of all the residual anger that has accumulated from the various internecine conflicts. Lacking the animal world’s way of diffusing hostility, humanity has come up with its own braking mechanism to stop the escalation of mimetic conflict and that solution is the scapegoat.”[2]

One of the simplest ways to deal with group anxiety is to deflect that anxiety on to another individual or group.  Then the “offender” is killed or banished, thus taking away the anxiety for a period of time.  The Hebrew scapegoat ritual is described, for example, in Leviticus 16:6ff.  There the people use an actual goat.  But in most human communities the scapegoat is a person or group of people.  Jonah assumes that he is now required to be that scapegoat for the sake of those on the boat.  Reluctantly the mariners share in that assumption.

Jonah has shared in this assumption from the beginning.  Now we can really start to zero in on the nature of the “congregation” to which the Book of Jonah is “preaching.”  For that may be the most helpful and interesting way to view this book. 

Let us see it as a sermon directed to a set of people with the goal of bringing about repentance.  These (Jewish) folks see others—foreigners, Gentiles and pagans—as the source of all their difficulties.  Those difficulties probably include a destroyed Jerusalem temple, a capital city in shambles, a nation that now exists as a conquered province, and foreigners who laugh at any claims of power on the part of the Hebrew god.

The desire to punish those foreigners must have been intense.  What sense did anything make at this point?  The wicked prospered.  The enemies triumphed.  A system of meaning had to be constructed.  That system involved blaming the pagans for the failings of the people of God.  S. Mark Heim would describe this as “cheap meaning.”  You will recognize that description. 

“…cheap meaning is always derived by positioning oneself over against some ‘other’ considered to be wicked.  Cheap meaning makes life apparently exciting in the short term: it seems to give a purpose, but in fact it is a mirage, an illusion.  There is nothing that can ultimately substitute for the long, patient task of being brought into being as a human.”[3]

For Jonah, Nineveh must suffer and die.  Otherwise life ceases to have any meaning.  Thus it is no accident that every time Jonah is disappointed (due to God’s compassion), Jonah asks for his death.  After all, without the scapegoat, what’s the point?  Without that linchpin in the system of meaning, why would anyone want to go on?

In the Flood story, God cooperates with this strategy.  In fact, God institutes the ongoing system of limited retribution as a way to contain evil and to make such Divine intervention unnecessary in the future.  But the Jonah story helps us to see the God who rejects and renounces such tactics.  They will simply produce more sin and evil.  In fact, I would argue that the Jonah story gives us the most profound hint at the cross found in the whole Old Testament—if we have ears tuned to such hints.

Hall reminds us that the theology of the cross is the end of any and all scapegoating.  He writes, “We are not called to laud and embrace this symbol of violence and torture and death as though it were something splendid.  What is good lies hidden underneath or behind this dreadful reality: namely, God’s concealed presence and determination to mend the creation from within.”[4]

Don’t Make Us Do This!

Even the mariners know that an innocent man cannot be used as the scapegoat.  If they pitch a man without guilt overboard they will certainly be held responsible by the LORD for their crime.  Human beings shall not, in the context of Jonah, execute an innocent simply to meet their own needs for survival.  So they pray that they have discerned rightly what God intends to do with this troublemaker.

Then they cried out to the LORD, “Please, O LORD, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you.” So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging.

The proof is in the pudding.  Jonah sinks like a rock and the seas are calmed.  Of course, this situation cannot be analogous to the cross of Jesus Christ.  Hall directs our attention to the world’s methods for resolving sin and evil and how God has renounced those methods.

Even as we breathe a sigh of relief with the mariners now resting on a tranquil sea, we can worry about the fate of Jonah the Jerk.  In a moment, we will learn that he has not been punished.  He has a near-death experience.  But near-death is not dead.  The fish will be appointed to rescue him from the watery grave, and he will be used—like it or not—to break the cycle of violence.  Jonah is saved in order to save Nineveh.

Here is a question which Jonah’s narrative raises for that first congregation and also for us.  Do I fear, love and trust God above all else (Martin Luther’s Small Catechism) for what I hope to receive?  Or do I fear, love and trust God above all else for what I have already been given?  Am I like Jonah, obedient to the LORD as long as that obedience fits my parameters, assumptions, needs and priorities?  Or do I abandon that obedience at the first sign that God has, perhaps gone astray?

Hall suggests that our Christian doctrines can paint God into such a box that compassion and forgiveness are no longer possible.  Like Jonah, we may choose to have higher standards than God and thus become God’s enemies in the end.

“Doctrine must never become so drunk on redemption, or rather on its own superlatives and exaggerations of the redeemed estate, that it ends by denigrating the creation that God ‘so loved’ and loves.  The cross is at once, for Christians, the ultimate statement of humankind’s movement away from God and of God’s gracious movement towards fallen humankind.  I think of the cross of Golgotha as the divine determination to claim this world, however wretched its history and however costly its redemption.”[5]

It is the LORD who gets to decide on salvation, and we likely aren’t even let in on the barest outlines of that decision.  Thus we are called to be open to the needs of those who simply do not meet our standards.  Like Jonah, we will often be called to go to Nineveh.  Deanna Thompson draws this conclusion about daily living.  “To live faithfully under the reality of the cross is to live as one who has been justified by God and opened to the brokenness and needs of the world in which one lives.”[6]

[1] Limburg, page 48.


[3] Interview with James Allison, “Violence Undone” in The Christian Century (September 5, 2006), page 33.

[4] Douglas John Hall, “The Theology of the Cross: A Usable Past,” in Seminary Ridge Review (Spring 2006, Volume 8: No. 2), page 11.

[6] Deanna A. Thompson, “Becoming a Feminist Theologian of the Cross,” in Seminary Ridge Review (Spring 2006, Volume 8: No. 2), page 25.

[5] Douglas John Hall, “The Theology of the Cross: A Usable Past,” in Seminary Ridge Review (Spring 2006, Volume 8: No. 2), pages 9-10.

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