Text Study for 3 Epiphany B 2021–First Reading, Part 2

First Lesson: Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” This is one of the shortest and most effective sermons in the history of preaching. But who wrote this little sermon? In the other biblical prophets, we hear many of the precise words the LORD wants the prophet to speak. Here, we are not so sure. Is this little sermon Jonah’s personal and original composition?

The message is a simple declaration of doom. It contains no description of remedial action. It offers no hope of reprieve. The verb is in the passive voice and specifies no actor. It may sound like much of the bureaucrat-speak that fills our modern political discourse. “Mistakes were made,” or “Shots were fired.” The message is designed to fail.  And it has precisely the opposite effect that Jonah intended.

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Jonah seems to be unaware of the LORD’s whimsical qualities. The word for “overthrown” can refer to destruction and demise. It more often refers to change or alteration or even transformation! This verb, writes Philip Cary, which is also applied to Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis, “can also—unfortunately for Jonah—mean conversion and being turned into something new.”[1]

Cary lingers on this ambiguity in his commentary. Who is fooling whom at this point? Does Jonah already know the LORD’s intention to spare Nineveh? He later protests that he did know about this in advance. So, Cary suggests, it may be that Jonah manipulates the LORD’s message to have the most lethal implications and the least chance of success. Or is it that the LORD gives this bit of prophetic double entendre to the unsuspecting prophet who then feels used and cheated later?

Or do we witness both things at once, as Cary suggests. “There is room to wonder whether, in the very content of the message,” Cary writes, “Jonah was trying to pull a fast one on the LORD—and whether what actually happened was that the LORD pulled a fast one on Jonah.”[2] The “old switcheroo” is a staple of comedy in all times and places. Is that what we witness in God’s word through Jonah to Nineveh? I think it is precisely what we experience here.

This goes a long way in explaining Jonah’s furious indignation in chapter four. The LORD has fooled him and left him in embarrassed rage. Is the LORD intentionally cruel to the cranky curmudgeon? I don’t think so. Instead, I would suggest that this comeuppance is the last best hope for Jonah’s heart. Perhaps the LORD has drawn the prophet into what Marcia Reynolds calls “The Discomfort Zone.”

Reynolds reminds us of the brain science that demonstrates how much of our lives we spend on “autopilot,” that is, engaged in automatic and unreflective mental processes. We think we are in charge of our thinking most of the time. In fact, most of the time we are walking through the well-worn ruts that make up the majority of our life scripts. We leave those ruts only with a tremendous expenditure of energy and no small amount of whining and complaining.

“To help people think differently,” she writes, “you have to disturb the automatic processing.”[3] By this she means that we have to put people in unfamiliar places and positions. This will never make anyone particularly happy. The Discomfort Zone is that place where our life maps are called into question, where we experience disorientation, where we have to re-evaluate our settled assumptions and beliefs. “This is best done,” she continues, ‘by challenging the beliefs that created the frames, and surfacing the underlying fears, needs, and desires that are keeping the constructs in place.”[4]

Barbara Green amplifies this point in an article in the theological journal, Word and World. “Jonah is closer to a parable than to an event that happened; it reads better in the wisdom genre than as history. It is a narrative of experience offered within the story to a character and then from the whole story to readers. Its genre provides narrative experiences constructed and offered so as to jolt us out of old certainties and into fresh appraisals of problems.”[5]

“To jolt us out of old certainties and into fresh appraisals of problems”—can you think of a better way to describe what is happening to Jonah in our little comedy? I cannot. From the moment of the LORD’s first call, nothing has been nailed down for Jonah. His cherished worldview has been called radically into question. Worse yet, the questioning happens through comedy. The audience is being disarmed as they laugh along with the writer. We are never more vulnerable to suggestions of change than when we are having a good laugh together.

Nineveh isn’t the only community in danger of being “overthrown.”

We need, therefore, to discuss now the first audience for this little comedy. When we discuss the empathy erosion of the post-exilic community, it is necessary to understand that community better. So we need to take a small journey through the events after the return from Exile. The returnees arrived back in Judah sometime between 538 and 535 B.C. But it wasn’t until about 520 B.C. that reconstruction work began on the Jerusalem temple.

We can’t wander too far afield, but we must take note of the role of the Samaritans in this conversation. Biblical accounts and Biblical scholars differ on the makeup of the Samaritan community. It is likely that this group was made up of the descendants both of Israelites who were deported neither to Assyria or Babylon and descendants of imported foreign colonists from a variety of locations. The Samaritan community (or some subset of local non-exiles) offered in 536 B.C. to assist with the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple, but that offered was rejected. Thus the Samaritans built their own temple on Mt. Gerizim and a history of hatred was launched. That history expressed itself several times in Jesus’ life and ministry.

We can situate the writings of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah at about this time as well. Haggai’s oracles take place over a period of just a few months in 520 B.C. Zechariah’s pronouncements continue from 520 B.C. to 518 B.C.  Both prophets demanded the reconstruction of the Jerusalem Temple and predicted God’s vengeance on the surrounding nations. Zechariah, in particular, expresses concerns over the worship of idols among the returnees. This may be a connection to Jonah’s song in chapter two.

By 445 B.C. the Temple had been rebuilt, but the walls of Jerusalem had not been reconstructed. Nehemiah is appointed by the Persian king as governor of the area. He comes with both orders and funds to rebuild the city walls. “Instituting social and religious reforms, Nehemiah championed the cause of the poor, regulated tithing, enforced Sabbath observance and forbade foreign marriages” (Oxford Annotated, New Testament, page 416). Ezra the Priest followed Nehemiah. He enforced the Jewish law and “fostered Jewish endogamy” (Ibid).

A chief concern, therefore, of the post-exilic community was national, ethnic and religious integrity. For us, those might be separate concerns. For the returnees from Exile, these concerns were identical. It would not be surprising if these concerns led to some obsessive paranoia about the presence and power of non-Jewish elements of the population. Those elements may in fact be non-Jewish immigrants.

Or we may need to look no further than the Samaritan community to find the hated enemy. Remember how Jesus himself described the grateful Samaritan in Luke 17:18—““Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except for this foreigner?” The word for foreigner refers someone of alien origin.

The other place where this word is used, at least for our purposes, was on a stone block at the boundary in the Jerusalem Temple between the “Court of the Gentiles” and the inner Temple precincts. That limestone block was rediscovered in 1871. The engraving states, “No foreigner is to go beyond the balustrade and the plaza of the temple zone; whoever is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his death which will follow.” Samaritans appear to have fit into that proscription.

So, Samaritans or strangers? In the end, it makes little difference to the argument that sustains the Book of Jonah. Our little comedy is written in a time of intense xenophobia. And it argues that the LORD will not be a party to such raging fears and their consequent genocidal resolution.

The Book of Jonah and the Book of the Prophet Joel have some strong similarities of vocabulary. We will examine some of those in the next chapter. For now, we can say that Jonah and Joel are having an intertextual “conversation” in the Old Testament. Many scholars place the Book of Joel in the Persian Period, after the return from Babylonian Exile. The Book of Joel was likely written sometime between 450 and 350 B.C. It may be that the Book of Jonah was written at about the same time.

We can see that the post-exilic community is surrounded by enemies and competitors who would love to see the whole restoration project fail. Those who stayed behind during the Exile and the earliest returnees intermarried with non-Jews and thus have threatened the national, ethnic, and religious integrity of the post-exilic community. These intermarriages resulted in allegiances to multiple deities. In addition, some of the returnees may have brought with them a mixed religious background including Babylonian and/or Persian deities. It is always safest to worship the winners’ god. And the returnees were focused on getting themselves settled and secure. They had little time and energy for temples or walls—at least if we are to believe Haggai and Nehemiah.

Threatened from without and insecure within—is it any wonder that the post-exilic community might have developed an obsessive paranoia when it came to outsiders? Could it be that the Book of Jonah was written as a comedic counterbalance to such perspectives? And is it any wonder that this little book has such resonance and bite in a post-911, post-Katrina world?

The people of Nineveh didn’t wait for a word from the authorities. A disaster was approaching, and they responded. This response takes place from the “greatest” of the people to the “least” of them. The Book of Jonah recalls another conversation partner at this moment. We can hear echoes of the prophet Jeremiah at this moment.

In chapter thirty-one, the prophet comforts the exiles with a vision of the new covenant that the LORD will make with Israel and Judah when they return from their sojourn. It will be a covenant written on people’s hearts, rather than on stone or parchment. Verse thirty-four should get our attention. “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’,” Jeremiah promises, “for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord…”  The Book of Jonah may reverse the order, but the vocabulary is the same. The New Covenant is at work in Nineveh! The last part of Jeremiah’s promise is the good news in it all: “…for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Here’s your sign (yes, I like that sort of comedy as well). Gentiles hear the good news of forgiveness. They respond with repentance and faith. They teach each other, from the least to the greatest. And the ones who should hear the message are furious.

[1] Philip Cary, Jonah, Kindle Location, 2776.

[2] Philip Cary, Jonah, Kindle Location, 2353.

[3] Marcia Reynolds, The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs, page 3.

[4] Marcia Reynolds, The Discomfort Zone, page 3.

[5] Barbara Green, “Beyond messages: how meaning emerges from our reading of Jonah,” in Word & World 27 no 2 Spr 2007, p 149-156.

Hennigs, Lowell. Who Knows? Jonah, Katrina and Other Tales of Hope (Kindle Edition). https://www.amazon.com/dp/B012QGREM2.

Text Study for 3 Epiphany B, 2021

This Sunday offers the only reading from the Book of Jonah in the entire three-year lectionary cycle. I think it borders on homiletical misconduct to miss the chance to preach on Jonah today. Of course, I have been teaching on the Book of Jonah and writing about it for the last twenty years, so I may be less than objective. In the spirit of my enthusiasm, I’ll begin my weekly reflections with the grumpy son of Amittai. Today and tomorrow, I’ll share some excerpts from my little book on Jonah. In the process, since it is the season of Epiphany, we can ask a pointed question. What is revealed in repentance?

First Reading: Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Can anything good come from Nineveh? Let me offer a rough and ready summary of the book of Jonah.  Our standards are not God’s standards.  We are not privileged to prescribe what God should or should not do with God’s creatures—human or otherwise.  Our convenience, our self-interest, and our limited perspectives cannot and should determine the scope or application of the grace, mercy and transforming power of God’s compassion.  Chapters three and four of Jonah describe how the prophet gets one more chance to come to terms with this reality.

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Jonah is called a “second” time. The adjective comes from a verb that can mean to “change,” to be different from a previous state, or to “repeat, do something again.” On the one hand, this is not a new prophetic call but rather a repetition of the first call. Perhaps now Jonah is ready to consider the nature of that call. At the end of chapter two, Jonah promised to go to the Temple and pay off his vows (whether in gratitude or grumpiness we cannot be sure). It seems, however, that the LORD is not interested in such a transaction.  We hear no more of it.

On the other hand, Jonah needs to get it right this time. So, the call comes “a second time.” Limburg notes that this is not the same “second time” as we might find, say, in Jeremiah, where the prophet gets a new assignment after the first one is completed. “Only Jonah among the biblical prophets,” he says, “has to have his assignment given to him twice!”[1]

“As one reflects on the theological significance of this short scene, the Lord’s patience immediately comes to mind. Without exhortations, without carping or harping, the Lord reissues the charge that was given to Jonah in the first place. This act of reassigning without accompanying critical commentary is an illustration of the characteristics of the Lord soon to be stated in 4:2.”

Jonah appears to get a “do-over,” a gracious reprieve. A second time is also a second chance.

Jonah is, however, unable to extend that same graciousness to the Ninevites. This massive failure of empathic imagination is breathtaking to observe. It is also commonplace among humans.

I find the work of Simon Baron Cohen so helpful in this regard. In order to deal with human evil in a more measurable way, he suggests that we use the term “empathy erosion” rather than the more metaphysical term, “evil.” In simplest terms, Cohen suggests that empathy erosion “arises from people turning other people into objects.”[2] He traces that insight back to Martin Buber. I would suggest that the Book of Jonah is a tragic comedy that illustrates the empathy erosion of the post-exilic community in Judah.

Empathy requires seeing life from the perspective and position of the other. So the experience of empathy is a function of moral, spiritual and emotional imagination. It is a function of how we choose to see the other. Cohen writes, “Empathy occurs when we suspend our single-minded focus of attention and instead adopt a double-minded focus of attention.”[3] When we can see the other in the same light as we see ourselves, then we have the capacity for empathy.

When we exercise empathy, to reverse Buber’s insight, we turn objects into persons. And, Cohen as points out, we have a sort of binocular vision. We see ourselves and other at the same, and in the same frame. “When empathy is switched off,” Cohen continues, “we think only about our own interests. When empathy is switched on, we focus on other people’s interests too.”

It is time for clarity. Jonah longs for genocide. Jonah is not unusual in this desire. The genocidal impulse is as old as human hatred. “What is modern about genocide or about mass violence is the embarrassment about it,” says University of Amsterdam Professor of Social Science Emeritus Abram de Swaan, the author of The Killing Compartments: The Mentality of Mass Murder.[4] Jonah hopes that the hated Ninevites will be removed from the pages of history and the annals of existence. He has deleted them from his moral imagination (if they were ever there) and consigned them to oblivion. He has turned those persons (including the animals) into objects. How does this happen?

If you think this is a topic for academic study, then you are living in a sealed jar. We Americans are now routinely on the receiving end of such epic empathic failures. This is, in part, how the Twin Towers came crashing down on September 11, 2001. This is, in part, how hostages are beheaded on videotape by members of the so-called Islamic State. This is how people are used to send political messages from one organization to another at the cost of their lives. The victims are vehicles for information. Their executioners have ceased to see them as persons.

Of course, this is also how white people kept slaves for hundreds of years. This is also how Europeans deprived Native Americans of land and birthright. This is also how Germans annihilated Jews and gypsies, homosexuals and the disabled, while keeping impeccable records. This is how Hutus murdered Tutsi “cockroaches” in Uganda, how Muslims were slaughtered in the Balkans, how Armenians were exterminated in Turkey, how the Khmer Rouge butchered and buried over two million in Cambodia.

Jonah is hardly an outlier.

Of course, that is our deepest wish—that somehow these murderous monsters are themselves nonhuman in some significant way. We strive to distance ourselves from such acts and such actors. We would never do such a thing, we tell ourselves.

We are wrong.

Simon Baron Cohen builds on the work of other explorers of evil. Philip Zimbardo, author of The Lucifer Effect, is best known for his (in)famous Stanford Prison Experiment. In that experiment, he randomly divided graduate student volunteers into prisoners and guards. The details are fascinating and troubling. The outcome, however, was that quite typical people were turned into unfeeling bullies. The experiment had to be halted out of concerns for emotional safety.

Zimbardo’s work would have remained an academic curiosity had it not been for the events at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. At that prison, the Stanford experiment was given a real world run for its money. Once again, quite typical people were turned into dehumanizing torturers. The difference this time was that the results of the “experiment” were splashed across print, broadcast and internet media around the globe. The line between good and evil is not between “them” and “us.”

Other experiments and experiences reinforce this point. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen and others have studied in depth the lives of ordinary Germans under the Nazi regime. Goldhagen dubbed them “Hitler’s willing executioners.” He and others have shown that these ordinary German citizens did not cooperate in the Holocaust under the fear of imprisonment and death. In fact, when they resisted, they did not suffer many repercussions at all. Instead, they participated willingly.

Stanley Milgram carried out his (again, in)famous Obedience Experiments around the time that Adolf Eichmann was tried in Jerusalem for Nazi war crimes. Milgram wondered if the Nazi defense of just following orders could stand up to scrutiny. The result of the experiment was that quite typical people could be induced to administer what they thought were horrifically painful shocks to relatively innocent people, as long as some authority figure told them it was all right to do so. The participants continued to deliver such shocks even when the subjects appeared to be screaming in tortured pain.

Our “empathy switches” are fragile devices that can be nudged toward the off position far more easily than any of us would care to admit. They get nudged toward the “off” position when we limit our vision of who is human. In an interview with Alvin Powell, Professor Abram de Swaan notes, “One could, with many caveats, say that certain characteristics are more likely to occur more frequently with genocidal perpetrators. For example, they have a working conscience, [but] restricted to family, their superiors, and their comrades-in-arms. Everyone else doesn’t count.”[5]

[1]James Limburg, Jonah, page 75.

[2] Simon Baron Cohen, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, Kindle Location 170. It might interest you to know that Cohen’s brother is the comedian, Sasha Baron Cohen. Sasha has made a career of ridiculing bigots, particularly with his character, “Borat.” Confronting evil in creative and stimulating ways appears to be sort of the family business!

[3] Cohen, Kindle Location 265.

[4] Quoted by Alvin Powell at http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2015/03/evil-in-the-making/?utm_source=SilverpopMailing&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=03.03.2015%20(1

[5] http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2015/03/evil-in-the-making/?utm_source=SilverpopMailing&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=03.03.2015%20(1

Hennigs, Lowell. Who Knows? Jonah, Katrina and Other Tales of Hope (Kindle Edition). https://www.amazon.com/dp/B012QGREM2.