Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Jonah

We’re a bit more on familiar ground with this fishy tale, a book with a great story and loads of difficult issues. Jonah is called by God to preach God’s judgement in Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, a cruel and vicious enemy of Israel away to the north east, which is a bit like asking someone to run an Alpha Course at Islamic State headquarters. So quite naturally he runs off in the opposite direction, and gets on a boat in Joppa. However, his disobedience threatens the life of his fellow-passengers, and he is thrown into the sea, only to be rescued by some sort of sea creature. He spends three days inside the creature, singing, no doubt, since we all know that everyone sings in whales, until sadder and wiser he gets vomited out and goes and does what he’s told, only to see the Assyrians repent in great numbers, from the King downwards. However, Jonah is really annoyed that God is letting them off after all they’ve done to harm Israel, and he throws a hissy fit and decides to sulk himself to death. Using a gourd-vine and a worm God teaches him a lesson, but the book is left hanging as to whether or not Jonah is convinced.

The miraculous in this book is clearly a big issue for some, and different people tells tales of having survived inside a large fish or whale, while others tell of the physiological impossibility of this happening. It may be that we have a well-known folk tale here, which is given a more spiritual twist. We saw that when we looked at Job. The book is difficult to date too. It must be fairly late, when the Assyrian empire was at its height and had captured Israel. Some regard it as a treatise against the narrow nationalism of post-exilic Judah. When you’ve been in exile and finally returned to rebuild your own land it’s natural for you to feel a bit xenophobic, to want to batten down the hatches and keep God to yourself. The idea that God might love foreigners appears to be a novel one, and the idea that he might love the very nation responsible for the destruction of your fellow-Israelites up north is unthinkable. So Jonah’s sorry tale might be for the nation a reminder that the God of mercy and compassion is merciful to all. It might also serve another purpose, which we have touched on before, taking them back to the original call of Abraham to be blessed but also to be a blessing for the rest of the world.

So what might this book have to say to us? There is something, I think, about the consequences for others when the church loses its vocation and focuses on being blessed rather than on being a blessing. At the lowest level we leave people not being able to tell their right hands from their left. Of course that doesn’t in any way refer to my wife, but rather speaks of a nation lost and confused in their sin and ignorance. The people lack all moral perception, and are unable to see the consequences of their action. The abolition of ‘Sunday’, for example, had radical effects on Western family and working life. Many believe that the persistent erosion of stable families is going to reap a whirlwind in the future. We can read all the research that children thrive best in families with a man and a woman in lifelong commitment, yet we continue actively to promote alternatives. When the church loses moral battles, the nation as a whole is weakened. Without preachers of truth and repentance, the nation simply will not hear, and may lose out the opportunity to change its ways.

But it gets worse: might those on the boat with Jonah be a picture of the storms which threaten others when Christians are disobedient. The church continues to be rocked, for example, by accusations of abuse, and in a real sense many have simply shoved us over the side to drown. The fish or whale, therefore, becomes not an image of God’s judgement but of his rescue, a sign of hope that we may get a second chance, and that people might even start to listen when we simply do what God tells us.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – 1 Samuel

After last week’s brief digression into the love story of Ruth, we return to the heart of the Deuteronomic History with the four books of Samuel and Kings. Between them they tell the story of Israel’s journey from tribalism, through greatness, into exile and slavery. We have already discovered that the Deuteronomic History was written to explain how the nation got to the point of near-destruction, and we noted two key themes, both of which had, in the eyes of God, been violated. One was about the need to remain separate from and untainted by the nations around, and the other had to do with worshipping God where and how he demanded to be worshipped. There two motifs are a bit hidden to begin with, but are going to become more explicit as we go through the story over the next four weeks.

 

1 Samuel begins with the birth of the prophet Samuel, the kingmaker who sets Israel on the path of monarchy, albeit with some reluctance. His birth, like that of several biblical heroes, has a supernatural dimension to it: the message is that God clearly wanted him around, and so specially provided for his birth. The ever-present threat of the Philistines, whose territory lay to the south west of Israel, and the discontent with the tribal amphictiony, leads Israel to ask Samuel for a king ‘such as all the other nations have’. Samuel is reluctant, and tries to spell out for the people what this might look like in real life, but in the end he hears God telling him that although this is a rejection of bother their leaderships he should go ahead and give them a king. Saul is duly selected, and he looks a good choice, but it is only a few chapters before God rejects him.

 

So what did he do wrong? Not surprisingly, given the point of view of the writers, he offers a sacrifice which it was not his place to do (13:13), which is about keeping God’s rules for worship, and then in 15:8-9 he disobeys God by failing totally to destroy Agag, king of Amalek, and taking plunder from the battle. This violates the ‘separation’ theme, but fortunately Samuel remedies the situation in one of the most beautiful verses in the Bible: ‘Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord at Gilgal’.

 File:Felix-Joseph Barrias - Annointing of David by Saul.jpg

From this point on we see a new star rising, as Samuel is told by God to look for a replacement king for Saul. David is picked, even though he is so unlikely that he wasn’t even invited to the interview, and then a series of stories portrays the early life of this new hero, his prowess in battle, his acceptance into the royal court, and the growing jealousy of his king. As Saul descends into occultism and madness David keeps his integrity, refusing just to finish him off and showing loyalty to him, because he is still the Lord’s anointed king. When Saul finally dies in battle David’s grief is genuine, but more of that next week.

 

So how do we read this book today? As a history lesson and background to the high-point of Israel’s life, the reign of David, it is invaluable, but it also stresses the values of the Deuteronomic historians, made explicit in 15:22-23

 

Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
    as much as in obeying the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
    and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
    and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.

 

From the other side of the cross this truth is still as important as ever for Christian disciples, particularly in a culture where anything goes and ‘tolerance’ is the highest virtue of our society. What God says matters, and he expects us to listen and obey. We may not get rejected, or even hewed in pieces, if we disobey, but we severely hold up God’s purposes and rob ourselves of blessing when we try to live with cheap grace.