Who’s on the Lord’s Side, Who?

I have been thinking a lot about the Book of Jonah, these last few months, as everyone has become a prophet of various sorts of physical, financial, or psychic doom.

Art: Peter Speier

We know the first part of Jonah’s story well—being commanded to go to Nineveh, trying to avoid his vocation, being caught in the storm, swallowed by the fish, praying, being spat out to have another go at keeping God’s commandment to him. It’s the second part of the story I’ve been thinking about lately.

Jonah goes to Nineveh, does some apparently VERY low key and extremely effective proselytizing. “Uh, guys, God’s going to destroy Nineveh in 40 days.” He doesn’t have to climb any walls or cut any arms off of robbers or anything. The king says ok, puts on sackcloth and ashes, and tells all the people to repent, and they do.*

Jonah, instead of being happy, is totally pissed. He’s kind of a diva about it—says God made him look bad and now he wants to die. God’s reaction in chapter 4, verse 4 is pretty funny: “Doest thou well to be angry?”

Jonah sulks around some more, and God sends a plant to grow up around his shelter to keep him cool. But then God gets tired of Jonah still sulking, and sends a worm to eat the vine so that it withers. And Jonah’s mad again, and says again that he wants to die, and God asks again “Doest thou well to be angry?” This time, Jonah says, as a matter of fact, yes, yes, this is a perfectly reasonable response. I’m mad because I liked that little vine and now it’s gone. And God’s answer is about how Jonah loved the vine and was sad at its passing, and how much more God loves the people of Nineveh, because he had created them, and how sad he would be to let them die.

And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?

And that’s it. The end of the book. We never know whether Jonah gets it, or if he stays with the prophet gig—just God saying you can even love this thing that you never tended or cared for; how much more do I love my children I’ve created? And, um, cattle.

There aren’t any tidy morals here, and all the parallels are inexact. But what I understand about Jonah’s anger is how desperately we humans want to be right, and be seen to be right. On good days, we want to be on God’s side, too, but maybe we’d really rather be right. Or look right. And the thing about Jonah’s God is that he apparently doesn’t need that so much. He’s a god big enough to change his mind, to show mercy. He loves the things and creatures he has made and he wants them to be well. And sometimes the worm is going to cause destruction, even to the innocent, even if we wear masks. And sometimes people who don’t wear masks, or don’t repent until the very last minute, are going to be spared. And the trick of being godlike is to learn to rejoice at their continued flourishing, or sorrow at their destruction, regardless of whether we can draw the ethical lines from behavior to outcome that let us feel righteous, as if we’re on God’s side. The problem is that the God we want–the one who makes and enforces the rules *we* understand and keep, who punishes people the people we think are behaving badly, who never changes his mind–is an idol, made in our own image.

The hard truth is that the God we ought to worship is tender toward all of his creatures, even the ones who can’t tell their left from their right. If we want to be on God’s side, we have to be on the side of love and mercy, always.**


*(It kind of makes me wonder if Nineveh was the Canada of the ancient world. You know–How do you get 100 rowdy Canadians out of the pool? “Um, sorry guys, could you get out of the pool now, eh?”)

**But also, just wear the damn mask!


  1. You wrote Noah instead of Jonah in paragraph 3.

  2. Actually paragraph 4 and again in the 3rd from the end.

  3. Kristine says:

    Good catch–thanks!

  4. It wasn’t until we watched Jonah and The Big Whale (staring Larry the Cucumber) that we (my husband and I) realized the story ended so abruptly. We even had to verify it by dusting off the scriptures and reading what King James’ scribes had to say about it. There is no closure for poor Jonah.

    But I do like the story because it shows that even prophets, who talk with God, can be reluctant servants and still get blessings. Maybe there is hope for me.

  5. This is a rich business. Thank you Kristine.

  6. Kristine says:

    cloves–I miss Larry, now that my kids are older! Lots of good lessons there.

  7. Elizabeth says:

    Thank you for this. Now I understand why I secretly hope some of the anti-masks types and their ilk come down with the virus is wrong. God loves them and wants them to be well. I will repent and try to do better but I’m afraid your title made me laugh. Watch this video about the pirate hymn to understand why. I’m sorry. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ocyTbaVybig&fbclid=IwAR1gCm_tvnZ-BXUjzdvzubojn1NB5mQiVjiQzMrUSoLqixGuwhgru_uyzt4

  8. nobody, really says:

    I once learned from a very smart MIddle Eastern scholar that when the story ends abruptly, it is an invitation to us to decide how we would react. With Jonah, we get to decide if we’re going to get our panties in a bunch because God doesn’t do things our way. With the Prodigal Son, we are put in the position of “the good son” as to whether we will go rejoin the family at the table, or stay outside having a come-apart because someone else is being celebrated.

  9. Kristine says:

    I like that, nobody. Those abrupt endings happen a lot, and it’s funny how much we usually try to tidy things up so that we don’t have to ask those questions!

  10. Kristine says:

    Elizabeth, I definitely had that video in mind :)

  11. Richard Serge says:

    Who is the Lord in 2020 and what does He look like?

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