The End of the World?
Hot Time With a Prophet
Give me a listen before dismissing what I say here.
Once upon a time, there was a prophet called Jonah. Everyone remembers that Jonah allegedly was swallowed by a great fish and all that, but this is not the central message of his story; there is something more profound in it few ever seem to pay attention to.
Jonah was told by God that he was tired of the great city of Nineveh. The Ninevites were said to have grown wicked, causing much evil, so God decided to rid the world of them. One would think that would be the end of that, but He wanted them to know their days were numbered before wiping them from the map. So he commanded Jonah to go and tell them.
Jonah had no use for the Ninevites and he really didn’t care if they were destroyed. In fact, this must have sounded like a good thing – and I’m sure the thought of showing up at the gates of a foreign city, since Nineveh was in Assyrian Empire and Jonah was Jewish and from Israel, hardly seemed a good idea: The Ninevites did not worship the Hebrew God, had their own religion, their own beliefs – doubtless, they weren’t going to welcome a foreigner with open arms, especially not one telling them they’d blown it and were about to be erased from history.
So Jonah did what most people would probably do: He decided to skip out on his mission. That’s how he wound up on a ship caught in a storm; the sailors figured out that the storm was happening because Jonah was on God’s nerves, they threw him overboard, the fish got him, and so on.
Jonah only got out of the fish, according to the story, once he agreed to go do what he was called to do – go to Nineveh and let them know what was in store for them.
That’s how Jonah wound up in the great city crying, “In forty days Nineveh will be overthrown!” Probably he was pretty satisfied that, at least, all these sinners would feel the wrath of the Almighty; there had to be some sort of pay-off for being a prophet of doom and knowing that the doomed would get what they had coming probably felt just as good then as it does for many today announcing the wrath of God and the advent of his punishment for humanity’s many failings.
But that’s just it. To Jonah’s dismay, the Ninevites listened. They clothed themselves in sackcloth and ashes and wept and repented of their evils. And God didn’t destroy them, even though He told Jonah He would.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Before God spared them, Jonah decided to go hang out in the desert nearby to watch the fun. He wanted to watch the destruction – the very human desire to gawk at car wrecks was not absent even in prophets, evidently. So he built a shoddy little shelter to shield himself from the heat and got busy waiting for the show.
A plant miraculously grew over the shelter and this provided a great deal of shade. Jonah was pretty pleased with his plant and this sign of favor form the Deity. But then, as God has his sense of humor, He sent a worm to bite the root of the plant which subsequently withered and died, leaving Jonah miserable, burning under the sun, wanting to die. Moaning and groaning are also just as much part of a prophet’s life as anyone else’s it seems.
That’s when God broke his silence and talked to Jonah.
“And God said to Jonah: 'Art thou
greatly angry for the Kikayon [the plant]?'
And he said: 'I am greatly angry, even unto death.'
And the LORD said: 'Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow, which came up in a night, and perished in a night;
and should not I have pity on 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?'”
—Book of Jonah, chapter 4, verses 9-11 (brackets mine)
I guess God told Jonah.
Some things are important to note to make this story even more clear: The Ninevites did not convert to Judaism. They remained pagans, yet God did not destroy them because they decided to try to do better. God is merciful to all, regardless of religion or lack thereof. He appears to be worried about the heart and what it is aimed at and not so much the forms, symbols, and words people imperfectly clothe the desires of the heart with. God is worried with people striving to do better – because that is all we do: strive, reach, attempt. We are beings always “on the way” towards the Good, but never fully perfect and good ourselves.
Humanity is a work in progress.
God is merciful. God shows pity for us. He does not dismiss anyone lightly. God loves human beings, even though our lives are messy and stupid and at times senseless, and He even seems to love our messiness, stupidity, and senselessness.
Here, in this story, is God, who is concerned enough for a people who are doing bad things to one another and others to send a prophet from a foreign land and people to warn them they are not trying and are headed for death; a God who says, “[S]hould not I have pity on 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?'” – a God Who is worried about humans – and who, even a Jonah, can say they always clearly “know their right hand from their left”? – and even about the animals?
Human beings underestimate God.
We think we can point to a Holy Book and say, “This is what the Almighty must do because this prophesy says so. This is what the Almighty is like: this chapter, this verse say so.” We think we have Him fixed – say a few magic words and God does what we want. Call ourselves by a name like “Christian,” “Jew,” or “Muslim” and the rest of the world that doesn’t believe what we believe can go to Hell. We’re convinced of it beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Preach doom and God will destroy Nineveh – or the world. For some reason, we are very comfortable with that version of God, an angry God Who telegraphs his punches from a couple of thousand years away.
That God, the easy to understand One, is easy to predict, easy to be scared of, easy to “serve.” He is also easy for thinking, skeptical people to dismiss and roll their eyes at, accuse of meanness, irrationality, cosmic stupidity, and non-existence. People take two attitudes toward an abusive parent: appease him or run away; and how much more so when the Parent in question is the Creator?
But is the Creator really an abusive parent, or is that simply a fantasy we constructed along the way, blaming Him for our own human-made ills, angry actions, and flawed beliefs? The capacity of human psychology to fool itself and project its own problems on others is immense. What larger target for projection than God – especially when He doesn’t protest much?
In the Tanakh, the Jewish scriptures, God revealed a Name to Moses – a sort of substitute Name for Himself that humans could grasp when Moses asked Him Who He Is. It’s where we get the “Yod He Vau He,” YHVH, mistranslated as “Yahweh” in the King James Bible. YHVH are the first letters of the words often translated, “I Am That I Am” in English – philosophers and theologians in the Middle Ages took this to mean God’s Name, inasmuch as we can grasp it, is “Being,” I AM. Which has some value in it. But I have also heard rabbis say that the Name can be translated like this: “I Am Who I Will Be.” Which suggests much, including: “I am beyond your comprehension;” “There is no way you could guess who I really am;” “I’m going to do what I’m going to do;” and “None of your business, so don’t worry about it.”
Everyone remembers the story of Noah’s flood and everyone knows the names Sodom and Gomorrah; no one seems interested in Nineveh. A merciful, loving God Who shows pity on His confused, growing children is much more difficult to imagine than an angry deity such as Zeus or Thor hurling thunderbolts off mountaintops. Mercy is generally just a more difficult thing to grasp or practice for us than something like anger or wrath, much less comprehend in another.
But there it is. God was merciful to Nineveh, to Jonah’s disappointment and dismay. The Day of Judgment passed, even though it looked like a sure bet – because God saw people striving and trying to do better in the imperfect way we do these things, “not knowing our right hand from our left.”
Because God is for us and on our side, all of us, not against us. God does not hate us.
I am far from understanding God, Who Is Who Will Be. But I am not far from understanding God is more merciful and more loving than us, as God is incomprehensibly more and better than us.
When the End of the World arrives, I am not certain at all anyone grasps what that would look like or mean. Perhaps it will be more like a surprise party than the bloody battlefields of demonic beings devouring human flesh we’ve painted for ourselves over the centuries.
In any case, I believe it will be surprising, different and better than anything we can imagine, and from a loving, just, and merciful Almighty Father; it will be something no one can guess much about from a God Who says His Name, the One we can grasp, Is, “I’m going to do what I’m going to do; don’t worry about it.”
And when it arrives, whether in the form of our individual deaths (which is surely “the end of the world” for each of us) or all together, in some other mystical way, let God find us trying, in our own place and our own way to do better, to love more, and to show mercy and justice towards one another, to be creative and decent. I have faith He’ll understand what we were trying to do, even if the work was not perfect.
Richard Van Ingram
21 May 2011
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