Virtual Voices

Jonah and the idolatry of racism

Books

Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, has just written a new book, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. It's an insightful book about the idols we worship in lieu of God, how to discern them, and how to get rid of them.

One of my favorite passages is about the story of Jonah. "The word of the Lord came to Jonah" telling him to "go to Nineveh . . . and proclaim against her, for their evil has come up before my face." (Jonah 1:1-2)

Keller writes that Nineveh was the seat of the Assyrian Empire, a powerful threat to Israel. To do anything that could potentially benefit Assyria would have been anathema to Jonah. So he doesn't go. Instead he hops a ship headed in the opposite direction, bound for the town of Tarshish.

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Now here's the part of the story we all know best. A storm arises so powerful that it threatens to sink the ship. Lots are cast to see who's at fault, and Jonah's number comes up, so to speak. He admits that he's fleeing from God, realizes that the storm is because of him, and instructs his shipmates to fling him overboard. And they do. Jonah is swallowed by a fish and later thrown up onto the shore.

When God instructs Jonah a second time to go to Ninevah and preach, he obeys. "And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth. . . . When God examined their deeds . . . he renounced the disaster he had said he would do to them." And, as Keller writes, "Now comes the part of the story that is almost universally ignored."

Jonah's mission was a success, but he "burned with anger," and pleaded with God to take his life. Keller writes, "Finally Jonah's idol was laid bare, revealing his abhorrence of this race and nation. He so loathed the Assyrian race he saw God's forgiveness of them to be the worst thing that could have happened. . . . He didn't want them saved."

The story ends with God asking Jonah why he shouldn't have spared Ninevah; there is no recorded response from Jonah. But Keller believes it's safe to assume he came around. He must have told the story to someone who then wrote it down. "And," Keller writes, "who would ever tell a story in which on every page he is seen as an evil fool, except a man in whom God's grace had reached the center of his heart?"

Marcia Segelstein
Marcia Segelstein

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