Jonah and the Worm: An ecological reading of Jonah
The relationship between humanity and the natural world has been one of hardship and toil since humans first emerged from the Great Rift Valley, to go forth and multiply upon the earth. The struggle for survival is as old as our species, and we have battled on many fronts over the millennia. From early competition with other hominids, to struggles to adapt to hostile environments; from diseases and disasters, to famine and crop failure - humans have been at war with planet earth in a battle for survival since the very beginning. Our current fights about fossil fuels, global warming, and climate change are simply the latest skirmishes in a war that has claimed more lives, and done more damage, than any other conflict in the history of humanity.
So it is no surprise that the Hebrew Bible reflects this struggle for survival in many of its narratives. Those who told these stories down the generations, passing the wisdom of the Israelite tradition from parent to child, knew first-hand what it was to do battle with the earth; and in their stories they reflected before God on what it might mean to be human. What we find in their traditions are a range of responses to the question of how humans might exist in relation to nature.
The Genesis creation narrative, for example, starts by affirming the goodness of all things: from the heavens above, to the depths of the ocean, and everything in between; and it locates humans as part of this God-inspired created order. However, it goes on to describe the fracturing of the relationship between humanity and nature, pointing the finger firmly at the sinfulness of the representative humans of Adam and Eve as the originators of the battle for survival.
If we fast forward to their sons Cain and Abel, we meet the battle between the hunter-gatherer and agrarian lifestyles. Agriculture first developed in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, where Israel is located, sometime around 10,000 years ago, and we have an echo of this in the deadly conflict between Cain the cultivator of land, and Abel the herdsman. The suggestion of this story is that God is more pleased with Abel’s animal than with Cain’s grain, but of course it’s ultimately Abel who dies at Cain’s hand, and it’s Cain and his descendants who survive to continue planting the land and reaping the harvest.
Then we come to the story of Noah and the flood, with God washing his hands of the whole created order, and ordering a total wipe-out and reboot, with just Noah and his family and a selection of animals surviving. According to the Noah story, human sinfulness had so spoiled nature that the whole thing was ruined beyond salvation, and just needed to be destroyed and re-created from scratch.
We could go on, through the wisdom tradition and the prophets, through the books of history and monarchy, describing the battles for land, the times of famine, all the stories of plague, pestilence, and hardship that humanity has faced. In all of these, the Hebrew way has been to try to reflect before God on the relationship between humans and the natural order.
So we come to the book of Jonah, which is many things, including, I want to suggest, an ecological parable in the tradition of the Hebrew wisdom literature. I believe that it has something profound to say to us about the relationship between humans and the natural order.
The clue comes right at the end of the book, in 4.11, when God says:
And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city,
in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons
who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?
It’s always worth paying attention to the way biblical stories end, and this one ends with ‘many animals’. Once we’ve spotted this, when we start to read back into the story, we find that the natural world plays an especially prominent role in the book of Jonah.
The book starts with Jonah being called to go and preach a message of repentance to the great city of Nineveh, but deciding to do a runner in the opposite direction, and jumping a ship. At this point, the forces of nature start to move in against him. We’re told in the 4th verse of the first chapter that,
the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up.
As soon as Jonah puts himself where he shouldn’t be, he finds himself at war with natural forces beyond his control. When the sailors on the boat ask Jonah what’s going on, he realises that there’s a link between his own disobedience to God and the disturbance in the natural order, so he says to them that he’s a Hebrew, a worshipper of the God who made the sea and the dry land (1.9). He tells the sailors that if they pick him up and throw him into the sea, the great storm will quiet down and their lives will be spared (1.12), and this is, of course, what happens. The link between Jonah, and God, and the natural order moves at this point from the theoretical to the practical; as Jonah’s actions are seen to have a clear effect on the forces of nature.
But then they take a turn from the practical to the surreal, as instead of drowning in the sea of chaos, Jonah find himself in the belly of a fish; and not just any fish, but a fish provided by God to rescue him. The story is at pains to tell us that this isn’t some random act of luck – rather, God is at work in the natural world to bring Jonah back to where he should be in the order of things.
Eventually, Jonah is spewed up onto dry land, as he escapes the clutches of the sea, and makes his way to Nineveh to preach his message of repentance. The response he gets is astonishing, and surely intentionally amusing – not only do the people repent, not only does the king repent, but so also do all the animals! The king even issues a decree, demanding that both humans and animals together must fast, and put on sackcloth; with human and animal voices together crying to God for mercy. (3.7-8).
Of course, what Jonah knew would happen does happen, and God lets the wicked city of Nineveh off. No judgment, no fire from heaven, no punishment; just mercy and compassion. This doesn’t suit Jonah at all, and so in disgust that justice has not been done, he wanders off to sit under a shelter and sulk. The sun beats down on him, relentlessly baking him into submission, but then God appoints a bush to grow up by him, giving him some shade from the sun, and for a little while he seems to lift out of his bad mood. But then God appoints a little worm to come and destroy the tree, and then God sends a sultry wind and more sun, and Jonah decides that he’s had enough of these games and that he wants to die. God may have been merciful to the wretched Ninevites with their comedy cows in sackcloth, but now seems to be setting the whole of nature systematically against Jonah.
Of course, it’s all a matter of perspective, and so with the set-up complete, Jonah and God have their big argument in 4.8-11:
[Jonah] said, "It is better for me to die than to live." 9 But God said to Jonah, "Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?" And he said, "Yes, angry enough to die." 10 Then the LORD said, "You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?"
Jonah pitied the plant, but did not want God to pity Nineveh. The irony is inescapable, and the inconsistency of his position becomes obvious. God is not the God that Jonah thought and hoped he was. God does not judge as Jonah judged, and Jonah had set himself above God, and at odds with nature, in his attempt to create God in his own image.
Those of us reading Jonah’s story are invited to join him in reflecting on our own place within the natural order. The recurring theme in all of this is that whilst Jonah is disobedient to God, the natural world acts not only in obedience to God, but also to bring Jonah back to a right relationship with both God and nature. Here’s the parable: Jonah represents humanity. He represents all of us. We are Jonah. The lesson of the parable is that when we humans, like Jonah, put ourselves at war with God and God’s world, the consequences are catastrophic.
However, the hopeful message of the Book of Jonah is that God is also at work through the natural order to bring humans back to a place of repentance and restoration. Humans have consistently created a philosophical and practical division between themselves and the rest of the natural world. I don’t think we can entirely blame Descartes, but his famous dictum ‘I think therefore I am’ is probably the best summary of this approach. We who ‘think’ have come to view animals as automatons incapable of consciousness, and so we have taken permission to treat animals as, in effect, machines, which exist as a means rather than for their own sake.
In this we are acting entirely against the wisdom of Genesis, which declares that all of creation is good; but nonetheless we consistently choose to see nature as a tool to exploit, and animals as a means to an end. We have built our civilisations on a human-centred view of the world, which regards nature as a commodity available exclusively for our benefit. Our unfettered and rampant exploitation of nature is challenged by the story of Jonah, who consistently discovers what we must also learn; that when we place ourselves over and against nature, there is hell to pay. We are a part of the natural order, not separate to it. We can no more run from our place in God’s creation than Jonah could run from the presence of God. We humans keep placing ourselves at the centre of our own story, we place our own desires above our responsibility to the planet, and so we create a situation where we are at war with nature in a struggle for survival. It’s the story of Adam and Eve’s rebellion told over-and-over again in each generation, as we somehow convince ourselves that we’re right and God must be wrong.
Yet the story of Jonah is that in God’s world, it is compassion that lies at the heart of the story. God’s mercy in Jonah’s story is extended to all creation. God has compassion on the just and the unjust, on animals, plants and planet. In the story of Jonah we find our human-centred view of creation challenged. We, like Jonah, have to learn that God is not just ‘our’ God, but that he is the God of the entire earth, from animals to plants to the elements to Nineveh itself. Nature is not there to be exploited by humans, as if the two were somehow separable; but rather humans are a part of the natural world, and all exist together and continue to co-exist because, and only because, of God’s compassion.
Creation itself suffers because of human greed and idolatry, and the voices of the animals are crying out in our time for mercy, every bit as much as the animals in Nineveh cried out for compassion. Humans and the natural world will rise and fall together, and the wilful human destruction of ecologies is a sin against the nature of God.
There’s an interesting comparison to be drawn between the story of Jonah and the Whale, and the story of Noah and the flood. Both stories begin with a threat of destruction against wicked people for their sinfulness. Both stories involve a perilous sea journey. Both stories involve animals. Interestingly, both stories also involve a dove. ‘Jonah’ means ‘dove’ in Hebrew, and in both stories it is the dove which flies off and eventually returns, bringing the hope of salvation. In Noah’s story the dove brings the olive branch which marks the end of the flood. In Jonah’s story, Jonah is the dove that brings the message of repentance.
However, there are important differences. In Noah’s story, God destroys the wicked people along with almost all of the natural order, with only Noah’s family and a few select animals surviving to repopulate the earth. In Jonah’s story, God is merciful to the wicked city; and the natural world, represented by the animals of Nineveh, is spared. Jonah’s story can be seen as a reversal of Noah’s, and offers a hopeful glimpse of God at work in the natural world, calling humans to discover ways of living in peace with creation.
This way of thinking of the Jonah story raises some prescient challenges for contemporary living. Should we re-think our addiction to meat, for example? There is no doubt that there are far more sustainable ways of feeding humanity than feeding cows, pigs, and sheep and then shooting them and eating them. This may or may not mean that we fully embrace vegetarianism, but it should certainly challenge our relationship to the animals on which we are dependent for our ongoing existence. We might want to think carefully about issues of animal experimentation, exploitation, and genetic modification. We could ask ourselves at what cost are we at odds with the natural world in our own time; there certainly is a cost, but whether we are counting it is far from certain. Maybe GM crops do hold the future for feeding humanity, but if so, where does that leave our battery chicken farms, and our herdsmen industries. If we are not careful, the conflict between Cain and Abel could easily resurface in contemporary guise to haunt a globally warmed world which is struggling with mass starvation.
These are issues that Christians cannot and should not turn away from. We cannot afford to hide our heads in the sand and eat ostrich instead of beef. Rather, we need to keep ourselves educated and informed, and to take informed and educated decisions together as to how we will partner with God in the care of this world that has been entrusted to us.
The message of Jonah is that God has not given up on creation, and that neither has creation given up on humanity. We are part of nature, we are part of God’s good creation, and we are called to repent of our wickedness, of our exploitation, of our destructive patterns of living. The invitation is that if we find ways together of existing in harmony with nature, we are opening ourselves up, with the inhabitants of Nineveh, to the compassion and mercy of God. We are called to repent of our acquisitiveness, to turn away from our obsessions with possessions, and to discover together what it means to live as children of this earth.
 I have been helped in the preparation of this sermon by reading Yael Shemesh, ‘“And Many Beasts” (Jonah 4:11); The Function and Status of Animals in the Book of Jonah’, Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, Volume 10, Article 6.
The Revd Dr Simon Woodman, Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church.
Published in The Baptist Ministers’ Journal 330 (April 2016)