Racism has a long history – even in the Bible

jonah-disappointedOne of my friends told me about a recent personal experience with racism – where an innocent question lead to a mean response with racist overtones.  I was deeply saddened by this – but unfortunately racism has been with us for a long while.  History is replete with examples of racism – almost to the point it’s more the norm than the example. I wish it wasn’t so – and that my kids would never experience or observe this – but

One of the stranger stories from the Old Testament is that of Jonah.  While many of grew up with stories of the guy being swallowed by a whale – that really isn’t the point of this part of the Big God Story.  It was actually the Veggie Tales version of Jonah that brought this to life for me – but it was right there in the text for me to see.

This story starts out abruptly – with God telling Jonah to head to Nineveh and announce his judgement against that city.  So Jonah does what you would expect – he heads in the opposite direction.  He gets on a ship and heads out to sea – which doesn’t work out well for him.  To make a long story short Jonah gets swallowed by a big fish and spends 3 days and 3 nights there.  He cries to the Lord for mercy, gets out of the whale and this time heads to Nineveh like he was told to.

Since the story started out abruptly maybe we should get some context to this story.  Personally I’ve found that learning context doesn’t necessarily change the meaning of the story – but deepens the significance of this.  This isn’t the only mention of Jonah in the bible – but in 2 Kings 14:25 he is labeled as a prophet –  which I would think of as a guy who had a relationship with God.  He would be one who God speaks through – hearing the word of God and sharing it with his people.

So Jonah is part of the nation of Israel – God’s chosen people.  I wish I could say that Israel consistently acted like God’s chosen people – but they frankly acted a lot like Jonah did.  God did something great (such as the whole parting the Red Sea thing) then wandered away from God, had to live with the consequences of that choice which led them to call out to mercy from God – then he rescues them – rise, lather, repeat.  I could write quite a bit about this (probably already have) – but I think you get the point.

Nineveh wasn’t just some random city – but was part of the Assyrian empire – a traditional enemy of the Israel.  While there is some debate on if this whole story is historical or allegorical – there is no doubt of the feelings between the people of Israel and Assyrians.  The Veggies Tales version lightens things by describing them as people who slap people with fishes – but the reality is that Assyrians could be pretty brutal to their enemies.

It’s toward the end of the narrative that we get a real glimpse into humanity – into what is all too common about us.  Jonah’s mission is a success – in that the Ninevites listened to God’s message and repented of their sins.  God choose to forgiven them and didn’t destroy their city.  So you think Jonah would be happy about this – right?  Unfortunately no – Jonah is furious with God over this (as told in the Message translation):

He yelled at God, “God! I knew it—when I was back home, I knew this was going to happen! That’s why I ran off to Tarshish! I knew you were sheer grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness!

“So, God, if you won’t kill them, kill me! I’m better off dead!”

We find out why Jonah went the other way in the first place – he didn’t want God to forgive them. It wasn’t just that he didn’t want to go their city, spend time with them or even go where God wanted him to go (all of those may be true).  He didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he didn’t want God to forgive them – he hated them because of who they were – the Assyrians.  It’s the backwards logic that hatred can generate: he was mad because God was merciful and loving.

The story then turns into basically Jonah throwing a fit.  After yelling at God he goes off to sit and see what happens to the city (I guess hoping God will still punish them?).  This mercy that Jonah hates causes God to give him a nice plant to sit under – shading him from the sun.  But then God sends a worm which causes Jonah to loose his shade (the shade God provided to him while he was sitting pouting and being angry).  After this it gets more pathetic – Jonah throws another fit and says he is better of dead.

God doesn’t let this slide – but challenges Jonah about his attitude and what it represents:

God said, “What’s this? How is it that you can change your feelings from pleasure to anger overnight about a mere shade tree that you did nothing to get? You neither planted nor watered it. It grew up one night and died the next night. So, why can’t I likewise change what I feel about Nineveh from anger to pleasure, this big city of more than 120,000 childlike people who don’t yet know right from wrong, to say nothing of all the innocent animals?”

Jonah cared more about the stupid shade tree (which was a total gift) than about thousands of people.  I wonder if that’s because they were of the “enemy” – not part of his people.  So here we see a conflict – the hatred that comes out of racism vs. the mercy and forgiveness that God chooses to show.  Frankly God is sovereign – and has the right to choose to forgive who he chooses to -and doesn’t need our help defining who that should be.

Unfortunately racism has been with us for a long, long time – and probably won’t be going away anytime soon.  But I choose to follow God’s example – to see people with his eyes – as his children – not through eyes of race.   I believe that Jesus died for everyone – including people I may not like or agree with.

On a more lighthearted note:


Categories: Bible Thoughts

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