A Question of Relevancy: Jonah the Racist?

Many churches strive to make their teachings “Monday morning relevant.”  Whether one is speaking of the sermon delivered from the pulpit or an Adult Bible study lesson, the question of relevancy seems to be stressed quite often in some circles. Sadly, in some cases, finding relevancy is a bit of a problem.

For example, consider a sermon preached earlier this year. The pastor was a younger member of this particular church’s teaching team. The teaching team was working through the Book of Jonah, and the pastor’s mission was to discuss Jonah’s anger with God. As I am sure you remember, Jonah, after a good deal of resistance, obeyed God by delivering God’s warning to the Ninevites. They and their city would soon be destroyed.

Unfortunately, from Jonah’s point of view, the Ninevites believed the prophecy and relented of their sins. As is His habit, God was merciful and spared them. To say the least, Jonah was a bit unhappy.

The story of Jonah ends without resolution. We are not told what happens to Jonah, or the Ninevites, for that matter. We can assume they were not destroyed in forty days as Jonah prophesied, which may be one reason he was upset. False prophets were not well thought of, and if God did spare Nineveh, Jonah’s reputation might suffer. In fact, some commentaries on this book express the thought that Jonah’s pride was a big part of his anger. Unfortunately, that was not part of the sermon on this day.

On this Sunday, the primary reason for Jonah’s anger was racism. At least, that was the point made by the pastor delivering the sermon.  There was also an allusion to his nationalistic side, but racism was the word of the day. It was also a way to make the lesson relevant in some ways to the modern audience. In fact, an older pastor, when asked about the use of the term racism, noted the younger pastor was a millennial.  He believed the pastor preaching that day used the term because it would make sense to younger believers.

While the older pastor’s comments made sense, they did not sit well with this writer, which is why you are reading this piece. To me, after spending the better part of four decades researching, teaching, and lecturing on diversity issues, calling Jonah a racist makes about as much sense as calling Donald Trump the most soft-spoken president in the modern era. With that said, this young pastor is not the only one preaching this message.

An internet search using the term “Jonah was a racist” will locate sermons and essays covering several decades pushing that idea. Yes, it is possible to find the occasional rebuttal piece such as this one. Unfortunately, most recent articles or sermons offering an explanation for Jonah’s ire claim racism to some extent.

To make that claim, these individuals, including the young pastor, must ignore Scripture and often their own understanding of Scripture. The sermon in question is a good example. The pastor made the charge of racism. He then went on to explain all the non-racist reasons Jonah had for hating the Ninevites.

For the record, a racist is someone who dislikes, mistreats, hates, or discriminates against others simply because of their race. A racist does not trust someone simply because their skin is of a different color or their heritage is from another racial background. In the case of Jonah, most authorities, including the pastor giving the sermon, clearly laid out Jonah and God were upset with the Ninevites because of their actions, not their skin color or genetic background.

In fact, one can argue, racially speaking, there was little difference between Jonah’s people, Assyrians (Ninevites), Babylonians, and other people groups in that geographical reason. Racial variances began to appear as one moved farther into the African continent or further east toward what we know as Asia today.[1] Racism, however, is a convenient explanation of Jonah’s resistance to God’s actions if one views it from the vantage point of twentieth and twenty-first-century America.

The problem is our job is not to make the Old Testament conform to modern thinking.  That is not Monday morning relevance. We need to find a way to apply Scripture to the contemporary world in a fashion that makes sense. This book of the Bible makes that point clearly in a way that does not require a pastor to play to current societal issues.

Jonah was judgemental, angry, and sought revenge against the Assyrian people, particularly the Ninevites, as Nineveh was the capital of Assyria.  Yet, his feelings for the Ninevites had nothing to do with their race. It was their past actions that mattered to him. Still, his anger in Jonah 4 was not against the Ninevites.  It was against God for being merciful.

It is, of course, easier to say Jonah was racist than explain Jonah was just like many of us. There are times we do not like God’s plan.  We may not like God’s mercy when it comes to those we feel need to be punished. In short, we can be just like Jonah, and it has nothing to do with racism, and neither does the Book of Jonah.

[1] Some would argue this point, but there is little credible evidence that racial differences were at play in this conflict.

© sinnerswalk.com – 2019

About S. Eric Jackson

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