Jonah was not a tasty dish.
He didn’t sit well with a hungry fish. Alleluia.
Finally he obeyed the Lord’s command. Alleluia.
Then sat and pouted on the desert sand. Alleluia.
Why was Jonah upset with God?
Ezechiel got a big surprise. Alleluia.
He didn’t think dry bones could rise. Alleluia.
If God could do that for those dead men, Alleluia.
God’s chosen people could live again. Alleluia.
Why did God choose Israel?
In our day we have come to know and appreciate at least a little many cultures
other than our own. It’s hard to accept that God would choose just one
nation, Israel, out of this dazzling variety of peoples
and cultures in the world. But that God did choose one in particular is a
central part of the beliefs of Jews and Christians.
Ezechiel’s vision of dry bones
coming together, taking on muscle and skin, and coming alive shows how strongly
the Jews of his age held this belief. Even when they were no nation, held in
bondage in the Babylonian Captivity, they clung to their scriptures and to the
visions and words of their prophets, encouraging them to trust that God had not
abandoned them forever.
But this belief was also a problem. The author of Book of Jonah had to oppose
the way Jews of his day thought about being chosen. The character Jonah learns,
to his dismay, that the God who chose the Jews also cares about other people.
Early Christians had a similar problem, especially when Paul, the great
missionary to the Gentiles (anyone who wasn’t Jew) got into the act. But first
the question about Jonah.
What was Jonah mad about? The whole story is very funny. I think the Jewish
author thought he had to write in that style because his point was so very
contrary to what Jews wanted to believe. Here’s the story:
God commands Jonah to preach repentance
to the citizens of Nineveh.
Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian
Empire, and the Assyrians were everything you can imagine bad about empires.
Their evil deeds included plunder, rape, and ethnic cleansing. They did away
with the whole Northern Kingdom of Israel and seriously compromised the
Southern Kingdom, forcing the king in Jerusalem to pay tribute in order to avoid
Jonah thinks, “Those Ninevites will never repent. . . . But what if they do?
God will let them off the hook just like that.” So he takes off in the other
direction on a ship across the Mediterranean Sea.
The ship runs into a fierce storm and is in danger of sinking. The sailors cast
lots to see which one on board offended his god, and the lot falls to Jonah.
They throw him overboard, the storm ceases, and a big fish swallows Jonah.
Jonah is regurgitated after three days and, much chastened, goes on to prophecy
in Nineveh: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” He’s still
assuming, hoping, they won’t repent. But they do. Even the king, along with
everybody else, sits in sackcloth and ashes—animals too; and they all go on a
long fast. God relents and Nineveh is spared.
Jonah goes off and sits down and sulks. On day one God makes a bush come up
over Jonah to give him shade and Jonah is very happy about the bush. On day two
God appoints a sultry east wind and a very hot sun and also a worm to destroy
the bush. Now Jonah is really angry about losing the bush, angry enough to die
he tells God. God has the last word:
"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. 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
God is not the God of Jews only but of other peoples as well, and also animals.
The Jews knew God promised Abraham, “In your seed all the communities of earth
shall find blessing”; but they didn’t believe that should be happening yet—not
while Judah was subject to a foreign power. They
expected the nations to be blessed through
them, through a restored and renewed and finally faithful Israel.
They had visions of foreigners streaming into a mighty and prosperous Jerusalem to worship in their temple. Jonah was
upset with God because he was committed to this picture, and God apparently
So what does it mean to be “the chosen people of God”? Why did God choose Israel?
If God can bless people outside the borders of the Promised Land, what
difference would it have made if there never had been an Israel?
Here’s the same issue as the early followers of Jesus experienced it:
In the years after Jesus’ death a group
formed within Judaism with some new beliefs. There was nothing unusual about
that, but this one was quite a bit more open to non-Jews than any Israel had seen before. There were people
like Paul going out and actively encouraging non-Jews to join the new
community. Soon the very identity of the group was at stake. Should the
foreigners be required to accept the provisions of the Jewish law, the Torah,
especially the law about circumcision?
Paul had been preaching a non-circumcision gospel—Gentiles could be followers
of Jesus without becoming Jews. He was working without the knowledge or
approval of the “pillars” of the Church in Jerusalem,
mainly Peter and James. So fourteen years or so after he started this ministry
Paul and his Gentile coworker Barnabas went to Jerusalem to explain themselves. The “pillars” agreed to let Paul and
Barnabas carry on with their message to the Gentiles while they ministered to
Peter, who had given “the right hand of fellowship” to Paul and Barnabas at
this meeting, some time later found himself enjoying “table fellowship,” a meal
with roots deep in Jewish history as well as in Jesus’ life and death, with
Paul’s Gentile converts in Galatia.
People from James, the head of the church in Jerusalem,
came with some message that Peter perhaps misunderstood. He had been having
second thoughts about this new gospel of Paul’s anyway. Now he suddenly
withdrew from the table fellowship with the Gentiles. In a further shock to
Paul, a wavering Barnabas followed Peter. (It’s not known whether Barnabas went
through with circumcision.)
Paul laid into Peter on the spot, calling him a hypocrite; but the issue wasn’t
settled in the minds of the poor Galatians yet. After Paul left Galatia others from Jerusalem continued to insist on the necessity
of circumcision and following the whole Jewish law. (They didn’t necessarily
know that they were opposing Paul. Paul explains that he had only recently
divulged his policy to those in Jerusalem so probably many there were unaware of
it.) Paul’s answer is preserved in the Christian Bible as the “Letter to the
Galatians.” Eventually Paul’s view was sustained.
As a Christian learning
about this argument 2000 years later, I always knew, of course, which side I
was rooting for. But that doesn’t mean I knew what the fight was all about. I
assumed that Paul wanted to make it easier for more people to join the new
church. Actually Paul was more concerned about a very different problem—people
wanting to join because of the attractive “oriental” feel of this new religion
with exotic new practices. The harder the holier, they thought.
Paul warned his Galatian converts that the Jewish law would be a curse for
them. It seems a strange statement coming from a strict observer of that law,
which Paul was. But Paul knew well, from the example of some of the Pharisees
and, especially, the wealthier Sadducees, how the law could separate people
from each other, the “holier than thou’s” from the rest. I think this lesson
must have really hit home when he realized what he had been doing in his own
misguided zeal for the law, namely, persecuting the followers of Jesus.
Paul’s lesson was that God wants to be the God of all people, but not by making
them all the same. Jews
always believed the first part. The story of the blessing of Abraham shows
God’s intention to bless all peoples. But they were confused about the second
part. When Peter wanted to force the Jewish law on the gentiles, he was not
just limiting who could join the Jesus movement. In Paul’s view he was limiting
God’s reign. Peter wanted to enlarge God's tribe but still keep it a tribe.
So why did God choose one tribe, the Jews? After all, God could bless the
Ninevites without requiring them to become Jewish. And what’s this about Israel living again when Paul can say to the
Galatians, “Don’t follow the Jewish law”? Christians have said that they are
the new Israel,
the new chosen ones; but too often that just meant a new law, a new way of
dividing people. Only lately have we realized—officially in Catholicism since
the Second Vatican Council—that God’s covenant with the Jewish people, our
older brothers and sisters, is not over. Sure, the Jews were unfaithful and
strayed from that covenant. (And what about Christians throughout our history!) Jewish scriptures have
recorded their unfaithfulness and also God’s determination to accept them back.
I think it’s fair to say that
both Jews and Christians, their descendants, are God’s chosen people. I
think the Catholic Church’s claim to be the “one true church” is best
understood as another way of saying “chosen.” It certainly doesn’t mean we have
all the truth—we’re still learning. It doesn’t mean having an inside track on
the race to heaven. There are as many ways that God can save as there are
cultures on earth (plus, maybe, millions more on other planets). But God has a
reason for Catholics or Christians or Jews—chosen people.
As I see it, God was not satisfied with a general presence in creation. This is
the presence that Thomas Aquinas compares to the way an artist puts himself or
herself into a work of art. Of course, the artist only arranges pre-existent
materials while God creates from nothing; so God’s presence in creation is much
more thorough than the comparison suggests. Still such a presence of God in all
things everywhere and at all times makes God a stranger in our thoughts in one
of two ways.
- Either (first way) we will think of God as whatever all things have
in common, which is not very much. God is as abstract an idea as you can
get, far removed from us. We think of ourselves as particular, concrete
beings, a product of particular combinations of time and space, ethnic
heritages and personal histories. We sometimes imagine some universal
quality or ideal that brings us all together. Some version of the Golden
Rule is pretty common, but it’s only a common denominator. It’s too
general to have any impact. We are particular beings living in the midst
of a million different particularities. “Do onto others as you would have
them do onto you” is not a prescription for sharing a meal together.
- Or (second way) we will have to imagine God as a union of all the
qualities of everything that ever existed or will exist. God has the speed
of a cheetah, but he’s also slow like a turtle. God sings like a bird and
is quite as a mouse. God is solid as a rock and wild as a hurricane,
gentle as breeze and delicate as a flower. God is tall and short, wide and
narrow. God is every color that you can find on human skin. God is Irish
and German, Native American and African and Asian. God beats with the
heart of a woman and that of a man. All the rest of us are tall or short
or medium, one color or another, one ethnicity, man or woman. By being
everything, God is totally unlike anything or anybody else.
God is either so abstract as to
be nearly impossible even to think—though philosophers have tried—or an utterly
strange combination of everything. At least, those are the ways we would see
God if God had not decided to be more than a creator and more than just
universally present in creation.
The new thing that God decided to be is a savior. That the world (the earth,
that is; I’m not sure about other planets) would need a savior was not at all
predestined but is a historical fact occasioned but not necessitated by one of
the mysteries with which the creator endowed human beings—free will. If we had
not sinned and had nothing to be saved from, I believe God would have done
something like what he did do, anyway—but it would have been a lot easier.
C. S. Lewis calls what God did a “daring” move. Paul calls it “emptying.” I
think of it as self-denying and other affirming. God decided to join the
historical process on earth, not only as a presence throughout history and the
cosmos but as one historical fact amidst all the others on one small planet.
God, who encloses in himself everything that Being can possibly be, chose to be
this and not something else, there and not some other place, then and not some
God chose, out of the vast temporal and spatial span of the universe, a tiny
speck. In the history and geography of Earth, God chose not much
more than a thousand years out of 5 billion and a few hundred square miles east
of the Mediterranean Sea. God chose a mixed
collection of people—farmers escaping the collapsing rule of tyrants, nomads,
and possibly escaped slaves from Egypt—who
eventually became a cohesive ethnic group with a culture we know as Jewish. Out
of this group (if Christianity is correct) God chose a single individual, a
carpenter of rather low estate, a man who lived only into his mid 30’s. In
Jesus God gave up all the other possibilities—the other sex, other colors,
other sizes and shapes, other occupations and social statuses, other
cultures—for a career as only one of each of these human variables.
It was emptying and self-denial on a grand scale. It affirms everything. By
having a particular location in time and space, God says “Yes” to every other
cosmic fact, which necessarily has only one particular time and place. By being
historical but not all of history, God says “Yes” to every other historical
movement that is only part of the whole. By being only the one size and shape
of a particular human being, God affirms the mountain and the ant and
everything else with its particular material embodiment. By having a particular
occupation, social status, and especially culture, God is just like all the
rest of us human beings, who can’t possibly be everything but are limited to
particular occupations, statuses, and cultures. By being only one sex God
is just like each of us, man or woman, who necessarily are one sex or the
other. (I think this thought counts heavily against at least one of the reasons
the Catholic Church gives for its all-male priesthood.)
The problem at the beginning of this commentary was why God should choose one
culture and, presumably, ignore all the others. It seemed unfair. But sharing
equally in all cultures, being “fair” to everyone, means not having a culture at all. Having one culture is
the best way to affirm all. It’s the blessing to all the communities of the
earth that God promises in the Abraham story. It’s the only way God could be
one like us, one of us, as opposed to just being with or in the whole human race equally. God
blessed the whole human condition by adopting Jewish culture and becoming
incarnate in one Jew, Jesus.
There’s no explaining why God’s choice of a culture landed on the Jews. God is
deliberately mysterious as to the reasons for his choices. Being chosen does
not mean being better than somebody else, as the God of the Bible proves by
choosing some pretty unexpected protagonists. God didn’t choose the Jews
because their culture and their ideas about the world were better or truer than
God wasn’t starting a new culture, either, replacing whatever culture these
people had with “the truth.” The Bible wasn’t that kind of miracle. Like any
human product the Bible contains much that is of lasting value and much that
needs to be corrected historically, scientifically, and even morally and
theologically. God simply took up a place in one corner of the world and
expects the world’s other corners to do their part. Imagine Paul’s table
fellowship expanded to include a whole world of peoples and cultures, all
contributing their own special graces.
People from North, South, East, and
Coming together, all are blessed.
At this point the story turns darker. Paul’s welcoming table, echoing God’s
“Yes” to everything genuinely human, contrasts sharply with much Christian
practice. Wars were fought over who had the “right” religion. Jews were
separated into ghettos or banished or killed or forced to convert. Indigenous
religious practices were condemned. Christianity had become too Roman, and
Roman customs and the Latin language ruled. Even today Christianity, not just
in its Roman Catholic variety, bears an entirely too European stamp to speak
convincingly God’s “Yes” to a multi-cultural world
But brighter parts of the story are also there. Today, while Christianity
declines in Europe, it is advancing in much of the rest of the world—Africa,
Latin America, and Asia, including Russia and China.
We could be in for interesting times as the center of Christianity shifts to
the South and East. Christian churches are making sincere commitments to
dialogue, with each other and with other world religions. Among some
fundamentalist groups you can still find missionaries who think it’s their job
to fight diabolical religions and save the “lost souls,” but Catholic and
mainline Protestant missionaries find God’s grace wherever they go and often
claim that they receive more than they give.
In earlier times also Christian missionary work could respect cultural
differences. The great missionary to the Irish, St. Patrick, was British, and
therefore Roman, but he identified with the Irish people, and the church that
he founded in Ireland was very Irish. Irish Christianity, in
turn, became a blessing to the entire world since it was the monks of Ireland (an illiterate land before Patrick)
who preserved the literature of the ancient world while European Roman
civilization was falling apart.
Further back in time, during the three centuries before it acquired the power
of the Roman Empire, there
was little Christians could promise converts by way of reward, other than the
occasional persecutions. But Christianity was advancing throughout the Roman
world. Why? There was, of course, the idea of eternal life after this one, but
I don’t think that’s what drew people in. Other religions and philosophies
promised the same thing. One new thing Christians had was not an idea. It was
the memory of a series of events, one-time occurrences in one identifiable
corner of the world, and a novel way of reading God’s activity in what was
Were there miracles there, something that would show up on a video as an
obvious violation of the laws of nature? Maybe. Some scholars believe that the
Biblical record, along with any other evidence, is not clear enough to know for
sure. The phenomenon of wonder workers was rather common in Jesus’ day, and
Jesus had that reputation; but it’s hard to know what to make of it. If you
change the question to: “Did something happen that gave the natural order of
things a whole new color or focus or shade of meaning, something that you might
call ‘good news’ or ‘blessing’ for all the earth’s communities?” then I think
the Bible’s answer is “Yes”; and it makes a bigger difference than mere
scientifically impossible deeds could. In that sense, God’s history with his
chosen people is a miracle.