Study the Book of Jonah
It's not just about the whale!
Thursdays, beginning September 18, 7:00pm
led by Peter Vanderveen
Much has been made lately about the program of reading through the entire Bible in one year. It’s a respectable discipline, and in so far as it is a serious attempt to reacquaint Episcopalians with the full canon of Scripture, it can be rightfully lauded. It strikes me, however, as overambitious in a most regrettable way; by its very emphasis on reading through. The Bible doesn’t tell just one story, from beginning to end; nor is its primary function to provide us information about God. It’s a wildly complex book of books, each of which requires a slow deliberateness in reading and pondering. More than quantity, the quality of reading is vital to understanding.
I’m periodically asked what are my favorite books in the Old and New Testaments. I like to sharpen that question and respond by stating the two books I’d keep if I were forced to throw the rest away. I’d choose Romans from the New Testament, and I’d try to bend the rules just enough to keep the first 11 chapters of Genesis along with the tiny book of Jonah from the Old Testament. These books, if read carefully and thoughtfully, would provide more than a year’s worth of material, and they would probably give more insight than adding all the rest of the Bible on top.
The book of Jonah is a comedy, though we tend to misread it horribly by imposing a stiff, pious seriousness to it (as with all the Bible). Ironically then, we make it all the more laughable and silly—relegating it to a child’s tale—rather than allowing its natural humor to be profoundly and, sometimes, devastatingly revealing. Jonah touches on almost all of the great themes of the Old Testament, but no point is ever too labored. It tells us much about God and much about ourselves. It’s a brilliant parable about faith and doubt, about sinfulness and forgiveness, and, particularly appropriate to our own time now, the insidious nature of resentment and anger—all within a few short chapters that can be read in 15 minutes. If you read Jonah well, its comedy allows us to see the heart of the drama we live, without all the heaviness that we tend to resist in other books. In this way, it serves as a focusing lens through which all the rest of the Bible can better be understood.
You’ll be surprised by what such a short book can offer.