John Calvin and the biblical book Jonah

 

I am studying the biblical book of Jonah and plan to write a commentary on the book that will contain a chapter by chapter explanation of this difficult volume, traditional Jewish views, non-Jewish views which are similar but in which the authors “find” Christian theology, and a rational approach to the difficulties in it based on Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed. Here is a draft of one of the chapters.

                    

                                             John Calvin and the book of Jonah

 

John Calvin was the successor of Martin Luther as the preeminent Protestant theologian and made a profound impact upon the doctrine of Protestant faith. He was born in 1509 in France and died in 1564 in Switzerland. Both Luther and Calvin emphasized that people should be guided only by the Bible. But while Luther’s idea of Christianity was somewhat emotional, Calvin had a more spiritual, unemotional, and strict view of Christianity and an unusual view of God’s relationship with people called predestination. This was the belief that people could not enter heaven by doing good deeds or having faith; God selected a few people to enter heaven and only they could do so.

He left France and settled in Geneva, Switzerland, and soon became the leader of the city and turned it into a religious government. He was extremely strict. In the first five years of his rule, he executed 58 people and exiled 78 for what he considered their erroneous religious beliefs.

He wrote a book on the biblical work Jonah called “Commentary on Jonah.” Like John Wesley and many others, he was convinced that the Jonah of the book about the man swallowed by a fish was the same prophet mentioned in II Kings 14. Ignoring the fact that most biblical books begin with the Hebrew letter vav, “and,” he supposes that this proves that he is the same person mentioned in II Kings because “and” indicated to him that this was a continuation of what is in the former book, implying “and this is a further event in Jonah’s life.”[1] Calvin also imagined that Jonah was sent to Nineveh after he prophesied to Jeroboam to increase the land of Israel.

He called Jonah a “teacher” and wrote that the book of Jonah “is partly historical and partly didactic.” Why was Jonah sent to Nineveh to persuade them to repent? “It might have been then that he was sent to Nineveh that the Lord being wearied with the obstinacy of his own people might afford an example of pious docility on the part of a heathen and uncircumcised nation in order to render the Israelites more inexcusable.”

He saw Jonah as a symbol of the future, of the birth of Christianity. This was “a new and unusual thing for prophets to be drawn away from the chosen people and sent to heathen nations.” Since “Jonah was taken away from his own nation and was given as a teacher to foreign and heathen nations (the plural is in the book despite Jonah being sent to a single nation) … we are to understand this as a prophecy respecting the future call of the gentiles.”

Jonah “was not a type of Christ” because he prophesied to non-Israelites, but he was a type of Christ “because he returned to life again” with the resurrection.

The “Ninevites were converted to the Lord without circumcision,” an example for the future conversion of non-Israelites. But: “It is certainly not probable that the whole city (of 120,000 people) was converted to the Lord for soon after that city became exceedingly hostile both to the Israelites and the Jews,”[2] and the Assyrians, whose capital was Nineveh, destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE.

What did Jonah expect to accomplish by running from God’s mission to Tarshish? He did not deceive “himself with such a gross notion as that he would be no longer under the power of God after having passed over the sea; but he intended to shun, as it were, the light of the present life by proceeding to a foreign country.”[3] He was “in a disturbed state of mind” and “was utterly confused.” It is possible that “doubt might have had an influence on him: for how could he have hoped that a people who were notorious for their licentiousness would be converted.”[4]  Or, perhaps “being still surrounded by the infirmities of the flesh, must have given way to fear, which dislodged the love of obedience.” But, whatever caused him to run, “he could not have sinned more grievously than by forsaking God, in having refused to obey his call.”

Why did God put Jonah in danger – for the Ninevites may have reacted by killing him? “It would be…preposterous to measure his operations by our wisdom.”

Why did the sailors cast lots? They did not usually cast lots whenever they encountered a tempest, but they “knew[5] that God had not raised up that tempest without some very great and serious cause.” Was the casting of lots proper? “We know that the casting of lots has been sometimes allowed (in the Bible)…. So also Joshua had recourse to the lot when the cause of God’s displeasure was unknown.” Also Saul cast lots.[6]

When Jonah felt himself disgraced when the city of Nineveh was saved, did he do right by telling God to kill him? Certainly not. “Death is not to be desired on account of the weariness of life.”

One of the lessons of this story is that “the Lord intended to make Jonah an example that all may know that he is not to be trifled with, but that he ought to be obeyed as soon as he commands anything.”[7]

After tossing Jonah into the sea, the sailors offered sacrifices to the Lord. Calvin contends that God was not pleased with the sailors’ sacrifices, or even with those by the Israelites. God “repudiates all the sacrifices (in the book of Ezekiel) which were wont to be offered by the people of Israel because superstitions were blended with them.”[8] He notes that the sailors also “vowed vows to God. This is part of thanksgiving…a testimony of gratitude.”[9] Jonah also makes a vow after he leaves the fish.

Calvin recognized that it is contrary to nature for a human to be “preserved uninjured in (a fish) for three days and three nights” and states that God prepared a miracle for “the preservation of Jonah.”

As other Christians, Calvin sees the “deliverance of Jonah (as) an image of the resurrection (of Jesus).” But it also teaches that by that power “by which he works all things, we also shall one day be raised up (by God) from the dead.”[10]

“But it may be asked, how came the Ninevites to believe God as no hope of salvation was given to them?” I would answer that it is implied in Jonah’s prophecy. When he states that the city would be destroyed because of their evil deeds, it would seem to follow that if they ceased these deeds the city would not be destroyed. Alternatively, even if the Ninevites did not sense this implication, they felt that if they fasted, put on sackcloth, and prayed, God would relent.

Calvin emphasizes that God is not impressed with the outward signs of repentance, the fasting, sackcloth, and prayer. God saved the city because their behavior changed.

Why did the Ninevites also clothe their animals with sackcloth? Because they were also in danger of being killed. When God’s “wrath (is) exited against men (it) includes the beasts and trees and everything in heaven and on earth.”[11] Calvin also states “neither oxen nor sheep can pacify the wrath of God. To this (why the animals are killed) I answer – that this was done for the sake of men.”[12]

While doing all he could to persuade God not to destroy Nineveh, the king said he did not know if this would work. Was this an absence of faith? No, “the king here does not betray a mistrust, but sets forth a difficulty.” Calvin also writes that it is natural for people, even pious people, to have fears.

Calvin recognizes that God “is in himself ever the same and consistent with himself; (God did not change in any way when the book of Jonah states God repented) but he is said to repent when a regard is had to the comprehension of men” (in other words, this is how people think); Scripture accommodates itself to the grossness of our understanding.

Calvin notes that the famed Bible translator Jerome[13] felt that Jonah was grieved after Nineveh was saved because the non-Israelites were converted and were later able to destroy his nation, Israel. Calvin felt that this was wrong because God criticized Jonah for his thought.[14] Calvin contended that the true reason for his agitation was his “unwillingness to be deemed a false or a lying prophet.” He adds that Jonah thought: “will not this reproach be cast on the name of God himself?”

Jerome also contended that Jonah’s preference for death prefigured Jesus “who sought death that the whole world might be saved; for when alive he could not do good to his own nation.” Calvin states: “These are mere puerilities,” meaning a childish notion.

Calvin felt that Jonah should not have said that he prayed after the destruction of the guard because, in his view, “prayer ought to be calm, but he confesses that his mind was in a state of excitement.” The purpose of prayer, according to Calvin, is “to confess that whatever good is to be obtained resides in God and is to be sought humbly from him…. But Jonah here, on the contrary, expostulates and clamors against God.”[15]

He criticizes Jonah: “it seems strange that the prophet had more regard for his own reputation than for the glory of God.”

Since God could have destroyed Nineveh for their improper acts, why did he sent Jonah? “He intended to regard their salvation.”

Calvin explains that we have no real idea what kikiun is. It may be a gourd, a cucumber, or as Jerome states, an ivy, or something else that was “extraordinary.” But it is more probable that it was derived from the booth that Jonah made, something that added to the protection from the sun. The advent of the worm shows “that what seemed to happen by chance was yet the hidden providence of God.” He points to Matthew 10:29 “that without the father’s appointment sparrows fall not on the ground.”[16]

What other lesson can be learnt from Jonah? “Misconduct towards the Ninevites was very inhuman.”

 

 

[1] Actually, the vav also means “then” and “but.”

[2] Calvin does not explain the distinction between Israelites and Jews. Perhaps he means Judeans, the kingdom to the south of the northern kingdom of Israel. Judea continued to exist after the destruction of Israel until 586 BCE when it was destroyed by the Babylonians after Nineveh was destroyed in 612 BCE.

[3] I have no idea what this means.

[4] Calvin seems to be saying here that Jonah doubted God who sent him on this mission.

[5] Perhaps “sensed” would be a better word because they had no way of “knowing” the truth.

[6] Haman also cast lots, but not to God.

[7] Since people do not hear God speaking to them today, is Calvin suggesting that those who disobey the biblical teachings must be severely punished, as he did to the people in Geneva, Switzerland?

[8] Maimonides went further. He wrote in his Guide of the Perplexed that God does not need or want sacrifices but only “allowed” the Israelites to offer them since they were accustomed to doing so and it would have been hard, if not impossible, for the people to change during the biblical period.

[9] Actually this too is a superstitious practice. The Torah teaches that people should not make vows.

[10] Does this contradict the teaching of predestination that only the select few go to heaven?

[11] It is untrue that God becomes angry as do humans. God has no emotions. Maimonides teaches repeatedly in his first of his three books of his Guide of the Perplexed that the Bible states that God becomes angry only because if the people think this is so they will behave. Additionally, to state that when God kills people as a punishment God also destroys land and butchers animals does not explain why God does so.

[12] Can one say this when one recognizes that animals also have feelings?

[13] Jerome lived from about 342 to 420. He translated most of the Bible from the original Hebrew instead of from the Greek translation, the Septuagint, into Latin.

[14] Why, we might ask, does this prove that Jerome’s interpretation was wrong?

[15] There are many incidences in scripture where the faithful clamor against God, including Abraham, Moses, and Jeremiah among others.

[16] This view, not in the Hebrew Bible, was also “the greatest secret” of the Spanish Jewish mystic Nachmanides (1194-1270). Did he get the idea unconsciously from Christianity?

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