7. Jonah & the Animals

A Journey with Jonah – 7
“Jonah & The Animals”
Jonah 1:17-2:1, 2:10, 3:7-9, 4:7, 4:11. 

I was a theology student home for the summer.  I was employed by the Blue Bird Bus factory in Brantford.  My work companion was also a student at a nearby university.   One day as we eating our lunches, he asked me a question.  “Do animals go to heaven when they die?”  My rapid-fire answer was an unequivocal “No”.   I answered it too dogmatically and with absolutely no sensitivity.  His dog had just died.  It was not a question of idle curiosity for him.  He was looking for a home for his dog and a future reunion.  He answered back, “then I don’t want to go there either!”

If I had been wiser I would have told him about the legend of John Wesley and his horse. John Wesley is recorded as hoping that he would meet that noble servant of God in heaven.  A better answer would have been “I do not know.”  I think the author of the book of Jonah, however, might have agreed more with John Wesley and my fellow student than with me.

There is a set of intriguing animal images in this book.   Before this short story is ended we have met a fabulous fish and a miniscule worm.  We have see cattle wearing sackcloth and ashes, sharing in fasting as part of a revival, and then there are the very last words of the book, “… besides much cattle.”

The Animals in Jonah

Why does our author bother?   Maybe the encounter with the fish was too dramatic an event to leave out, but why the worm and why the cattle?

In this book, one animal is the saviour of a drowning prophet, and a worm is part of the judgment on this same man.  One thing at least is clear, the animals of the creation serve God, unlike the earlier Ninevites and unlike the renegade prophet Jonah.  Even in the prayer meeting the animals are seen as bellowing their cries of anguish to God. It is only right that they be included in God’s salvation.

There is an obvious second reason that the author of the book of Jonah includes the animals.  He is trying to draw for us the widest possible picture of the goodness and compassion of God.

  • God cares for the Jews. No need to bother stating it.  Jonah & Judaism both knew that.
  • This story also underscores that God even loves Jonah, obnoxious though he is.
  • In spite of Jonah & Judaism’s attitudes, the storyteller informs us that God loves Phoenician sailors and Ninevites citizens.  He loves the rich and famous, such as the King of Nineveh, and he loves the poorest and smallest, those who cannot tell their left from their right hands.  The book is clear. The entire human race is at the focal point of God’s love.

But the love of God is even broader.  At the close of this story of the prophet, the author lets us know that his compassion takes in all creatures too.  That’s why they are in this book. He wants to underscore God’s goodness to any and every part of his creation. 

The Animals of the Old Testament

But that is not the first or last time that animals enter the biblical picture.

In Genesis 1, in the first chapter of the Bible the writer tells us of the creation of the animals, on the very same day that God created man.   Light, suns, moons, seas and skies, land and plants are created on the first five days.

But Man and animal share much in common. They are living and sensate, with feeling and will.  And on the sixth and final day of creation God makes the animals first, and then adds one more dimension to life.  He makes man & woman in his very own image.  He declares the animal creation good! and after creating man declared the entire universe to be “Very Good!”

Genesis 2 retells the story of beginnings.  In this account man’s creation is described first.  Adam is placed in a garden.  But things do not satisfy man long.  Not even beautiful things.  Man needs relationships.  Then God creates the animals. And we see Adam’s first task is the naming of each one.  He names them because they mattered.  They are entertained as possible companions for man.  They are possibilities, as those with pets can testify.  But it is soon understood that they are not man’s equal, though still of great value.  Woman will be the pinnacle of creation, not the animals.  Nonetheless. it is noted here that the animal world is important to both God and humanity.

Genesis 6-8 tells the story of the flood, and the importance of animals is again underscored.  They, along with Noah’s family are to saved.  The animals come in pairs to the ark, everyone of them worth the saving.

Later on when the law is given there is to be kindness shown to the animal creation.  Laws are legislated to protect animals from unnecessary cruelty.

Listen to three of these laws:

  • When you come on a bird’s nest…with fledglings or eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young.  Let the mother go, take only the young for yourself, in order that it may go well with you and you may live long.” (Deut 22:6-7)
  • You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” (Deuteronomy  25:4) That would be cruel to any creature.  It is like saying to a child, “you can help me make cookies, but you can’t have any”.
  • And then in the 10 commandments even animals get the Sabbath day off. (Deuteronomy 5:14)  What a wonderful touch!  I feel like singing the song from Alice in wonderland “ O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! He chortled in his joy!”  What a wonderful word for our creature companions.

Throughout the Bible, people are allowed to eat certain types of animals, but all cruelty is forbidden.  Listen to the book of Proverbs, “The righteous know the needs of their animals, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.” (Prov. 12:10) 

Jesus and the Animals

There is an interesting passage in the first chapter of the Gospel of St. Mark “The Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild animals; and the angels waited on him.” (Mark 1:12-13)

When Matthew tells us the same story, he includes the angels, but leaves out the animals.  Luke in telling the story leaves out both animals and angels.  So what is intended by Mark when he included the animals?

Two pictures can be drawn.  One is of Jesus being surrounded by wild beasts, they are part of the terror of the wilderness.  Lions, leopards, jackals, wild boars and snakes were part of that desolate area.  It could intensify the picture that Jesus was being attacked not only by Satan, but also by wild animals.  The RSV uses the translation “wild beasts”  to describe the animals which underscores the terror of the wilderness.

But I do not think that is Mark’s intention.  The NIV translation says “wild animals” The animals are not necessarily coupled with Satan, they may very well be coupled with the angels.  I prefer the word “wild creatures” which includes the furry little creatures like gophers and mice.

It is intriguing to note that Jesus was “WITH” the animals of the wild.  They were not against him, they were with him.  Yes, perhaps the lion and the leopard, but also the ants, the birds, the small ground creatures.  In my mind I see a picture of Doctor Doolittle with the animals.  He knows their language.  He does not fear them and they do not fear him.  St. Francis comes to mind with his talking to the birds and the furry creatures of the field.

By why does Mark bother with this detail?  Because for Mark, Jesus is the New Adam.  He is the beginning of the new creation.  At the very first, even while he goes through his temptation in a garden made desolate, the animals and man have much in common.  In the beginning they were not foes. Only made that way by man’s incessant cruelty.  But a new day is intended to begin.

Listen to the prophet Hosea (2:18) as he dreams of a new day yet to dawn for him, “In that day I will make a covenant for Israel with the beasts of the field, and with the fowl of heaven, and with creeping things of the ground.”

Or hear Isaiah, (11:6, 65: 25) “The wolf shall lie down beside the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid. The calf and the lion together, the cow and the bear shall graze together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing infant shall play on the hole of an asp, the weaned child shall put his hand down the adder’s den.”

Mark is saying, with the coming of Jesus Christ, even the animal creation will benefit from his coming and will not need to live “red in tooth and claw.”

There is a passage in the Gospel of John that speaks to this.  It says in our translations, “He came unto his own, but his own did not receive him.”  But the original language is more precise.  It reads “He came to his own (a neuter noun which means his own things), but his own (a masculine noun meaning people), did not receive him.”

He came to the creation, which had been groaning, looking for its redemption, and the creation opened its arms to him.  Waves stilled at his command. The water held him up as he walked on it. The untamed donkey gladly carried him. The fish brought tax money to him and Peter.  And in the wilderness the untamed animals gathered around him perhaps to welcome their sovereign Lord.

But when he came to people, the welcome was not so kind.  He came unto his own world, but his own people did not welcome him.

Conclusion

What does this all have to say to you and me?  Perhaps several things.

First of all God’s love takes in all creation.  The church also needs to share in the concerns about ecology, and environment and the welfare of whales and marshlands.

Secondly, cruelty to animals is an abhorrent crime. We need to speak out when we see cruelty in the food industry, or in the unkind caging of animals, or the unnecessary killing for mere sport.

Thirdly, a reverence for life is a thing of beauty.  Increasingly we are understanding the importance of the sanctity of the entire creation.  The difficulty is that some who care for the creatures give too little value to human life.  But both human and animal should be treated with far greater kindness than our culture currently does.  The animals are to be cared for by the followers of the second Adam.

This may sound like meddling, but the church of Jesus Christ needs to be the saviours of every part of our planet’s life.  Why? Because “This is my Father’s world.”

There has been a message spread by too many of us that is all lopsided.   We think salvation is offered to get us safe to heaven.   Perhaps we need to understand that salvation is intended to make us safe for the rest of the world to live with.   We are not saved so we can populate heaven, we are saved so that the populations of this planet, human and animal, can find this world a safe place to live.   We are saved by God not so we can be safe, but that we might become holy in all manner of conversation and behaviour.  God saves us, not so we can escape this world, but that we might be empowered to help God change this world until righteousness covers the world as the waters cover the sea.

Are we interested in being servants of God as well as His sons and daughters?  Are we interested in working with the second Adam to work in making the wilderness God’s garden once again?  I am.  I hope we all are.  As you know we gather for worship and then leave to serve. Maybe the writer of  the Book of Jonah would recommend the least of God’s creatures deserve to be served too.

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