Literally: “What is this?!” Or, more colloquially: “What have you done?!” (I will keep this G-rated, and leave to your own imagination—or memory!—the many, um, yet-more-street-level variations of the question.)
According to the Hebrew Bible, it is what God said to Eve, after the bite… what Pharaoh said to Abraham, after the night… what Abimelech said to Isaac, after the blight… what Jacob said to Laban, after the night… what Joseph’s brothers said to each other, after the sight… what Pharaoh and his officials said to each other, after the flight… and it is what the pagan sailors said to Jonah, in the midst of the fright.
That’s where I ran into the expression again this month. I was going through Jonah with a group of sisters and brothers from Ethiopia, Kenya and elsewhere in Africa. We were all participating in a virtual version of the East African Manuscript Bible Study training event that my Kenyan and Ethiopian friends have been running each year since 2007. This event, called BereanSafari, was, in the days before COVID-19, a week-long intensive retreat. We gathered from many nations across and beyond Africa for a highly participatory “deep dive” into the text of Scripture. This year, our organizers have experimented with two much shorter BereanSafari “Dig-Ins,” working with much smaller Biblical books. In June we did a weekend: Friday night, all day Saturday and about half of Sunday. This month, we did a couple of hours each on Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights, followed by morning and afternoon sessions on Saturday and Sunday. (All of that was on East Africa Time, of course… making the weekend starting hour of 9:00 am into a 2:00 am start for me!).
While I am still, for all kinds of reasons, partial to in-person encounters, the truth is that the technology did not present an insuperable obstacle to the work of word and Spirit. Some people were on smartphones, others on tablets, laptops or desktop computers. Some people had strong internet signals and others fought connectivity issues all along the way. But in spite of it all, God saw fit to use this Zoom-facilitated series of conversations to do some good work in, through and among us all.
It was Brother Mwaniki in our group who heard a fresh word from the Lord when he got to the line where the sailors confronted Jonah with their “Mah-zot?!” The sailors, desperate to save their ship and their lives from a raging storm, burst out with this combination question-exclamation as soon as they heard what Jonah was really up to.
Jonah had added himself to the cargo getting loaded on the ship in the old port of Joppa (part of today’s Tel Aviv). The sailors were willing to accept a passenger, as long as he “paid the freight.” So, when Jonah paid for space on the ship, they asked few questions. But, since he wanted to take the very unusual step of going with them all the way to the other end of the Mediterranean, it seems that they did ask about the purpose of his long trip. It did not seem to bother them at all when he said he needed to get away from somebody who was after him. Somebody named Yahweh. Probably an angry neighbor or relative, they thought.
But, when a powerful storm came up and they found themselves at serious risk of shipwreck, the sailors asked much more energetic questions about what was going on. In a world that had not yet been stripped of spirits and gods and reduced to “nature” and personalized causality, it was totally normal for the sailors to suspect that the storm that threatened to destroy them all was, in fact, an effort by one of the gods to punish somebody onboard. And, when their system for detecting the culprit led them to Jonah, they demanded that he tell them much, much more about himself, what he was up to, and what he was guilty of.
Jonah’s response was admirable. With total frankness he announced that he was “a Hebrew, a worshipper of Yahweh, the Creator of all things, land and sea.” That is when the sailors exploded.
“Mah-zot?! What the heck? What were you thinking??!!”
Though Jonah himself seemed unaware of the self-contradiction in what he was doing, it was obvious to the sailors. If “Yahweh” was not the name of an angry relative, but the name of the God who created everything, including the sea, then Jonah was looney if he thought he could run away from Yahweh by getting on a ship. Not just looney, but reckless. And reckless not only with his own life, but with their lives, too! What was he thinking?
At the end of the event, we wrapped up our study by looking at the book as a whole, and at the profound questions it raises. At the heart of them all is the question of whether we worshippers truly want to have the God we claim to worship. During the conversation, Brother Mwaniki brought us back to the moment on the boat.
“I realized something important this week. The question the sailors asked Jonah… is a question many people could have asked me. How many times have I rebelled against the Lord, with no concern for, or even awareness of the consequences for others? What was I thinking?”
It is a very rare moment of sinful rebellion against God that does not put at risk the well-being (or the very lives) of others. As I listened to Mwaniki, I heard the question directed also at me. In my own times of rebellious wandering (or outright flight) from the way of Christ, “What was I thinking? Was I thinking? Had I cared or thought at all about those who would be hurt by my rebellion?” Lord, have mercy!
Fortunately, the Book of Jonah clearly affirms that the Lord does, indeed, have mercy. In fact, the question it poses is this: will we join God in that mercy? Or will we insist that any God worth worshipping needs to share our own vision of who does and who does not deserve to live and to receive God’s abundant mercy?
The Book of Jonah is open-ended. It concludes with a question. Jonah is angry enough to die, because he has been unable to arm-twist God into doing things Jonah’s way. He wants no part of a world in which God loves and restores the undeserving “other.” The book closes with a question—an invitation, really: will Jonah commit to the real and living God, who desires (and promotes!) good for all people… and all creation?
I am grateful for the opportunity I had to walk through the Book of Jonah again this month. I am especially grateful for the chance to do it with Brother Mwaniki. He heard the voice of God, in and through all the internet connectivity issues, through the fatigue of hours on Zoom, trying to stay focused on a screen full of tiny faces. He heard the Lord speaking to him through the sailors’ question. And because he did, so did I. Thank you, Mwaniki!
Thank you also to you, for the faithful support that continues to enable me to work with sisters and brothers around the world—even when I am just in the back room at our house! Thanks, also, for giving to the World Mission Offering, to support all that God does through International Ministries and our partners around the globe. It is a privilege to be part of this great work of God!
May the Lord bless, guide and use you as an instrument to bless the people around you—and all creation!
P.P.S. “Mah-zot” belongs in Robert Fulghum’s collection of the great “Mother Questions.” You know them. You probably heard them when you were younger. If you have children, you may have even found yourself saying them:
“What… on… earth… have you done?”
“What, in the name of God, are you doing?”
“What will you think of next?”
“Who do you think you are?”
(What On Earth Have I Done?, Robert Fulghum (New York: St. Marti’s Press, 2007)
If you haven’t read Fulghum, I highly recommend his short books. They are both hilarious and, at the same time, full of penetrating insight and questions to ponder. Questions like, “what, on earth, have I done?” The older I get, the more that one returns. But, I digress. I will save my nearly-septuagenarian musings for another time!