So our church has been working our way through the book of Jonah. This feels like a whale of a pedantic complaint, but something new caught my attention this time. I’d never seen it before and I’ve heard the tale many times.
“Pedantic” by the way, means, “finicky, dogmatic, precise, fussy and over scrupulous.” Well shoot, you caught me. Sometimes I drive myself nuts, too.
Anyway, in Jonah 4 we get to the part where Jonah is angry and God asks, do you have a right to be angry?? Except that’s not really what God says at all!! We moderns have this cultural weirdness about “rights.” Everything in our world today is framed around rights, social justice rights, civil rights, legal rights, the right to sue, how “I have the right.” Even thoughts and feelings today are supposed to be weighed against “rights.”
“Rights” is a word just plumb loaded with judgements, condemnations, social control, and politics. And God NEVER says, do you have a right to be angry? I’ve heard that in perhaps a dozen sermons and never questioned it. I am now.
God NEVER says a word to Jonah about “rights” defined in this context, because “rights” weren’t even a thing back in the day. Nobody had “rights,” nobody even knew what they were. The word “right” is actually only used in a couple modern versions of the bible. The Hebrew word they are trying to translate is more related to “reason,” and “doing well” or “doing good.” So the KJV says, “Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd?” The ESV says, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” The NASB says, “Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?”
Notice how God NEVER says, “you have no right to be angry.” He is also asking a question. Like, Look Jonah search yourself and see what you find. Are you doing well? Jonah has just indicated that he wishes he were dead so obviously he is not “doing well.”
It isn’t until we get to the NIV translation that we finally find, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” Even then we are not talking about the modern view of “rights.” The word “right” in this context is being used to ask, is your anger justified? Is it reasonable? Is it good?
There are two reasons why this matters. We have a “right” to our anger, always. That means you cannot legislate how people are allowed to feel internally. Even God honors our freewill, our right to have our feelings. The book of Jonah ends with God simply acknowledging Jonah’s anger and the Lord pointing out, paraphrased, you care about a plant… should I not have compassion on Nineveh…?
Anger is not sin. Even Ephesians 4:26 says, “be ye angry, but sin not.” It’s okay to be angry, just don’t handle it sinfully. God isn’t addressing Jonah’s anger so much as He is addressing his heart, the disconnect between what he knows to be true of God’s nature and what is actually going on within his own heart towards others.
But another issue about speaking of rights and our faith is that, “some philosophers have criticised rights as ontologically dubious entities.” I tend to agree with them. I do not believe “rights” are a valid measure of morality. “A right” can actually be a form of imprisonment like, you have the right to remain silent. When a right is granted it also requires the removal of freedom from others, and the enforcement of such rights. A right granted to one is always going to be about force applied to others.
Then there is the issue of having many rights, but exercising them being the wrong choice. For example, as far as I know it is legal to use unkind hand signals while saluting other drivers. It is your “right.” But is it in the biblical sense, an act that really answers the question, do you do well?