Jonah and A Message for Our Time

A painting of Jonah on the ship in a storm with the fish waiting to swallow him

A Call to Compassion

Once upon a time, there lived a prophet named Jonah. He was a real person who lived sometime around 800 BCE, but the story in the Bible that contains his name wasn’t written down until about four centuries later, and it hardly represents his life accurately. Indeed, it is a satirical tale, but it offers us a serious message.

Jonah’s name means “dove.” Since the dove symbolizes Israel, we can assume that Jonah symbolizes her, as well. He was also the son of Amittai, whose own name meant “faithfulness,” but Jonah was far from faithful. When God told him to go prophesy to Nineveh, he ran away. That was the first joke. Unlike most prophets who might be reluctant, but were at least obedient, Jonah stubbornly refused to do God’s bidding.

As the story continues, it becomes more and more absurd, drawing us in with its humor. Indeed, its silliness causes us to lower our guard and take in what the writer is saying about love and acceptance, compassion and repentance, and forgiveness.

We Need that Message Now

Such a message is important to us now. We are reeling from climate destruction that has unfairly impacted the poor and marginalized, from a pandemic that has laid bare the inequities in our society, and from the sight of black Americans dying at the hands of police in ways that seem finally to have shown white Americans the truth of the terror that still traumatizes people of color. We need to remember what it means to repent, to love, and to forgive.

It may seem we need a message of justice more than we need one of love, compassion, forgiveness, or even acceptance. But justice without the acceptance of differences is bigoted; without compassion, it is blind and deaf to truth; without forgiveness, it feeds resentment and revenge; and without love, it is cruel. We have done many horrific things to one another in the name of justice.

So let’s look at this story that calls us to compassion, repentance, forgiveness, and love.

Jonah Runs Away

One day, Jonah heard the word of God: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it,” God said, “because its wickedness has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2).

So what does Jonah do? Without a word, he turns around and flees to Tarshish, which is in the opposite direction from Nineveh.

Why?

Toward the end of the story, we hear Jonah’s explanation. He claimed he ran away because he knew Yahweh would forgive Nineveh if he prophesied against their wickedness, and Jonah didn’t want them forgiven. After all, Nineveh, though not the capital of Assyria when the real Jonah lived, was part of Assyria hundreds of years later when this tale was told. [1] Not that the historicity is important. What matters when we listen to a story is the truth of the world created by that story. In this tale, Nineveh needed to be Israel’s enemy, and so it was.

Sleeping through the Storm

How amazing that Jonah thought he could hide from God. In his attempt to do so, he paid for passage on a ship that would take him far from the place God wanted him to go. As we might imagine, God was not fooled. Once the ship set out to sea, Yahweh engulfed it in a storm so violent “the ship threatened to break up” (Jonah 1:4).

Afraid, the sailors cried out, each to his own god. When that didn’t calm the sea, they threw cargo overboard, trying to lighten the load. That didn’t help, either.

What was Jonah doing while the sailors bustled about? He was below deck, having fallen into “a deep sleep” (Jonah 1:5).

How could he sleep through the chaos?

Maybe, as the ancient Hebrew thinkers Ibn Ezra and Abarbanel suggest, Jonah knew he was the cause of the storm, and was embarrassed. Shame will make us want to hide. Resentful of God’s request, yet ashamed that he’d failed his Lord, Jonah chose the oblivion of sleep. If he died, he wouldn’t mind. After all, then he wouldn’t be able to prophesy, and Nineveh would perish. [2]

The rabbi Steven Bob likens Jonah’s sleep to a depression. We humans find all kinds of ways to escape. We numb ourselves, seek excitement, get lost in games or fantasies or addictions. And we sleep. Anything to escape from the pain of our existence. [3]

Accepting Our Responsibility

When we become that depressed, though, we need someone to wake us up. In the Jonah story, the ship’s captain did this. He roused Jonah, saying, “Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish” (Jonah 1:6).

As Bob points out, the captain was not only waking Jonah, but also reminding him that others depended on him. If Jonah died, so would the entire crew. The captain woke Jonah not so the prophet could save himself, but so he could save them. [4] Jonah had responsibilities.

But Jonah was trying to escape those responsibilities. He wasn’t interested in praying to his god, for he didn’t want his god to see him. So deep was he in his despair that he didn’t even care about his own survival. Why would he care about anyone else’s?

Receiving no help from Jonah, the sailors cast lots to see who among them had caused the storm. The lot fell on Jonah. They wanted to know who he was and what he had done.

Jonah explained him that he was an Israelite who worshiped “the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” This terrified the sailors who begged him to tell them how they could make the sea calm again (Jon 1:9-11).

“Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” Jonah answered, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you” (Jon 1:12). One might say this was his way of accepting his responsibility for the sailors’ fate, but it may also be that his despair still hung over him, so he didn’t care about living. He might as well drown.

Saved by a Whale

But the sailors didn’t want to kill an innocent man. They tried rowing back to shore, but the sea only grew more wild. So they prepared to toss Jonah over the side, begging Yahweh not to blame them for what they were doing, “for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.”

In other words, this was all God’s doing.

As soon as the men threw Jonah overboard, the sea became calm. “At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him” (Jon 1:13-16).

The abrupt piety of these pagans presages the turn-around of the Ninevites. It seems they were better humans and more faithful believers than God’s own prophet. Perhaps that’s why Jonah, not the sailors, ended up in the ocean.

Regardless, Jonah didn’t drown. Instead, God sent a big fish to swallow him. Then he allowed Jonah to survive inside the creature’s belly. Many arguments are wasted on this bit of plot, for people have trouble accepting that this could be true in the world of the story without being scientifically accurate. So some people use this incident to prove that there’s no such thing as God. Others argue that Jonah really was immersed in a sea creature’s stomach acid and lived to talk about it, and they dredge up all kinds of questionable facts to prove their point.

To Be Swallowed Whole

John D. Morris is one of the latter. To help prove his point, he claims that there are sailors who have been swallowed by whales and survived. For instance, there was a man named James Bartley who sailed on the Star of the East whaling ship. One day, it was said, a whale swallowed him whole. For hours or days, depending on the version of the tale one is told, Bartley lay trapped in the animal’s gullet. Finally, his shipmates cut him out.

It may be true that a whale could so swallow a man, but such an unlucky creature would immediately die of drowning or suffocation. Besides, the Star of the East was not a whaler, and there was no Bartley among its crew. [5]

But facts will not dissuade those who prefer to believe in a god who can defy the physical laws he himself created. It will not dissuade one who needs to believe that Jonah literally lived for three days inside a belly.

Why would one need to believe this? As Morris explains, if Jonah was not swallowed by a fish, and if he did not live to travel to Nineveh a few days later, then God doesn’t exist. God is a miracle maker. To deny that is to deny God Himself. Besides, Morris writes, “nothing about the story is totally impossible,” and the Bible “said it happened,” so that is good enough for him. [6] 

It’s something of a circuitous proof, but again, that doesn’t matter to one desperate to claim inerrancy on the part of Scripture. How sad that a grown man should cling to tall tales as proof of the existence of God.

The Dangers of Literalness

Unfortunately, it is also dangerous. When we insist on the factual nature of every word in the Bible, we tend to become judgmental. We imagine we know what is good and what is bad. We become self-righteous. Thinking we understand God’s word better than do others, we start to believe it’s okay to condemn those who do not follow God’s rules as we understand them. In our literal reading of Scripture, we lose sight of the importance of humility. We forget how to laugh at ourselves. Then it’s easy to get indignant and offended whenever our beliefs are challenged. Righteous anger can be a terrible thing, and a literal reading of any scripture encourages it.

That’s why it’s important to understand that the book of Jonah was not meant as a historical delineation. Rather, we are meant to laugh at Jonah, and as we let our guard down, we are meant to see that the last laugh is on us.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Jonah’s Prayer

In our retelling of the story, we left Jonah in the belly of a giant fish. Because of Yahweh’s miraculous nature, Jonah was, if not comfortable, at least safe. For three days he sat there, bored and miserable, until finally he started to pray. In his prayer, he cried out for help, and he imagined God answering. When the currents of the sea swirled about him, and waves swept over him, and the deep surrounded him, and he began to sink down, God provided for him a temporary home inside a fish. Praise be to God.

Then, in his prayer, Jonah swore that he was different from those pagans who “cling to worthless idols” (Jonah 2:8), who sacrifice to false gods. “What I have vowed I will make good,” Jonah promised. “I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord’” (Jonah 2:9).

He would do as God said and go to the Ninevites.

The prayer was a bit ironic. Hadn’t the sailors shown themselves to be more faithful than Jonah? Yet sitting inside a fish would eat away at anyone’s stubbornness, and Jonah was no exception. God had convinced to do God’s will.

So “the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land” (Jon 2:10).

Jonah Prophesies

Once again God instructed Jonah to go to Nineveh and proclaim His message. This time, Jonah went. He walked into the city, which was large enough that it would take a man three days to cross, and after walking for a day, he stood in the middle of the street and cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4).

It was probably the shortest prophesy in all of scripture, not to mention one of the most vague. Not the rantings of your typical, eager prophet.

But that didn’t matter. It was all the Ninevites needed to hear. Immediately afterward, every citizen of the great city put on sackcloth and fasted. The king, too, donned sackcloth and sat in the dust. He decreed that not only must the people wear sackcloth and refrain from food or drink, but so must all the animals, the herds and the flocks. Then they were to call on God to save them. They must “give up their evil ways and their violence.” Perhaps then God might, in his compassion and goodness, preserve their lives.

And Got did relent and he did not cause the destruction of the city of Nineveh. (Jonah 3:5-10).

How amazing that an entire city of 120,000 people should repent and give up evil. What a wonderful role model the Ninevites could be for us, and what a loving and forgiving god Yahweh turned out to be. If we all behaved like this, the world would be a peaceful and joyful place.

Jonah’s Anger

But to Jonah, God’s forbearance was wrong. Angrily, he spoke to God:

“Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:2-3).

Jonah would rather die than see Nineveh spared. What sort of prophet is this? He is sullen, vindictive, bitter, and angry at God.

So God asks him, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4).

But Jonah didn’t listen. He stomped out of the city and found a place to sit to the east. Making a shelter, he sat in its shade and waited to see if God might not damn Nineveh after all.

But God was done with Nineveh. Jonah concerned him more. So He went and caused a leafy plant to grow up over Jonah’s head, providing more shade for him, “and Jonah was very happy about the plant” (Jonah 4:6). The next day, at dawn, God sent a worm to chew the plant so it withered. To make things still worse for Jonah, He called up a “scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint.” Again, Jonah wanted to die (Jonah 4:8).

So God asked Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” And Jonah responded that he was so angry he wished he were dead (Jonah 4:9).

God’s Response

And the Lord responded:

“You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:10-11).

In other words, it’s not all about us. We are not the only beings who matter. If God cares about the animals in Nineveh, shouldn’t we care about the earth and her creatures? If God refuses to judge even the enemies of the Hebrew people, if He is willing to save the lives of ones who have done evil, should we not refrain from judging those who are not like us? Should we not refrain from doing evil ourselves?

How likely is it that pagan sailors will forsake their gods and bow to Yahweh? How likely is it that the king of Nineveh will call his people to repent before Jonah has even enumerated the city’s sins or warned them of God’s intended punishment?

Not likely at all.

So the writer of the book, and the god of the story, are telling us that we would be better off being like the pagans and the evil ones who repent and turn toward God and change their lives than be like the faithless, sullen, and bitter prophet.

Yet are we not like Jonah sometimes? Would we not rather die than have God forgive our enemies? Steven L. McKenzie writes, “[Jonah’s] attitude of prejudice and hatred toward non-Israelites is what the book satirizes. The ludicrous features of the story ridicule this attitude of bigotry.” [7] And because the book uses humor and ridicule, it’s easier for us to accept that maybe, we too, are filled with prejudice and the hubris to think we are always in the right.

Changing Our Ways

We are the Israelites who were faithless to God, but we are also the one who were enslaved. We are the Ninevites who have done great evil. Can we not also be the ones who acknowledge their sins, make amends, and beg forgiveness?

Over the last four months, much has happened to turn our world upside down. For those of us in the United States, it has become obvious that our “normal” way of running a country is unfair, corrupt, perhaps even evil. To return to that way now would be tragic.

Jonah’s story offers a Universalist message of God’s love for everyone. Through his foolishness, we can learn acceptance, inclusion, compassion, forgiveness, and goodness. It’s a complicated message, with different nuances for the oppressed and the oppressors, but it is still a call to act as God acted, as the sailors and the Ninevites acted, not as Jonah did. We can be faithful to our god, to truth, to love, to forgiveness, to restorative justice.

It would be nice if we would change our ways as quickly and as thoroughly as the Ninevites, but that was just a story. Life is far more complex. Still, there are signs that the times are changing. Repentance and restoration are possible. Let us be guided by the book of Jonah to stop taking ourselves so seriously, to be open to censure, and to be eager to change. Jonah’s story may be silly, but it has a lot to teach us. May we listen and may we learn.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. McKenzie, Steven L., How to Read the Bible: History, Prophecy, Literature – Why Modern Readers Need to Know the Difference, and What It Means for Faith Today, USA: Oxford University Press, 2005, ebook edition, 11.
  2. Bob, Steven, Jonah and the Meaning of Our Lives: A Verse-by-Verse Commentary, Lincoln, NE: Jewish Publication Society, 2016, 39.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. “James Bartley,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Bartley, accessed 6/6/20.
  6. Morris, John D. “Did Jonah Really Get Swallowed by a Whale?,” Institute for Creation Research, December 1, 1993, https://www.icr.org/article/did-jonah-really-get-swallowed-by-whale, accessed 6/6/20.
  7. McKenzie 19.

Painting – Carlo Antonio Tavella – Jonah and the Whale, Royal Museums Greenwich / Public domain  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jonah_and_the_Whale_RMG_BHC0881.tiff

Copyright © 2020 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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