Have you ever read the Book of Jonah in the Old Testament? The story itself is rather well- known, but I’m guessing that a lot of people haven’t actually read it. Maybe you saw the charming VeggieTales adaptation. I know I have. I don’t really remember it, but I’ve seen it. At some point, I’m sure I’ll introduce it to my children because… well… VeggieTales.
A few years back, I did a sermon series on Jonah. I didn’t really know what to expect from this series, I just knew that it was a book that I could explore with my congregation in just a few short weeks. But I remember very clearly, as I was reading and studying the book, thinking that Jonah was a real jerk. Seriously. Go back, read it, and tell me I’m wrong.
We are introduced to Jonah in the very first verse of the book, but we don’t know much about him; just that he is the son of Amittai. That tells you about as much about Jonah as me saying that I’m Matt, son of Gary. It’s true, but outside of a couple of names, it tells you nothing. Immediately, Jonah is told that he is to go to Nineveh to “call out against it”.
No big deal, right? “Hey, Jonah, you’re a prophet, go to this city and call them out on their BS. It’ll be fun.”
Except, it wouldn’t be fun. Nineveh was no joke. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. They were some heavy dudes. The fact that autofill recognizes “Assyrian Empire atrocities” before you finish typing the last word should tell you something. Also, the fact that there’s an article entitled “Grisly Assyrian Record of Torture and Death” as one of the early results of said search seems to indicate that maybe these weren’t the kindest of people. It was a cruel and powerful empire in ancient times, and Jonah is being told to go there to call them on it.
He is petrified, at least it seems that way. So, what does he do? The most logical thing that any of us would do in such a situation. He gets on a boat that is headed for Tarshish, which is as far away to the west that he could possibly go. The end of the world, as far as they knew at the time. The only problem is that Tarshish is west. Nineveh is east. He’s like the kid that wants to get out of his small Midwestern town, so he goes to college at UCLA.
Here’s the kicker, the story says that he goes to Tarshish in order to get away from the presence of the Lord. Somehow, Jonah thinks that he is going to be able to get away from God by hopping on this boat across the Mediterranean, as if God is limited to one location. You would think that a prophet would have a little more sense than this, but Jonah doesn’t. He really thinks he can get away from God. For some reason, Jonah thinks that he is free to roam around the world, but God is limited geographically. I get the feeling that Jonah isn’t all that bright at times. Fear does make us dumb, I suppose.
A Dark and Stormy Night
As they are sailing across the Mediterranean, a terrible storm kicks up. The sailors are freaking out. Now, you know it’s a bad storm at sea if the sailors are freaking out. They’ve seen a lot of storms in their time on the sea, but even they are afraid of this one. In fact, it’s so bad that they start tossing cargo overboard. I imagine they were going to have some explaining to do when they got to their destination. Can you imagine the UPS tossing out packages in the middle of a thunderstorm? I hope there was nothing important on board.
All this panic is happening, and where is Jonah? He’s asleep in the inner part of the ship. And this isn’t the kind of nap that Jesus was taking while his disciples were freaking out during a storm on the Sea of Galilee. In fact, there’s a part of me that wonders if Jonah is really sleeping at all.
My daughter is almost 4. She only recently has been spending the entire night in her own room. It was a difficult transition… for her mostly. My wife and I were ready for her to stop coming into our room to sleep on the floor in the middle of the night. One night, early on in the transition, at something like 2:30 in the morning, I wake up, and she is standing at the side of the bed. Not saying a word. Just standing there. Staring at me.
Here’s the thing: I use a CPAP, and when I’m wearing the mask, it is very difficult for me to have a conversation with people because I have to talk really loud just so they can hear me. The effort to volume ratio is out of this world, and so, when I have my mask on, I don’t like to talk that much — not that I like to talk all that much in the first place.
So, I laid there and pretended to be asleep. After a couple of minutes, she went back to her room and fell back asleep in her bed. This how we handle things when we’re tired and want to sleep, right? We pretend we are asleep until they go away. This may be what Jonah was doing. It feels consistent with his character as it gets revealed throughout the story.
Finally, one of the sailors calls him out on this. “What are you doing?!? How can you possibly be sleeping right now? Call upon your god and maybe he will save us, and we won’t all die!” Here’s the funny thing: this pagan sailor seems to be more concerned about people dying than Jonah. Look, I’m not saying the pagan naturally has a lower value on life. I’m saying that Jonah is supposed to be going the other direction to warn an entire city to shape up or God is going to smite them all. Jonah doesn’t seem to value the life of the pagans. The pagan sailor doesn’t care a lick about anyone’s religious beliefs. He just wants everybody to live. Jonah is a jerk. The sailor is not.
Casting Lots… and Jonah
Finally, the sailors are all gathered together, and they are desperate. They decide to cast lots to see whose fault all of this is. Meanwhile, Jonah is hiding behind somebody and avoiding eye contact. Though casting lots does not seem to be the best way of deciding things, it happens to work this time. The lot points the sailors to Jonah, who, to his credit for the first time in the story, owns up.
“Yes, this is all my fault. I’m running away from the presence of God.” Again, Jonah seems to think that God is bound geographically, which is really the dumbest idea that he could have… but we move on!
“So, what are we supposed to do?” the desperate sailors ask.
“Throw me overboard.”
Instead of casting lots, Jonah tells them to cast him off the ship. Because these are actually decent fellows, they do not want to do it. They try to row to the shore instead. It is not going well. Finally, they give up, and decide to toss Jonah into the sea. They are worried that they are going to be held accountable for killing him, so they call out to God and ask Him to not hold it against them. Then, they grab Jonah and throw him into the sea.
As soon as he belly flops into the water, the storm stops. The sailors continue on their journey, trying to think of a way to explain to their customers why they lost so much cargo. Little Sally in Tarshish isn’t getting her teddy bear because FedEx can’t seem to sail through a storm without tossing everything overboard. WILSON!!!!!!
Jonah Repents… Sorta
At this point in the story, we see the part that people fixate on and write off as impossible, thus the whole story is false. Jonah is swallowed by a “big fish” and resides in its belly for three days and three nights. People struggle with this part of the story because it seems impossible — not merely improbable, but impossible. And maybe it is. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe it was going to take something impossible in order to lead Jonah to the point where he actually decides to do what God has called him to do. Why? Because Jonah is a jerk, remember?
How true is this for many of us, though? What lengths do people have to go to in order for us to see that we are wrong? In order for us to wake up to the reality that maybe we’ve been a bit of a jerk. Anyway, back to the story.
Look, I don’t know how long it would take a “big fish” to digest a person. I mean, Pinocchio hung out in a whale for a while, didn’t he? It supposedly takes 1,000 years for the sarlacc to digest its victims. So… who knows, right? But the question we have to ask ourselves when it comes to Jonah and the big fish is: does it really matter?
Is the outcome of the story different because of the inclusion of the fish? The fish is only mentioned three times in the entire story, and NONE of them really impact the outcome of the story. If nothing else, the fish only serves two purposes in the story: first, as a setting for Jonah’s prayer in which he recognizes God’s hand in his current situation, and, second, as a vehicle (of sorts) to get Jonah from the ship heading west to Tarshish back to the dry land so that he can fulfill the call that God has given him.
Jonah recognizes that he is only alive because God has allowed it, and he decides to fulfill his vow; that is, to follow through on his promise to go to Nineveh.
Chapter 2 concludes with Jonah being vomited out onto the shore. And, yes, that is how it is described.
Jonah’s Second Chance
Jonah gets another chance to warn the people of Nineveh of their impending destruction.
I like to think that he hasn’t taken a shower since getting vomited onto the shore. Can you picture him walking up and down the streets of Nineveh, telling the people that they have forty days until the end of the world as they know (and he feels fine), covered in fish vomit and seaweed? That’s a great picture, isn’t it?
Not surprisingly, given the fact that this messenger looks like he has already been through hell, the people begin to repent. We are told that the kind of Nineveh himself comes down from his throne and orders a city-wide fast. Even the cows aren’t allowed to eat during this time.
You know it’s a serious fast when the livestock have to participate.
God sees their sorrow and repentance and decides not to bring disaster to Nineveh.
Jonah’s Not Happy
Right after we are told that God relents from the disaster He planned to bring against Nineveh, we get Jonah’s reaction: “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry” (Jonah 4:1).
Think about this for a minute. God just spared thousands of people. He is letting them live. They have turned from their ways and have decided to live a better life. And Jonah is pissed about it. Jonah was a jerk.
Jonah then starts speaking to God. Essentially, he says, “This is why I didn’t want to go in the first place! I knew that if they repented, you wouldn’t destroy them because you are gracious and merciful! Just kill me now!”
Jonah may be the one person in history who gets mad because God is gracious and merciful. And yet, ironically, it’s that same grace and mercy that keeps God from smacking Jonah upside his stupid head.
Angry Jonah Gets Angry
For some unknown reason, Jonah is still holding out hope that God is going to change His mind again and bring the thunder to Nineveh, so he goes outside of the city and gets a good vantage point. He wants to have a front row seat to the destruction of this city. He builds a tent and sits in the miserable heat, waiting for God to destroy Nineveh.
God makes a plant grow to give him some shade and relief. But, the next day, the plant gets eaten by a worm and it shrivels up. Once again, Jonah is angry. He doesn’t get why God would do that to him, and he just wants to die. A little dramatic, but that seems to be Jonah’s approach to things. Then God calls him out on his BS.
“And the LORD said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:10–11, ESV)
You see, the problem with Jonah here is that he is more concerned about this plant that rose up in one day than he is about the 120,000 people that live in Nineveh. The truth of the matter is that Jonah wanted the people of Nineveh to die. He didn’t run because he was scared. He ran because he didn’t want them to be spared.
Now, is the story of Jonah a factual retelling of something that happened in history? It’s hard to say. I believe in the divine inspiration of Scripture. I also believe that we should not take literally the things that don’t need to be taken literally. It doesn’t make it less inspired to say that it is not a historical retelling of an event. Because what if that wasn’t the point?
What if the story of Jonah is to reveal to us our own prejudices and let us know that there is no need for us to allow them to dominate our lives. Jonah had good reason to hate the Ninevites. They were enemies of Israel. At various points in history, they oppressed Israel, attacked Israel, killed Israelites. And yet, how does God look at them? God sees them as people who “do not know their right hand from their left”. They don’t know any better. They don’t know any different.
And because Jonah (reluctantly) followed through on his task to warn the people of Nineveh, 120,000 people were spared. They were not killed. (And let’s not forget about the cattle!) I would think that any day you can save the life of 120,000 people is a good day. Jonah… not so certain about that. But, then again, he was kind of a jerk!