Jonah is, to me, a kindred spirit. If Jonah and I went to high school together, we would have been friends. The book of Jonah is an origins story, a record of the events that turned Jonah from a young man focused on himself to a servant of God focused on others. We tend to compare him critically to the likes of Moses or Elijah, but we forget that the stories that make these men great came later in their lives after they had their own Jonah events. The story of Jonah is the story before he became a man, before he became a prophet of God.
Jonah lived at the time of Jeroboam II who reigned over the Northern kingdom of Israel from 786 to746 BC. Jeroboam had conquered Syria but the Assyrian empire to the east was an ever growing threat until they finally conquered Israel in 722. Ninevah, it should be pointed out, was the capital of this great and terrible empire. Nahum, a contemporary of Jonah, described Ninevah as ‘the bloody city, it is all full of lies and robbery’ (Nahum 3:1). Jonah came from the city of Gath-hepher, at the northern reaches of the Hebrew lands, close to Nazareth in Lower Galilee. We learn in 2 Kings 14:25 that Jonah prophesied in the time of Jeroboam II. The book of Jonah, I suspect, comes before this coming of age and, unfortunately, we have no record of his ministry other then this passing reference in Kings. Perhaps one day a record of his prophecies and teachings will be discovered to show us the great man that emerged from the book that bares his name.
When God called Jonah to preach repentance to the City of Ninevah, there was more than discontent on his mind. There was no doubt fear, perhaps even terror. He was not a heartless person, but this was a level of forgiveness that he was perhaps not prepared to carry. So he fled to what was at the time the farthest reaches of the known world. Many suspect Spain, William A Albright suspects it was Sardinia, but regardless, he was heading as far away as possible from where God intended for him to go. This is a remarkably impulsive act which would have cost him a sizable fee, and it shows a lack of concern for his own safety. But recognizing this character flaw of impulsiveness and lack of forethought shows that he is human, and should give hope to anyone with similar struggles.
And so commences his first missionary duty. Jonah boarded a boat set for Tarshish and while on route, a terrible Mediterranean storm sets in, such a one that caused Paul to be shipwrecked, and one that has almost toppled massive cruise liners. With death eminent, all the passengers were praying to their various gods and the captain found Jonah sleeping, perhaps hiding. In order to subdue the storm, all were required to draw lots in a superstitious effort to determine who was responsible and the lot fell to Jonah. And this is where we see Jonah’s true nature begin to bubble to the surface. Jonah promptly, arguably impulsively, volunteered to cast himself into the sea to spare the lives of the passengers.
They pleaded with him to reconsider and made futile attempts to row the boat to shore. Having failed, they concede to his wishes, they cast him over and the storm ceases. Here we read that these people offered sacrifices and ‘made vows’ to the God of the Hebrews. Perhaps they were fair-weather spiritualists, but it is possible that Jonahs courage and faith led them to prayer. The brevity of the story does not allow us to fully understand the significance, but its mention is important – if Jonah is at this point in the sea, how would the author know what was taking place on the ship? The rest of the story is missing but could well be a story of conversion thanks to the brief encounter with this fledgling prophet.
Once in the ocean, we have the famous story of Jonah getting swallowed by a whale where he languished for three days. The Savoir reverences this event as foreshadowing of his own death and resurrection (matt 12:40). Scientifically, it is not possible but if you have read any of my other blogs, you will know about function. This is a literary tale, and the whale is symbolic of something but we know not what.
David Roph Seely makes the following observations:
“The medium of the message is most often irony – that it, a constant incongruity between what is expected and what actually occurs. But just as the props are not the play, neither is the medium the message; it is only a means to the end”. ( ‘The Book of Jonah’ Studies in Scriptures volume 4 1 kings to Malachi Deseret Books.)
I find Jonahs death bed repentance in the gut of the whale to be another lesson in human folly. In his plead he made all sorts of promises to worship at the temple but he failed to address the underlying issue of running away from his responsibilities. This is a prayer of self preservation but he is not yet willing to accept his mission to the Assyrians. I wonder how often when I am in a difficult spot caused by my own poor judgements I make vague promises rather than confronting the underlying problem that got me there in the first place.
Regardless, God redeemed Jonah and the wale spits him back up on the shores where he started and he journeys for 400 km over desert sands for 3 days until he reached the Capital. Although he fulfilled his duty to preach, he had at the back of his mind the solace that God would destroy the Ninevites regardless because such a wicked people would not change based on the words of one preacher. He seemed to feel, despite fulfilling his job, that the effort was a pointless waste of time. He is clearly not yet converted. To his disappointment, not only did the Ninevites listen, but they followed his instruction and repented of all their sins.
We learn virtually nothing about the Ninevites and their journey to obedience. This is because the story is not about their journey, it is about Jonah’s journey. It is a lesson in forgiveness and tolerance. There were no doubt many faithful and dedicated Hebrews God could have sent, but God wanted to redeem Jonah as much as he wanted to redeem Ninevah. He wanted to teach Jonah to curb his impulsive, intolerant and impatient nature.
When Jonah completed his assignment, he set himself on a hill above the City of Nineva, taking rest under a shelter to escape from the heat of the desert sun. While he was sitting there, a bean plant miraculously grew over the shelter to provide Jonah better protection from the heat; however, by morning, the vine got infected and dies and thus comes the moral of the story. As Jonah lamented over the now dead tree, God asked ‘if you have pity for this plant for which you have not toiled, why then should God not have pity on the Ninevites for whom God has toiled much and who have come to him repentant’. The Ninevites were sinning in ignorance so God sent a prophet to teach them, a teaching which they readily accepted. The story is reminiscent of the lesson from Job. Do not judge others, and always forgive.
Some of the lessons I learn from this story:
- The Lord holds us accountable for the responsibilities he gives us. Many of us by the very nature of where we are born are born in great privilege and we have a duty to use it wisely to help those who do not, no matter what our prejudiced may be.
- If we pray to God and repent, we will receive mercy. Jonah received this mercy when he was in the belly of the whale but he did not feel Ninevah deserved this same mercy when they repented simply on the word of a prophet and not under dire circumstances of imminent destruction. The difficulties we face are not punishment from God, but rather obstacles God puts in our way to encourage us to take a better path.
- We must learn to forgive others as God does. No matter what ills we feel they perpetrated against us.
- Our efforts to minister in Gods kingdom is as much about changing our own hearts as it is about helping those we serve. God does not necessarily call the most capable, but rather the most capable to change.
- We should not sleep when there is work do to, and avoiding a responsibility will not remove it from us, it just causes more problems that are sometimes worse than the first.
- There is nobody, no matter how wicked, no matter how fallen, no matter how afflicted, that cannot be redeemed.
- There are many who sin in ignorance. Some due to wretched upbringing, some due to illness, others who are simply unaware. We forgive them and invite them. All of them.
At least, that is how I see the book of Jonah.