The Old Testament contains several prophetic books, including a group of 12 named after the so-called ”minor prophets.” One of the stranger books and prophets is Jonah. Jonah or Jonas, son of Amittai, is also found in the Quran. He lived in about 8 BC and came from Gath-hepher of the northern kingdom of Israel. Jonah is the central figure of the Book of Jonah, which details his reluctance in delivering God’s judgement on the city of Nineveh. There is no question that Jonah was a historical person. He is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25, which suggests he was one of the more nationalistic and militaristic prophets.
The story starts with God giving Jonah a mission, to pass a message to the people of Nineveh that they need to repent and change their attitudes toward each other from hatred to love. Jonah does not like the mission and runs away by boarding a ship to Tarshish, a city in southern Spain that lay geographically in the opposite direction from Nineveh. His getaway is interrupted by a storm. The sailors on the ship eventually figure out that Jonah is the cause of the storm because God is displeased with him. They throw Jonah overboard. While in the ocean, Jonah is swallowed by a great fish (most probably describing a whale), spends three days and three nights in its belly, and afterward gets regurgitated onto land. Now convinced that God is serious, Jonah heads to Nineveh to complete his mission.
How you respond to stories like the Book of Jonah can impact your personal beliefs on the entire Bible. It is not good enough to pick and choose the parts of the Bible you want to believe. While the story of survival in the belly of a whale is problematic, our Bible is filled with similar stories. Miracles, raising of the dead, walking on water, feeding 5,000, or Jesus’ own resurrection can all be difficult to understand. How then are we to take this story of Jonah and glean from it the Godly lessons we need to learn? There are arguments that support the theory of a human being able to survive inside a whale. We will not discuss those here. The most common interpretation held today is that the story of the prophet being swallowed and then disgorged by a “great fish” is fiction, intended to teach, a religious point. Think of the story like a super-sized parable. Many of Jesus’ parables were similar in structure, fictional stories of real moral issues. Many other stories were very real. What then are its lessons for us in the Book of Jonah?
(2 Timothy 3:16)1NIV New International Version Translations – “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,”
Jonah’s desire to escape from the mission God gave him describes our own mission given to us by Jesus Himself. We are clearly called to share the Gospel’s message with a sinful, Godless world. If we assume that formal religion’s appeal is shrinking in our society (according to studies), we can see a simile, people’s desire to escape from the job of uniting humanity around Christ. Like Jonah, we all have been given an inescapable mission. It is the same mission today as it was in ancient Babylon when Abraham united the Jewish people as a nation. The foundation of God’s mission to His people is based on “love your neighbor as yourself.” We are called to become a positive example of what a connected community looks like, “a light unto the nations.”
The wrong way to look at Jonah is to try to prove it true or false. For example, the word for “belly” in Hebrew is imprecise and does not only mean “stomach.” Jonah may have been in the oral cavity of a large-mouthed whale. A whale, being a mammal, is a warm-blooded air breather that resurfaces for air, so would have provided Jonah with oxygen, while its body heat would have prevented hypothermia. However, the story of being swallowed by a “great fish” is too far-fetched to be believable. A great fish/large whale would not have been found in the eastern Mediterranean. Some even look to Jesus’ reference to Jonah in Matthew 12:39-41 to say that the Book of Jonah was historical. Yet Jesus used many parables meant to teach godly lessons that were fictional stories.
As a parable, what does the Book of Jonah teach?
- The story of Jonah explains that we need to place the benefit of others ahead of our own.
- When people accept Jesus as their Savior, they also accept His mission: Teach the world to love their friends and neighbors as themselves.
- Jonah did not concern himself with the well-being of the sailors. Furthermore, he was so reluctant to share God’s mercy with the “evil” Ninevites that he ran from God’s mission. He was not the “good guy” in this story but a normal, flawed human being who only did what he was told as a matter of duty, after being given a second chance.
- We finally find that in the Book of Jonah, God’s grace is available equally and freely to all.
In Jonah’s story, everyone gets a second chance. You might even call it a story about second chances. Jonah was a legalistic, judgmental Jew, and the lost pagans in Nineveh needed to be reminded of their sins. The happy ending everyone wants can be found here too. Both the sailors and Ninevites not only recognized God but also turned to Him as their Lord.
(Jonah 3:6-9) – ”When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.’”
Jonah, however, had not repented. His heart still needed turning. The prophet did the right things, just as the sailors and Ninevites did, but he did not love the Lord by the end of his book. Jonah got a second chance at recognizing his own depth of depravity, his deep need for mercy. However, he might have squandered it after all. We are missing the rest of his story.
(Jonah 4:1-3) – “But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “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 struggled with God’s kindness towards depraved people he believed were unworthy of mercy. He acted like the Pharisees, shocked that Jesus would hang out with sinners. Maybe Jonah thought the evil Ninevites would return to their wickedness and make a fool of the Lord after he left them? Jonah was courageous, loving, and obedient to the Lord. But God rebuked Jonah: “And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh” (Jonah 4:11). Jonah wanted to see God enact justice against non-Jews. But he was blind to the reality that the Ninevites were also God’s children. God had created works, more valuable than the shade plant pitied by Jonah.
(Jonah 4:10) – ” But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight.”
God’s power was already famous. He didn’t need Jonah to spread the good news. Jonah acknowledged as much: “you are a gracious and compassionate God” (Jonah 4:2). Jonah, meanwhile, refused to treat the pagans as human beings created in the image of God. Jonah had enjoyed direct guidance from God, something many of us crave, and yet he rejected it. In summary, the Book of Jonah has very little to do with fish or whales. The story is not about impossible miracles. Jonah’s story is about sharing God with a world filled with depravity, denial, even doubt and about not being judgmental against those who do not share our faith.
- Who do you put into a group that you would call less deserving of God’s grace?
- Ideas to Explore: Who are the people you avoid? What groups do you dislike? Are there people whose faith or even lack of faith you dislike?
- What would be the most effective strategies to reaching people like those in Nineveh?
- Ideas to Explore: What exactly would a mission trip to Nineveh look like? What are the effective ways to share the Gospel with someone you do not like or trust?
- Yes, we are called to believe that our God can do the impossible, even keep someone in the belly of a whale alive for three days – But what do you do to sort out the “Story” into history, parable or fiction?
- Ideas to Explore: Do you first search for science to explain away the miracle? (e.g., Tides divided the Red Sea for Moses in the Book of Exodus) When you cannot rationalize an event based on your own knowledge of the world, where do you go to find peace with your answers?
- What does the term “God-Breathed” mean to you when describing the Bible?
- Ideas to Explore: Can you see the history, the fable, the parable, the Law and command, the advice in God’s Words? All are present. How do you think we should respond to each category?
- What did you get out of the Book of Jonah?
- Ideas to Explore: Is the story so strange that it has no meaning? Can you sort out a lesson from God? How would you teach this story to children?
- Faith is the cornerstone of belief – How does your faith handle the immaculate conception of Mary or the Incarnation of God becoming human?
- Ideas to Explore: The world uses many tricks to destroy faith. What ones have you seen? How do you keep from becoming a doubtful person?
- 1NIV New International Version Translations