Real Bible Studies: The Book of Jonah

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One of the shorter books of the bible, Jonah provides us with a situation where God has a justifiable beef with one of its subjects. We also see a significant alteration in how God deals with disobedience, as opposed to Genesis and other early books. Faced with a totally unwilling prophet, God gets very creative, letting Jonah know that while he can run, he can’t hide, not even at the bottom of the sea. God also seems to have learned quite a bit of restraint, suggesting a much later theological concept of the almighty, and with this prophet, God needs all the restraint it can muster.

In short, God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh to warn them to change their ways, but Jonah wants nothing to do with the assignment. Without attempting to reason with God, or explain why he’d rather not accept the mission, he hits the road to Joppa, hops on a boat and takes off for Tarshish. Tarshish seems to be the place to go if one is fleeing from God, since, in a parenthetical note, it’s explained that Jonah has told the sailors that’s what he’s doing and they don’t seem to feel having him on their boat is particularly risky. Once they’re on the water, however, God registers its disapproval, first bringing up a strong wind, followed by a violent storm. Jonah’s apparently not too concerned, as he conks out below deck, where the captain finds him to suggest maybe he could use his prophetic powers to help them avoid certain death. In the meantime, the sailors figure out Jonah is the cause of their current situation, and they finally become more interested in why Jonah is running from God. In response to their inquiries as to how they can save themselves, Jonah decides a visit to Davy Jones’ locker is preferable to Nineveh, and instructs them to throw him overboard. The sailors waffle about throwing Jonah in, and try a few other tactics first, but finally, after asking God to not hold them responsible for Jonah’s death, they toss him overboard, and immediately, the storm subsides.

That’s when God gets really creative. God instructs what’s described as a “big fish” to swallow Jonah. Most who are familiar with the story take that to mean a whale, but I checked several translations, including the KJV, Good News, American Standard, and Living Bible, and they all used the term “big fish” instead of whale. True, ancient mariners may have regarded whales as fish instead of mammals, but it’s likely they had a special term for them to distinguish them from smaller fish. Whatever swallowed Jonah, God must have also made provisions for its digestive system to shut down, because the author tells us that Jonah stayed inside of it for three days and three nights, before being vomited up relatively intact for someone who’s been stuck inside a fish, under water, with no source of oxygen for that length of time.

While still in the belly of the fish, Jonah prays about how God uplifted and saved him, without mentioning anything about Nineveh, or the fact that the reason he’s in the situation he’s in is because he didn’t do what God told him to do in the first place. While he does acknowledge being in the depths of the sea, he doesn’t seem to recall why he’s there, or the fact that he’s riding around inside a big fish. The wording does make it seem like he’s speaking of the mission at hand, but with no specific mention of Nineveh, or anything that happened prior to his being dumped into the water, at his own suggestion, by the way. Whatever Jonah says is apparently enough for God, because once Jonah displays even the slightest willingness for the mission to Nineveh, God has the big fish vomit him up on land, but not in Nineveh, because once Jonah’s out of the fish, God shows up again and tells him to go to there. This time, Jonah is a bit more agreeable.

Once in Nineveh, Jonah goes about proclaiming doom and destruction in forty days if the people don’t change how they conduct their affairs. Unlike denizens of other sinful cities, such as Sodom and Gomorrah, the Ninevites take what Jonah’s telling them at face value and immediately start fasting and wearing sackcloth. Even the king, usually the last person to take prophets seriously, decides not to test God and declares no person or animal is to eat and all, including the animals, must wear sackcloth, which seems a bit extreme, but why take chances? God is pleased by how easy it was to turn them from their evil ways and decides to spare the city. Jonah, on the other hand, isn’t happy at all with the turn of events.

At last, Jonah reveals his reasons for not listening to God in the first place. It seems Jonah knew if he went to Nineveh, the people would listen to him and thus be spared by God, and Jonah doesn’t think they deserved it. We’re not really told exactly why Jonah feels this way about Nineveh, but he’s very hacked off about the whole situation, going so far as to ask God to kill him. God seems somewhat baffled by Jonah’s position, asking if it’s right for Jonah to be angry. Jonah believes it is, and again asks God to kill him, because he’d rather be dead than in a thriving Nineveh. This seems in direct contrast to how Jonah felt while praying inside the big fish, though I suppose being the source of an aquatic creature’s indigestion can elicit quite an attitude adjustment. Jonah sits under a tree, and first God has a plant grow over him to provide shade which Jonah likes, but then has a worm chew on it to make the plant wither, incensing Jonah more. The story ends abruptly, with God seemingly in mid-thought, admonishing Jonah for lamenting the death of the plant while not caring for the city or people he’s just helped to save.

Jonah is a very odd biblical story all around, with a cranky prophet who thinks he can actually one up God, and an extremely patient supreme being which seems a far cry from the deity which wiped out all humanity in the flood, to cover its disappointment, and destroyed the Tower of Babel and scrambled everyone’s language just to teach humans a little humility. The people of Nineveh also seem to be far too conciliatory, abandoning their evil ways with little or no resistance, once Jonah bothers to show up. Jonah’s description of God being one that’s abounding in love and who relents in sending calamity also seems a much later theological development from the God of wrath who instructed the children of Israel to kill or enslave most of the tribes they encountered while conquering Canaan. It’s difficult to sum up what lesson we’re supposed to take away from the episode. God does some fairly miraculous things, which isn’t surprising given that it’s God. We’re not told if God fulfilled Jonah’s request that he die, but if so, most readers probably wouldn’t hold that against God, given how difficult Jonah was throughout. He’s just lucky he doesn’t have to answer to the God Job had on his side.

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