Before reading the post below, can I ask firstly that you spend a minute, without opening a Bible, considering what it is you know about Jonah, and then to read the book – only 4 chapters with a total of 47 verses – so it doesn’t take very long!
As regular readers know, I’ve been gradually working through the latter part of the Old Testament for over 2 years now, currently in the Minor Prophets. One of the advantages of increasing old age is that these long projects don’t seem to be as big a deal as they used to be!
So I’m now up to Jonah, the one minor prophet taught in Sunday School classes across the world – how many 9 year olds consider Obadiah and his proclamations against the Edomites? Complete with wonderful visual images of ship wrecks, giant fish swallowing people, mass repentance and sulking among other things, it lends itself well to the kind of activities one wants to do with children whilst the adults are listening to the sermon.
So I wonder if your starting point with Jonah is the same as mine was: a man who was grossly disobedient, childish, petulant – a bit of a dimwit, really. But a closer examination of the text and other relevant parts of the Bible give rise to a very different picture: a prophet who was given an extraordinarily dangerous mission, who threw himself wholeheartedly into what he did, the most amazing evangelist who, in his arguments with God, was actually right looking at things from a human perspective. So, please come with me as we look at these issues in more detail, and see if you are happy to join with me in looking to consider Jonah as a man of God worthy of our respect.
Nineveh and Jonah: what we learn elsewhere in the Bible
Nineveh is in modern day Iraq, at the time of Jonah, ie. the 8 century B.C. an important city in the Assyrian empire, shortly afterwards to become its capital city. The Assyrians were the major aggressor and were extraordinarily sadistic to their enemies. Because this blog is intended for a readership of all ages I will not describe here the methods they used to torture people to death, suffice to say, being on the wrong side of them was no fun. No. Fun. At. All.
In 722 B.C., some time after the events of Jonah, the 10 northern tribes of Israel were taken by the Assyrians into exile. About 100 years later, as prophesied in the book of Nahum (which can usefully be thought of as the Book of Jonah Part Two, more on this later), Nineveh was taken over by the Babylonians as the Assyrian empire came crashing down.
Meanwhile, Jonah gets a brief mention in 2 Kings 14: 25 as a serious prophet helping the King of the time. And when Jesus draws from the life of Jonah, eg. in Matthew 12:37ff., it is again as a serious prophet whose experiences have parallels with Jesus’ own.
So, with this in mind, let’s look to see what the book of Jonah teaches us.
A highly dangerous mission
It is the nature of Biblical narrative that, very often, an awful lot of action gets packed into a very small number of words. So in just three short verses at the beginning, God’s call to Jonah to go to Nineveh, and Jonah’s departure in the opposite direction, are established.
So, let’s be very clear here: what God was asking Jonah to do was highly dangerous. Indeed, Jonah could be excused for thinking that he was being sent on a suicide mission. Singlehandedly he was supposed to go to the major city of the major aggressor in the area and preach a message from – looking at things from the Ninevites’ perspective – a foreign god, a god of one of their puny enemies. And, as noted above, the Assyrians treated their enemies extremely badly. Also, whilst other Old Testament prophets suffered hugely as a result of their ministries – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Hosea to name but 4 – and whilst other prophets spoke out against countries other than Israel and Judah, only Jonah was actually required to go into a foreign land to speak God’s word there (I think, please do correct me if I’m wrong here!).
But, from Jonah’s point of view, things are even worse than this. If he was successful in his mission – which of course he was – then he could expect no thanks back home in Israel, where people would be wanting revenge against the Assyrians, not their repentance.
So, Jonah’s reluctance to obey God would, from a human point of view, seems to make a certain amount of sense. Can I be sure that I would have obeyed God in these circumstances? Can you?
Not a man for half-measures
So, Jonah decides not to obey. Does he obfuscate the issue? Delay? Find an excuse to stay where he is? No, he sets off in almost exactly the opposite direction, on a ship across the entire length of the Mediterranean to Tarshish in Southern Spain, see the map below:
I have to say, there is something rather magnificent in Jonah’s reaction. No half-measures for him! Of course, as a servant of God who messes up badly, he’s in good company: David took Bathsheba, and Peter denied our Lord three times. Also, Moses showed reluctance in accepting the mission God gave him, as did Jeremiah.
In Revelation 3:15,16, the church in Laodicea receives this message from the Lord: ‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot! I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth.’ Nobody can reasonably say that Jonah – or David or Peter – were lukewarm. Alternately hot and cold, not ever lukewarm.
The Bible does not make it clear why Jonah set off to Tarshish, but his actions are consistent with contemporary beliefs in other religions that gods operate locally. So, go to Tarshish and no longer be within range. Living in an age where there are Christians right across the globe this is perhaps a little hard to understand, and in any case, Jonah was quite wrong on this point, as he shortly afterwards found out.
An amazing evangelist
So, Jonah gets on the ship, a storm then threatens to break it up, Jonah takes responsibility, he gets thrown overboard, and the storm subsides. What then happens? In chapter 1: 16 we read that the sailors, ‘…greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to Him’. Even in (or because of?) his disobedience, Jonah is instrumental in people turning to God. And, when he does finally make it to Nineveh, he has hardly started to preach the word of God before the most amazing acts of mass repentance – involving even the cattle – take place. Jonah speaks the word of God and people listen and act. Doesn’t seem such a dimwit now, does he?
The nature of the Ninevites’ repentance
It is clear that the Ninevites’ repentance is genuine, both from the book of Jonah itself and also from the words of Jesus (see Luke 11:32). But it is also clear that it was short lived. So, as noted above, shortly afterwards the Assyrians overran the northern kingdom, and the city of Nineveh itself was destroyed in accordance with the prophesy in Nahum.
There are some interesting parallels here with the Welsh Revival of 1904-5. Again, there is every reason to believe that this was genuine at the time with people turning to God and their lives being changed. But again, it did not appear to give rise to long-term sustainable change. So, coming back to Jonah, could he be excused for being a bit suspicious as to exactly what had happened?
A God of mercy and a God of wrath
My favourite quotation from Jonah is 4:2b: “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” Out of context it appears to be a hymn of praise. In context it’s a complaint against God in forgiving the Ninevites rather than destroying them.
In Nahum 1:3 we read that ‘The Lord is slow to anger’, but the overall message of Nahum is that Nineveh was shortly to be destroyed, which indeed it was. So, consistent with many other parts of the Bible, Jonah and Nahum both present this dual aspect of God’s character, His mercy and His wrath. Broadly speaking, Jonah witnessed the mercy and Nahum witnessed the wrath.
So, why was God merciful to Nineveh in the time of Jonah? From a human point of view, Jonah was right, that the people would sin again, with God’s judgement coming later. But from another point of view, the way Jonah argued with God as recounted in chapter 4 is grossly inappropriate and borderline blasphemous. It is not for us to tell God what to do, when to be merciful and when to show wrath. Again, as Jonah does precisely this, he presents himself as a man who knows no half-measures.
Oh – let’s not forget the giant fish
If, as suggested at the beginning of this blog, you paused to consider what you could remember about the story of Jonah, was the giant fish swallowing Jonah the first thing that came to mind? A straw poll I have been taking for the last week or so indicates that this is the immediate response to about 80% of participants! And were you then surprised to discover that, out of a total of 47 verses, the fish is mentioned in just 3 of them? Would you agree with me when I suggest that the fundamentals of this story remain the same however Jonah was rescued from the storm, giant fish or no giant fish?
So, do I believe that a giant fish swallowed Jonah then to spew him out 3 days later? Yes. Would I be happy to have fellowship with a Christian who does not believe this? Yes, absolutely. I try to make it a principle in life to be selective what I worry about, this comes a long way short of meeting the criteria.
In conclusion: still a children’s story?
Jonah had his faults, certainly, but he was a man of God, whose example deserves to be studied as we look to live our Christian lives.
Do I still think this is a suitable story for children? Yes. But let’s pause to consider how we are portraying Jonah and what messages we wish to convey. In being simple let’s not be simplistic. And please, coming back to where I started: the mission Jonah was given was very, very dangerous, let’s be very clear on this point as we evaluate the contribution that he made.