Understanding Jonah (Part 2)

“1 The LORD gave this message to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh. Announce my judgment against it because I have seen how wicked its people are. 3 But Jonah got up and went in the opposite direction to get away from the LORD. He went down to the port of Joppa, where he found a ship leaving for Tarshish. He bought a ticket and went on board, hoping to escape from the LORD by sailing to Tarshish.” (Jonah 1:1-3)

Myth or History? Some people take the story of Jonah as historical, while others take the story as a parable. Despite whether you see it as historical or parabolic, the message of Jonah is a powerful one.

It is a story that we teach children, because of the surprising way that God saves Jonah. As the story goes, God calls upon a fish to swallow Jonah and preserve his life for three days at sea. The story of Jonah is much more than a fanciful tale, it offers are deeply relevant message to its audience. Anyone who reads it can learn a lot about the character of God and God’s relationship with those who believe.

I understand Jonah to be a historical prophet who lived in the Northern Kingdom during height of its power and influence. The king at the time was Jeroboam II. He was a faithless king. The lives of Jonah and Jeroboam intersect when Jonah prophesied that the king would win a great battle and recover some territories that had been lost. The prophecy came true, but Jeroboam’s victory was short lived. A prophet named Amos, prophesied that the king would lose the territory, and he did. What we learn of Jonah we find in 2 Kings 14:25, but the text tells us very little.

The book of Jonah is something else altogether. It is likely parable rather than a true account.  I suggest some reasons this is the case in part 1. The story of Jonah is written to the Southern Kingdom after they leave exile. The Northern King entered exile because of the Assyrians and they never came out. The Southern Kingdom entered exile much later, because of the Babylonians. It is difficult to imagine being exiled from your home. When the Southern Kingdom returned that is about the time when Jonah’s story comes about. You can imagine how God’s just character might be called into question after suffering in exile. God is supposed to raise up the disadvantaged. The story of Jonah addresses the question of how God can be both just and merciful.

The prophet Jonah, as described in the book of Jonah, is a not a hero figure. Instead, Jonah is depicted as deeply flawed. Throughout the story we witness Jonah’s anger and disobedience toward God. When God calls him to prophesy to Nineveh, Jonah runs away from God. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria and Jonah had no interest in getting killed or helping his enemies. There is something special about Jonah, his name is Dove. If you are familiar with stories from the Tanakh you may remember other stories with doves. Noah releases a dove during the flood story. In Song of Songs, dove is used affectionately. Doves are also messenger birds, so it seems fitting to send Jonah on this mission.

After Jonah is called by God, Jonah does just the opposite. He literally heads in the opposite direction from God’s mission. As a parable, the symbolism is ripe; Jonah moves away from the seat of God’s presence and heads down to the port of Joppa. Later Jonah will sink deeper into the bowels of the ship sailing to Tarshish. Then Jonah will drop into the sea before being raise again. It is astonishing how God continues to pursue Jonah despite the prophet’s disobedience. Jonah is one of God’s covenant children through Abraham. Despite what is happening, Jonah remains God’s chosen prophet.

“But the LORD hurled a powerful wind over the sea, causing a violent storm that threatened to break the ship apart. Fearing for their lives, the desperate sailors shouted to their gods for help and threw the cargo overboard to lighten the ship. But all this time Jonah was sound asleep down in the hold. So the captain went down after him. “How can you sleep at a time like this?” he shouted. “Get up and pray to your god! Maybe he will pay attention to us and spare our lives.” (Jonah 1:4-6)

God responded to Jonah’s getaway by hurling a great wind at the ship. This wind stirs up a great storm that threatens the lives of all those on board. If you are a follower of God, you should expect great things and great obstacles. Encountering God will stretch you beyond any image you have of God. In a way, Jonah takes God and his role as prophet for granted. As the storm rages, Jonah sleeps. He has little concern about being torn apart along with the ship and its crew. That is, until the captain shouts at him to pray to his God. After Jonah rose, the crew and Jonah drew lots to see who had offended the gods and which one was the culprit. The guilt fell upon Jonah, and at this point he tells the crew that he is a Hebrew, who worships the LORD, the God of heaven who made the sea and the land. Jonah also tells them that he is running away from God. Sometimes people hear about God because you are faithful, sometimes people hear about God because you are faithless. Terribly afraid, the crew come to believe in God even though Jonah was doing everything in his power to get away. Even today people sometimes learn who Jesus is because of believers who look nothing like him. That is not how we are meant to partner with God. Jonah learns this lesson quickly when the crew is forced to throw Jonah into the sea to save their lives.

 “Then the sailors picked Jonah up and threw him into the raging sea, and the storm stopped at once! 16 The sailors were awestruck by the LORD’s great power, and they offered him a sacrifice and vowed to serve him. Now the LORD had arranged for a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was inside the fish for three days and three nights.” (Jonah 1:15-17)

What do you think was going through Jonah’s mind as he was being thrown into the sea? Maybe he was thinking, how did I end up here? You have got to think that there was a fraction of a second between when the crew threw him and when Jonah hit the water. I imagine Jonah in this moment regretting ever stepping onto that boat to Tarshish.

This part of the story can feel a bit unrelatable. It is not common to be swallowed by fish, especially when you live to talk about it. However, the story is relatable in another way. Jonah’s situation reminds readers that those who believe in God sometimes struggle with what God has called them to do. Believers wrestle with God’s mission. Perhaps you can relate to Jonah in how he sits in the uncomfortable space where he believes in God but also resists God. The Assyrians are Jonah’s enemies. How can God show mercy to Israel’s enemies? How can Jonah end up being tossed from a ship to save a crew that does not know God? It seems unfair to Jonah, and that is what the story is trying to address, the relationship between God’s mercy and God’s justice.

Being tossed into the sea probably felt like punishment to Jonah and he likely anticipated certain death, but God had other plans. God was raising Jonah to the life he was called. There is a lesson that can be found in this fishy story. We might see from this that even in our darkest moments, even when we resign ourselves to despair, we do not know God’s plans for us. The darkest hour may just be the beginning of a new day.

To be continued…

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