HE DESERTED HAWAIIAN BEACH WAS a long way from New York City. The last stars were drifting away as I crawled out of my sleeping bag and found a perch on a driftwood log to await the sunrise. Beside me a waterfall dropped a hundred feet over a green cliff. Slow, sleepy waves rolled in against the shore. For at least this weekend I could leave behind the rumors of a war in Iraq then filling the newspapers back home.
Suddenly the ocean in front of me split, and a humpback whale shot up full-length and crashed back into the sea. Shock, then awe! As I recovered my wits, I considered this visitation as a sign, the sign of Jonah (prejudiced, I suppose, by the popular belief that it was a whale that swallowed Jonah—though the Bible does not say). Now might be a good time to revisit the story of Jonah and see what wisdom that greatest of all fish stories might reveal.
Jonah is a quick read—four chapters, 48 verses. With no time to waste, it starts with a bang: “Once upon a time, Yahweh’s word came to Jonah, Amittai’s son, ‘Set out, go to Nineveh, the great city, and preach against it. Because their wickedness has risen up to me.’”*
I recalled that Nineveh was on the Tigris River in present-day Iraq, a few hundred miles north of Baghdad. And as I continued to read, it occurred to me that at that moment (in 2003) cruise missiles and smart bombs had been programmed to rain down armaments on that ancient place, once again targeted for destruction. Suddenly, that first verse of the book of Jonah took on a modern dimension.
How easy to see Jonah as a foolish, befuddled prophet. His name means “dove,” and he thinks he can fly away from God. But perhaps his idea wasn’t so silly. In his culture many thought that God dwelled in a specific place: Jerusalem. And Jonah was betting He would stay home.
Perhaps this is why he falls asleep in the bottom of the ship and misses the approach of the great wind. But when he awakes, he learns one of the main lessons we see in his story: Yahweh is in control. He controls the weather, the animals, the plants, and the fates of great cities. As the story unfolds, we will see God “appoint” a large fish, a worm, a bush, a dry wind.
As Jonah himself declares in chapter 1, verse 9: “Yahweh is the God of heaven, who made the sea and dry land.” He is in control because He is the Creator.
Prophet Under Shock
The storm increases. The Gentile sailors “each cry out to his own god”—any port (any god) will do in this storm! The captain begs Jonah to pray to his God. “Perhaps your god will concern himself about us, so that we do not perish.”
But the prophet of the Lord is speechless. He doesn’t plead with Yahweh for salvation, speaking only after the sailors discover that he is the cause of the storm and pepper him with questions.
“Who are you? Where do you come from? Who are your people? What have you done?” But instead of telling them his story—the narrative that would have revealed whose he is—Jonah responds with an utterly orthodox statement: “I am a Hebrew who worships the God who made sea and land.”
He is right—and completely wrong.
For it’s the sailors who turn their prayers to Yahweh. And even in the midst of great danger, they take time to wrestle with the ethical questions of whether it is right or wrong to abandon Jonah to the waves. They row for shore until the bitter end. They are more active, wise, humane, and open to God’s voice than is Jonah, the prophet. As chapter 1 ends, they “are filled with great fear of Yahweh, and make sacrifices and vows.” They are, we might say, Jonah’s first converts.
But the storm rages on, and unlike the dove Noah put out the window of the ark, when Jonah is released from the ship, he doesn’t float above the chaos. Instead, he sinks into the water, where he expects to die. But somehow he survives for three days in the sea, and somehow he finds himself back on land.
Somehow? That fish is mentioned in only three verses of the whole book. But what a scene-stealer, the monster that swallows Jonah and takes him down to a place so remote Jonah calls it “the roots of the mountains.” Then Jonah is delivered onto one of the most unambiguous borders on earth, a beach. And here he finds that Yahweh remains just as clear: “Set out, go to Nineveh, the great city, and preach to it the message which I tell you.”
God doesn’t want sacrifice and songs from Jonah (although He must have appreciated the only psalm composed to the rhythm of a fish’s heartbeat). Neither does He take this teaching moment to lecture Jonah on obedience. He simply repeats, with great power, “Go to Nineveh, the great city.”
God needs an able prophet, but His deep interest lies with Nineveh, the capital city of Israel’s enemies. During the long hike across the desert, this idea must have shocked Jonah repeatedly. “I am a Hebrew,” he had told the sailors, meaning, “I am one of the chosen. My God is the Savior and strength of Israel, the center of God’s attention on earth.”
He Didn’t See Things That Way Before
Now Jonah is asked to learn something completely new: just as God is Creator of land and sea, He is God of all peoples, not Israel alone. It’s a lesson easy to misplace in any age, and it challenges us in a time when violence, threat, and hatred can appear out of a blue September sky. But we would be unfaithful to forget that God is the God of all people. Even of wicked and bad people. Even of our enemies. And as Jonah says in chapter 4:2, repeating Exodus 34: “God is a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in clemency, who deplores disaster.”
Jonah marches right into Ninevah, “the great city,” and preaches his extremely short sermon: “Another 40 days and Nineveh will be destroyed.” He forgoes any wishy-washy confusion. His oracle is not conditional.
But the results of this miniseries are stunning: “The people of Nineveh put their trust in God.” They repent in sackcloth and ashes. Even the king of Nineveh. And like the sailors before, not only do they repent, they change their ways. They turn from their wicked ways and from the deeds of violence. The king throws aside his robe of power. The city goes on a fast of repentance.
As recently as 80 years ago, people in Mosul, the modern city across the river from Nineveh’s ruins, now the third largest city in Iraq, still practiced three days of fasting in honor of the fast of the Ninevites. In Mosul there’s a place of worship called the Mosque of Nebi Yunus—mosque of Jonah—a shrine of great sanctity in Muslim eyes. Jonah’s story is told in the Koran. Every year at Yom Kippur, a day of fasting that is the holiest day among Jews, the book of Jonah is read in the afternoon as a meditation on the true meaning of repentance.
And what happened in Nineveh? When God saw how they had turned from their evil deeds, He turned from His plan of destruction.
Sulking Over Success
Jonah becomes angry with God’s forgiveness. The same Jonah who disobeyed God and was spared resents forgiveness when offered to others. He says, “Just what I suspected! That is why I wanted to flee to Tarshish in the first place. I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (4:1, 2).
In his head Jonah has always grasped the fundamental nature of Yahweh. He knew he couldn’t count on God to destroy whole cities and peoples. But his head knowledge hadn’t been connected to his heart. And so in an act more outrageous than fleeing God, Jonah now accuses God of being too kind, too slow to anger, too steadfast in His love. Jonah wants tough love. He demands that God be more realistic about how the world works. He wants God to act more like a human, to use His power to perform human justice.
Just as Yahweh noticed the turning of the Ninevites, now He notices the anger burning in Jonah. God says to him: “Is it right for you to be angry?”
By now Jonah has learned not to argue with God.
So he acts out a passive-aggressive gesture—he goes onto a hillside outside the city and sets up a little shelter. “Let’s just see what happens,” he says; and waits for destruction, justice, revenge.
That is how he wants the story to end.
Instead, however, it ends with Jonah and God on a dusty plain under the hot sun. It had started with a worldwide stage: Joppa; Tarshish; the wide, wide sea. Now the spotlight has narrowed to a tiny shadow from a single vine. It began with God speaking to Jonah, and it ends again with words from God. His first word to Jonah is a command; His last is a question.
God sends a plant to shade the sulking Jonah. Then Jonah, who didn’t seem amazed by the great leviathan, is thrown off course by a tiny worm that destroys his vine. Instead of providing the shock and awe of destroying the great city, as Jonah desired, God withers Jonah’s last refuge. It is just too much for the prophet. He begs to die, another attempt to flee the presence of this unfathomable God of things both great and small.
“I would be better off dead!”
God says, “Is it right that you are angry about the plant dying?”
Jonah replies defiantly—his last words in the story: “It is right that I am angry enough to die.”
So what’s more upsetting for Jonah than a storm at sea, than being gulped by a large fish, than street corner witnessing in Nineveh? It is the moment his moral, logical world turns upside down. The moment he realizes that his understanding of fairness, justice, and mercy are hopelessly different from God’s. He is not at home in such wide open spaces.
Yahweh’s graciousness never ends. In the last verse of the story, He says, “Look, you have pity on the poor plant that withered and died like the grass that it is. Listen, Jonah, may I not have compassion on the city of Nineveh with its 120,000 people who do not know their left from their right, plus all their animals?”
I used to see Jonah’s story as a child’s story; it was mostly about obedience and making clear that God is in control. Later, I saw it as vividly demonstrating that God extends His care and attention to all peoples equally. Now I sense a murkier wisdom here: God is God. Yes, His character is one of loving-kindness. Yet He forgives whom He wills and destroys whom He wills. The king of Nineveh learns this when he admits he is not in control even after the whole city repents, “Who knows if God will turn from his plan of destruction?” he asked.
Indeed, who knows?
Jonah’s story turns Job’s ancient question (Why do bad things happen to good people?) to a more bitter “Why aren’t the wicked destroyed as God promised?” But the answer is the same: My ways are not your ways. I am God and you aren’t.
*We’ve not been able to identify the scriptural quotations in this article with any of the regular versions of the Bible. We assume the author is offering his own paraphrase.—Editors.
Dan J. Fahrbach was living in New York City at the time he wrote this article. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and young daughter.