I suppose that for many who don’t know their Bibles well, the story they might know is the one concerning the prophet Jonah is about him being swallowed by a whale (or big fish according to the Bible narrative). There is a lot more about Jonah that I want to get to though and having made him my latest focus in my Prophets of the Bible deliberations I am mindful there are always new things to be found. Jonah is often dismissed as a myth – after all being swallowed by a whale is rather incredible, as is being spewed up three days later, bodily intact, and that is putting aside all the other miracles recounted in the Book of Jonah (I count at least eight in total). The Book is remarkable in other ways too, in providing insights into God’s character and how He deals with people, that unlike much of the Old Testament is not specifically about Israel but rather wicked Nineveh and for once the messenger is its main focus.
There are two references to Jonah outside the Book of Jonah. The first is found in 2Kings 14:25-26, when shortly after bad king Jeroboam II came to power (782BC). It was not long after, and before 722BC, when Israel was taken into captivity by the very people Jonah was commissioned to prophesy against, that Jonah was called prophesy to the king – not a word of rebuke as might be expected but rather that God will bless Israel by restoring to them some of the land that had earlier been taken from them. As we will see, this side of God’s character is important in understanding the events that followed. The other reference is Matthew 12:39-41 when Jesus was asked for a sign, and the one he gave was of Jonah who spent three days and nights in the belly of the fish. Of significance is this was the only prophet Jesus cited in this manner and that Jonah was from the same place as Jesus, Nazareth. Also significant was those coming from Nazareth and the Galilee area were often looked down on by those from Judea with their more purist outlook to religion, less affected by passing international trade, and yet it was here that Jesus had his greatest ministry successes.
Chapter 1, the chapter people are generally more aware off recounts how Jonah was told by God to preach to the people of Nineveh, 750 miles from where he was based, about forthcoming judgment, and instead he tries to escape (foolishly, given God is omnipresent) and gets on a ship bound for Tarshish, 2000 miles away, in the opposite direction. Then came the storm and the response by the pagan sailors that this was to do with divine judgment, the need to pray, the drawing of lots to find the culprit, Jonah who was the culprit offering to be thrown overboard, the sailors reluctantly agreeing, and Jonah being swallowed by the huge fish, and the storm then calming, which greatly impressed the sailors.
Chapter 2 contains Jonah’s remarkable prayer of contrition, at the time of his and for all we know his actual death before being brought back to life experience. If there a time to get one’s attention then this was it, as Jonah cries out to God, reflects on his helpless states and dedicates himself to implementing God’s commands.
Chapter 3 shows Jonah being recommissioned having been vomited by the fish. He goes to Nineveh as commanded and delivers what is likely the most effective sermon ever delivered, and one that was contained in a mere five words. Without giving why’s and wherefores or elaborating, he tells the Ninevites their city will be destroyed in forty days, and led by the king who commanded all its citizens, as well as its animals, that the people fast in penitence. The people did repent and God’s judgement was averted.
Chapter 4 sees Jonah throw a tantrum, who strongly disagreed with God showing mercy on these wicked people and became angry. God’s reply was simple – do you have the right to be angry? We next see Jonah sitting at some outside the city vantage point to check out what was about to happen, thinking maybe that repentance might be short lived and God might revert to Plan A. By miraculous design, God causes a plant to grow up to give Jonah shade and just as quickly he sent a worm to kill it followed by the scorching wind to make Jonah even more uncomfortable, whereupon Jonah embarks on yet another sulk, who wishes again that he were dead. God in response reminds Jonah of his sovereignty, to do what he willed and to show compassion on Nineveh’s on its 120,000 residents, who couldn’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals.
As I reflect on lessons that can be drawn, the one that stands out is how God can show mercy on a people renowned for being wicked, who from Jonah’s perspective deserved all that had been threatened upon them. But it is not all one sided and a hundred years later a near neighbor of Jonah, Nahum, also pronounced God’s judgment over Nineveh, and this time it was carried through. I am intrigued at the gracious manner in which God handled his rebellious spokesperson, who as far as I can make out, screwed up several times during the story and yet God persisted with him, as prophet.
Another lesson, and not one all folk will agree with, came when I followed the US National prayer breakfast and two of the speeches. One spoke about the need to love one’s enemies and refrain from showing contempt and instead try to reach out, including in prayer. I realise it is easier said than done, especially if believing one’s enemy deserves contempt to be shown. This speech was delivered a day after the Trump impeachment acquittal with the President and the one launching the impeachment, Nancy Pelosi, sitting in close proximity. It seemed evident from Trump’s speech that he had reservations when it came to following this advice. While I am an on balance supporter of Trump and believe he had cause to be aggrieved, I couldn’t help feeling he needed to study Jonah.