Today we are continuing our Bible Stories for Grown Ups series by looking at the story of Jonah. This is one of those stories that is a bit polarizing due to its fantastical nature. ***SPOILER ALERT*** The story of Jonah involves a human being being swallowed by, and living in the stomach of, a fish for three days. As a kid I imagined that he built a fire and maybe hung some pictures on the wall, which sounds silly to me now. That’s an example of the pre-critical naïveté we talked about in week one.
I’ll never forget something that happened a few years ago related to this particular story. At the church I pastored in Kentucky we had a weekly Wednesday conversation group. It was one of those places, like Re:construct, where we talked about anything and everything. One week there was a woman there who was new to the community. Toward the end of our discussion, for reasons I can’t remember, we ended up talking about Jonah. In the process I made a throw away comment to the effect of, “I don’t take this story literally anyway.” Immediately I could tell this was not only brand new information for her, but that it was troubling to her. As we ended the time she started to walk out, and I walked her to the door and held out my fist for a bump, and said, “Are we good?”
She bumped my first and walked out, stunned by the thought that maybe, just maybe, the power of this story wasn’t found in whether or not it actually, literally and historically, happened. As the door closed I looked at a friend who was beside me and said, “We are never going to see her again.”
I was wrong. She came back, and that moment actually jump started her process of reimagining and reframing her faith. Now we laugh about that night, and celebrate it as an important moment on her journey.
So, let’s take another look at this story and try to reimagine what might be happening in it.
The story begins abruptly…
Jonah 1:1-2, CEB
1 The LORD’s word came to Jonah, Amittai’s son: 2 “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.”
Who is Jonah?
Jonah is only attested to in only one place outside of the book that bears his name. 2 Kings 14 mentions that Jonah was Amittai’s son and that he was from Gath-hepher in Israel. That doesn’t tell us much about him besides that he was a prophet to Israel. In the book of Jonah he is a nationalist prophet. There are different streams of prophets, some with a universal vision in which God brings everyone to the mountain for a feast. Others, have an exclusivist vision, in which God destroys the nations. The Jonah character in this story was in the latter, exclusivist camp.
One final detail before we continue. In the narrative context of this story (meaning when it was set, not when it was actually written) the empire that ruled and called the shots was Assyria. The capital city was Nineveh, the very city to which God calls Jonah to preach. The larger story is that eventually, in the year 722 BCE, the Assyrians conquered and deported the Israelites of the northern kingdom, leaving the southern kingdom of Judah as the sole Jewish state until they were conquered by Babylon in the 500s. The northern kingdom of Israel was actually lost to history after this moment.
Assyria would eventually wipe out Israel, and God calls Jonah to go to their capital and call them to repent or face destruction. If you are Jonah, what is your response? Do you happily go and try to convert your enemies? Jonah, like probably many of us, chooses a different option.
Jonah 1:3, CEB
3 So Jonah got up—to flee to Tarshish from the LORD! He went down to Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish. He paid the fare and went aboard to go with them to Tarshish, away from the LORD.
Jonah bolts. Can you blame him? Who wouldn’t? Who would actually choose to go to tell your enemies that they need to repent or they are gonna get it? (By the way, the idea that Jonah could go ‘away from the LORD’ reflects an ancient believe that deities were territorial, tied to specific geographical boundaries.) Jonah boards a boat headed for Tarshish, which is in the exact opposite direction of Nineveh. Yet, he doesn’t out run the LORD.
READ - Jonah 1:4-17, CEB
v. 17 Meanwhile, the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.
“God provides” is a theme, and perhaps one that is supposed to be a bit comical.
A great fish…
A dry east wind…
In my pre-critical naïveté I imagined Jonah just hanging out in the belly of the fish. Maybe he hung some pictures, built a fire, created a cozy little spot to spend his three days. The whole fish situation has inspired a lot of creative interpretation throughout history.
Chapter two of Jonah is a prayer / poem that takes place inside the fish.
A fun fact about the language in chapter two…
At first the fish is described as using masculine language, but then it shifts to feminine. The text reads, "Meanwhile, the LORD provided a great fish (masculine) to swallow Jonah. Jonah was in the belly of the fish (masculine) for three days and three nights. Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish (feminine)…”
This shift has been explained in interesting ways (my best guess? It’s actually a scribal error). Take this from the Jewish Encyclopedia:
Thus he [Jonah] spent three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, but would not pray. God then resolved to put him into another fish where he would be less comfortable. A female fish quick with young approached the male fish in which Jonah was, threatening to devour both unless Jonah were transferred to her, and announcing her divine orders to that effect… then Jonah was ejected from one fish into the over-filled belly of the other. Cramped for room and otherwise made miserable, Jonah finally prayed, acknowledging the futility of his efforts to escape from God…
So, in the belly of the fish, where Jonah has been chilling for three days, he decides to pray. Once he does…
Jonah 2:10, CEB
Then the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto the dry land.
Once he’s been ejected from the fish, Jonah decides it’s best to head to Nineveh to give a half-hearted sermon.
READ - Jonah 3-4
Jonah is a reluctant preacher, and the people (and animals) of Nineveh repent. God relents on the plans for destruction which makes Jonah furious with God. The story ends (much like the story of the Prodigal Son) open ended, with God asking Jonah…
Jonah 4:11, CEB
[C]an’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
Does Jonah come around? Does he ever get it? We get to decide, because the question that ends the book is a question for us: What do with do with a God who’s far more compassionate and generous than we are comfortable with at times.
A few takeaways…
This story isn’t about a fish. The fish is symbolic, but it’s not the point of the story. As Scott McKnight says in his book, The Blue Parakeet , “Missing the difference between God and the Bible is a bit like the person who reads Jonah and spends hours and hours figuring out if a human can live inside a whale—and what kind of whale it was—but never encounters God. The book is about Jonah’s God, not Jonah’s whale.”
Jonah is a story of reversals : What we expect to happen, doesn’t. There are surprises that would be quite shocking, especially to the original audience of this story. It’s gentile sailors who call on God for help, not Jonah. The king and people of Nineveh respond to God in obedience, and Jonah, the prophet of God, is disobedient. We expect Jonah to have a change of heart about his calling to preach to the people of Nineveh, but he really doesn’t. He gives one the most half-hearted sermons in history, and then gets angry at God because the people responded by repenting.
The Jonah story reminds us that our boundaries for who’s in and who’s out are just that, ours, and God isn’t bound by them.
As the late Rachel Held Evans so powerfully wrote, “What makes the gospel offensive isn’t who it keeps out but who it lets in.” Perhaps the question for us becomes, “Who do I want to exclude?” Maybe we also ask the question, “What is being asked of me that makes me want t run in the opposite direction?”
One final note. Based on the kind of Hebrew used in this story scholars date Jonah to sometime after the return from exile. Exile is what happened when the Babylonians defeated and deported the people of Judah. Maybe this story is a way of saying, “When we failed to act in ways that were just, generous, and compassionate we were swallowed up in exile.” In this sense Jonah is a story that offers a warning, that if we continue to engage with our enemies in hostility and vengeance, we are in really big trouble.
May we learn that lesson.
May we not run from our call to love, even our enemies.
And may we embrace a vision of God that is so expansive and universal that it makes us a bit uncomfortable.
Here are the thoughts from our conversation after hearing this message:
Being stuck in xenophobia and hatred keeps one from being fully human (doing God's will?)
To move in the right direction some stuff might need to be thrown overboard.
Letting go of your prejudices and rethinking your worldview might feel like being swallowed alive.