The story of Jonah is the original “whale of a tale”. Yet another of those stories we first heard as children and whose images are clear in our heads. Jonah is tossed overboard from the ship on which he is a passenger and is swallowed by a whale, spending three days and three nights in the belly of the whale.
But what’s so interesting is that it is rare that people know much more than that about the story of Jonah. We all know about the whale, but what on earth is that story about? For many of us, “Jonah gets swallowed by a whale” is pretty much the entire story.
II. HOW LITTLE WE KNOW
It turns out that even those who study the scriptures for a living know little about the text. There is an awful lot of conjecture and debate about this story of a mere 48 verses.
There is considerable debate over when the book was written. At the earliest, it could have been written during the reign of King Jeroboam II of Israel, under whose reign, according to 2 Kings 14:25, we know a prophet named Jonah son of Amittai lived. At the earliest, that would date the text to the 8th Century BC, during Jeroboam’s reign . However, other scholars have pointed out that there seem to be a fair number of literary allusions and references to portions of scripture that would not have taken final form until well after the Babylonian exile. And so, it’s possible that this book is written as late as the 4th Century BC. The narrative itself contains no dating material, such as the reign of a particular king, or some other event. Even an examination of the Hebrew vocabulary and grammar yields no definitive answer. And so the best we can say is that it was written somewhere within a four hundred year window.
There are a number of details in the story that are not clear. For example, we’re not really sure where Tarshish was. Most scholars assume “Tarshish” is referring to a Phoenician mining colony named Tartessa on the southern coast of Spain.
And there are various vocabulary words that are not well understood. Though the story talks about the “bush” that God appoints to cover Jonah with shade, we’re not really sure what the word we translate as “bush” or “plant” means. The word qiqayon could possibly mean “castor bean plant.”
In addition to the dating and some of the details, we don’t even know what genre it is. Scholars have proposed that Jonah could be an allegory, didactic story, fable, fairy tale, folktale, historical account, legend, Märchen, mashal, midrash, myth, novella, parable, parody, prophetic tale, saga, satire, sermon, short story, and tragedy.
The book is fairly unusual among the books of the Twelve Prophets. It is the only book that has no prophecy in it—no traditional prophetic oracles, unless you count the “Forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” It is the only book that is entirely narrative. And that narrative is not very positive in its portrayal of the prophet himself. In fact, the gentile ship crew and the people of Nineveh come off much more favorably than the Israelite Jonah does.
There is a fair amount of humor in the book, much of it irony and word play. In fact, some have pointed out that in addition to יונה Yonah being Hebrew for “dove” it might also be related to a word root that means “to complain.”
There are elements of folklore, satire, pious prayer, with a semi-historical context. Is it a parable? Are we meant to sympathize with Jonah or mock him? Is this book poking fun at the prophets as self-righteous proclaimers of doom? Or is it merely using a minor prophet as a foil?
There’s a lot we don’t know about this text and the debates rage on.
III. WHAT WE THINK WE KNOW
Of course, as with the other stories we have looked at in this series, there is a lot we know (or think we know) that isn’t necessarily so.
A. The Destruction of Nineveh
We know that Jonah is called to proclaim destruction to Nineveh. Except that in the beginning, the first time that the Lord calls Jonah, he is merely told to Ninevah to “cry out against it” that their evil has risen up to God’s presence. Later, after Jonah’s adventures at sea, God tells Jonah again to “proclaim the message that I tell you.” And so Jonah says that in “Another forty days, Nineveh will be over thrown.” Now, we are inclined to read that as “destroyed” but the Hebrew term is somewhat ambiguous. The word means something like “turned over” or “tossed over” and while it can mean destroyed, it can also mean transformed. Changed, reformed, remade. Jonah is proclaiming in double meanings. Thus while we assume that God intends destruction for Nineveh, it is entirely possible that God had something else in mind all along.
B. The Whale
Now, of course, the most familiar element to the story is the whale. If you asked people on the street to mention the first thing they thought of when they heard the name “Jonah”—after you had explained that you weren’t talking about the Jonas brothers—they’d likely respond “oh, the whale.”
The whale is the most notable part of the story, isn’t it? Perhaps because it’s the most fantastic part. A man gets swallowed by a whale and is in the belly of the whale for three days and three nights before being spit out.
Well here we come up against one of those things we know but that doesn’t bear up under scrutiny. The text mentions only that a “great fish” was appointed by God to swallow Jonah. What’s more, the fish doesn’t just spit Jonah out (or “spew out” as the NRSV says). The Hebrew text tells us that the fish vomits Jonah out. That’s a good deal funnier, isn’t it?
C. The Importance of the Whale, Uh, Great Fish
But we also know that whether it’s a whale or a “great fish” it’s the most notable part of the whole story. But is it really that central?
In the gospels, Jesus refers to the “sign of Jonah” as being the sign of one who descends into the underworld for three days before being brought to new life again. It is a sign that Jesus applies to himself and to his own death and resurrection.
For Christians, the whale, I mean, great fish has taken on a central role in the story, for it become a prefiguring of Christ’s own death and resurrection. And so it must be the centerpiece.
But when we look more carefully at the story we realize that the great fish is just one of many great things in the narrative. Nineveh is a great city. There is a great wind and a great storm. The sailors fear with a great fear. The nobles of Nineveh are the great ones. When we look at this we realize that the great fish, far from being the centerpiece of the story, is another element in the story that testifies to the “larger than life” quality of the narrative.
So, if the whale, er, fish is not the centerpiece of the story, then what is?
IV. UNDERSTANDING THE CONTEXT
There has been a long history of interpretation of this text. And many people have seen in it dichotomies between atonement and repentance, universalism and particularism, realization and compliance, justice and mercy.
But this story is really about something much more powerful than any of those issues.
To truly understand the power of this story we must understand the context. While the dating of the book of Jonah is difficult to ascertain, if we are to understand that the character of Jonah son of Amittai is meant to refer to the Jonah son of Amittai referenced in 2 Kings, then we have a good idea of when this story is supposed to take place.
This would place the story in the early 8th Century BC. During that time, King Jeroboam II of the Northern Kingdom of Israel had managed to reclaim much of the territory of Israel lost to the Aramean kingdom centered in Damascus. The Arameans had been conquered by the rising Assyrian Empire, centered on the city of Nineveh. So, while Israel had managed to increase its borders back to its earlier size, there was another danger looming out there. For the Assyrian Empire that had defeated Israel’s rival Aram, would not long after turn its attention to Israel itself. Indeed, in the late 8th Century, the Assyrian Empire would conquer the Northern Kingdom and wipe it out altogether. And so, while this is a relatively good time for the Northern Kingdom, it is not as if the Israelites are terribly fond of the new big bully on the block: Assyria.
So, when Jonah gets the message that he is supposed to go and preach in Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, he is not exactly pleased. In fact, he is so displeased with this idea is he that he gets on a ship and heads as far as he can in the opposite direction. Instead of going east to Nineveh, he travels west to Tarshish, which if it is indeed the Phoenician port of Tartessus in modern day Gilbraltar as many scholars suspect, then it would have represented the other end of the world for Jonah. The farthest he could possibly travel away from Nineveh.
Let’s imagine a parallel situation. Let’s imagine that God comes to a prophet living in France in the 1930’s and says “Get up and go to Berlin.” Or perhaps to a prophet in Czechoslovakia in 1968, saying, “Get up and go to Moscow.” And the prophet immediately gets on a ship and heads to Tierra Del Fuego at the southernmost tip of South America. As far away from Germany or Russia as she could go.
Because there’s one thing the prophet is afraid of more than going deep into foreign, enemy territory and preaching a message of doom and the need for repentance. The only thing that scares them more than that is the fear that their missionary efforts will be successful.
V. THE SCANDAL OF GRACE
Indeed, the true understanding of the story comes after Jonah has preached in Nineveh and the city has repented:
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.Jonah 4:1–2
Jonah goes to Nineveh as God commands. He preaches that the city will be over thrown. Everyone in Nineveh—even the animals!—repents and puts on sackcloth and ashes. They fast. They pray. And God spares the city.
Jonah is annoyed. And he says to God that he knew this would happen. I knew it! he cries. I knew you would forgive them. You’re gracious and merciful and ready to relent from punishing. Jonah wanted them punished. Jonah knows how bad the Assyrians are, and he wants them wiped out. So much so that he cannot bear to see them spared and asks God to take his life from him.
So, God gives him a little object lesson. Jonah goes outside the city and builds a booth so he can watch what happens to Nineveh. God appoints a bush, much like he’d appointed the “great fish” earlier, and the bush grows up and gives Jonah shade and he’s happy. Then God appoints a worm to attack the bush and the bush dies so that the next day, the prophet is sitting out in the hot sun and sultry east wind miserable.
And then God drives the point home:
But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the LORD said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”Jonah 4:9–11
We’re perfectly comfortable with the idea that we get grace. We’re good people, it only makes sense. Why should those bad people get grace and mercy? They don’t deserve it! We are scandalized by the idea that God could love people we think are despicable.
A few years ago, we went on our fall retreat down to Joe’s cabin in the Shenandoah. We were sitting around the campfire playing an icebreaker game. The question we were answering was “Other than Jesus, what person from history would you like to meet?” The usual names were being tossed around: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Einstein, Lincoln, etc. And then we came to Sidney, and Sidney said, “I would like to meet Hitler.” We were stunned, but then he continued, “Because I would like to see just how deep God’s grace is capable of going.”
It was a scandalous answer. But that didn’t make it any less true. God’s grace is greater than our comfort levels for it. This has always been the case. One prominent New Testament scholar, E.P. Sanders, writes that what made Jesus’ message about forgiveness of sinners so scandalous was not that he was preaching mercy to ordinary sinful people, but that he was preaching God’s forgiveness and love for wicked people whom he was not necessarily asking to repent. That is, Jesus wasn’t just talking about ordinary sinners—you and me—he was talking about really bad people. And that the Kingdom of God included them, too. You begin to get the sense of why the religious leadership might have been scandalized by that.
Jonah represents not just the prophetic establishment. Jonah doesn’t just represent the Israelite people, whom some commentators see as “particularists” not willing to share their blessings with others. No, Jonah stands for us all.
We are all reluctant to share grace. We are all reluctant to allow for the possibility that God loves those whom we despise. We are the ones who would be upset about the death of a shade tree but celebrate the utter destruction of those who opposed us.
Today is Reformation Sunday. It is the Sunday that we celebrate the Protestant heritage begun when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses onto the cathedral door in Wittenberg sparking the Protestant Reformation. It is a Sunday when we sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and celebrate the great message of the Reformation that “salvation is by grace through faith, not on account of works of the law.” We celebrate how this message lifted up the gospel as a gospel of freedom for us, now liberated from the burdens of our guilt and fear.
And yet do we truly embrace what this message means? Do we truly understand the power of saying that we are saved by grace? Do we realize how much that takes us out of the equation? Are we comfortable doing that? Probably not.
For if we truly proclaim a Gospel of God’s grace, then we have to admit that that God is gracious and free to love and to pardon whomever God wishes to. That, my friends, scandalizes us.
Because what it means is that God does not just love the nice people. God loves the mean ones, too. God doesn’t just love the righteous, God loves the axe murderers and pedophiles, too. We might find them in the Kingdom of God as well.
And so it’s not just hostile foreign powers that might send us running to take a ship to Tarshish. Some would go rather than share God’s grace with liberals. Others would go rather than share it with conservatives. Some would go rather than share it with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons. Others would go rather than share it with homophobes. Some, pro-choicers; others, pro-lifers. We could stay here all night and find all the categories of people that some people would no doubt exclude from God’s mercy.
The story of Jonah is a short little story, only 48 verses long, and yet it has a long reach. For in this masterpiece we see prophecy written out in the humor, the irony, and the satire of the adventures of our hapless prophet Jonah. For in him we see ourselves, jealous of our blessings, resistant to share with those whom we dislike. We, like Jonah, are called to soar like doves, but spend most of our time descending: going down to Joppa, going down in to the ship, going down to sleep… We like Jonah begrudge others the blessings we feel we have earned, but would be scandalous for God to bestow on others less deserving.
And in this short but powerful story, it is not the whale that is the centerpiece, it is God. A God of infinite love and grace. A God of mercy and reconciliation. For the Israelite and the Ninevite alike. For me. For you. For everyone.
Jonah 1:1-2:3; 2:10-3:10
Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.
But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. The captain came and said to him, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.”
The sailors said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” “I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them so.
Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.” Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them. Then they cried out to the LORD, “Please, O LORD, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you.” So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the LORD even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.
But the LORD provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, saying, “I called to the LORD out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then the LORD spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.
The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VII., “Jonah” p. 466.
Francis Frick, A Journey Through the Hebrew Scriptures, 2 nd Ed., p. 419.
William P. Brown, Obadiah Through Malachi (Westminister Bible Companion), p. 25.
Frick, p. 422.
Brown., p. 17.