Authored by Scott MacGregor
One of the most well-known-but-strange stories in the Bible is the one related in the book of Jonah. Nearly everyone, it seems, knows about Jonah and the whale. It’s a Sunday school favorite. But it’s also one of those perplexing tales that makes one wonder, “Why, God, why?” Let’s look at a little background.
The first mention of Jonah, son of Amittai, in the Bible is in the book of 2 Kings:
“Jeroboam II recovered the territories of Israel between Lebo-hamath and the Dead Sea, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had promised through Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath-hepher.”1
This establishes some very helpful and intriguing facts. First, Jonah was alive in the reign of Jeroboam II (circa 800–750 B.C.) and was from the town of Gath-hepher, a few miles from Nazareth in the northern kingdom called Israel that had split off from Judah to the south after the reign of Solomon.
The Old Testament is the book of the Jews, the name given to inhabitants of Judah, and the people of Israel, though once united with them, have by the time of Jonah become peripheral to Jewish history. They would soon “vanish” from recorded history altogether as the “lost tribes of Israel” when the Assyrians conquered the land and scattered them hither, thither, and yon in 721 B.C. In the meantime, they’d been enemies of Judah and regularly went to war with them. They’d also strayed from the monotheistic faith of their forefathers and were now basically pagan in their religious practices.
So it is somewhat of a conundrum in my opinion that a story of a prophet who “worked for the enemy” is in the Jewish scriptures at all. But it is an intriguing story.
Jonah has already got a reputation as a prophet, according to the passage from 2 Kings, when the Lord calls him to go and prophesy against Nineveh, the capital of Assyria.
I can understand Jonah’s reluctance. Nineveh was a wicked city and the capital of a cruel empire. The Assyrians have a deserved reputation in the annals of history as particularly nasty and vicious. Nineveh would not be a preferred assignment of any prophet of doom, as it would most likely result in his own very painful doom. Being a prophet is a risky occupation, as Jesus attested when He said, even to the Jews, “I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town.”2 So if the Jews of that time would do that, what would these bloodthirsty pagans do?
Jonah doesn’t see much hope in the assignment, so he heads off in the exact opposite way. Instead of going east to Nineveh, he decided to head west, by boat, to Tarshish, reportedly the furthest trading post of the mercantile Phoenicians, who were the neighbors of Israel.
“Sorry, God, I have this Mediterranean cruise I want to go on. Perhaps You can get someone else.” You would think that God would sigh, shrug His shoulders, and start looking for another candidate. But He didn’t. It would seem that if God has a particular calling for you, He can be pretty intent to see you take it up.
So Jonah gets on the boat, and before long, a storm of epic proportions starts up. After dumping the cargo and doing everything they can to ride out the storm, the crew finally resorts to casting lots to see who is bringing this curse upon them. The lot falls on Jonah, and he confesses that he is the problem and tells them to toss him overboard. Apparently the crew was reluctant to do this, and first they tried rowing to shore, but that was all in vain. So Jonah “walked the plank.” And that story gave rise to the use of “jonah” with regard to anyone that seems to be bringing bad luck to the voyage. And unfortunately, once branded as a “jonah,” many shared Jonah’s fate of being tossed overboard.
Now, for Jonah, the story didn’t end there, because that mysterious “big fish” swallows him. Sperm and fin whales visit the Mediterranean, so they can be big-fish candidates. Although a person couldn’t get down the throat of a fin whale, and sperm whales, unlike fin whales, have teeth which they use to chomp on whatever they catch. There are a number of theories of what and how it happened, but when it comes down to it, the whole episode is highly improbable under purely natural circumstances. If the story is true, then it has to involve supernatural, miraculous intervention for Jonah to survive three days in such an environment as the account says he endured—not to mention, compose the prayer related in chapter two of his book while in that predicament, and then come out sane at the end of it. But after the three days, the Lord had the big fish vomit Jonah up on the coast, apparently just about where he had boarded the boat at the beginning of his cruise.
And guess what? Sure enough, God again calls him to go prophesy against Nineveh. Having realized that the assignment was apparently not optional, Jonah heads off to that great and wicked city. Once he enters the city, he spends the day crying out, “Nineveh will be destroyed.” But surprise, surprise, the Ninevites realize that they have been a bad lot, and at the king’s command everyone repents and fasts in sackcloth and ashes, including the livestock.
Meanwhile, Jonah has taken shelter at a vantage point outside of Nineveh to watch the impending fireworks. When God tells him that He has changed His mind and He is now going to spare Nineveh, Jonah is livid and more or less tells God, “I knew it. You dragged me through this ordeal and You change Your mind. What was it all for?”
And you’ve got to have a little sympathy for Jonah, because he did go through the wringer and he was hoping for a little “satisfaction” as recompense. The Assyrians were a bunch of thugs, at least when it came to warring on their neighbors, and he was looking forward to seeing them get their comeuppance. But now he even had to give up on that, and he was not at all happy.
So what was the point? And why was this story even in the Bible? To the Jews it was the story of a foreign prophet prophesying against another foreign country and nothing really happening at the end of it all. Seems they could have dropped it from the collection of scripture they called the “Nevi’im”3 altogether. But they didn’t. It seems also that it was deliberately left in, as it apparently was not written until several centuries after the events—just about the time that they were compiling and systematizing their scriptures.
To me, there are several interesting things about the story of Jonah. First, it’s a story on the fantastical side that strains credulity. It sounds a bit like a Greek legend with his being swallowed by a fish for three days. But Jesus used it as a paradigm of what He was going to go through. And I think He was doing this for not only the obvious reason that He was going to die and rise again in three days, but also to imply that if they could believe the story of Jonah, then why couldn’t people believe in Him and what He was saying? And He said it at least twice according to the Gospel of Matthew:
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.”4
And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed.5
So it would appear that the Jonah story received Jesus’ seal of authenticity.
It is also a terrific story about doing what God asks and not putting Him off. He has ways of bringing you back to do what you need to do. Jonah was the man for that job, whether he liked it or not. Now I am not saying that God will have us swallowed by whales if we put Him off or try to run away from a task He has set before us, but He has ways of getting us back to where He needs us and doing what He needs us to do. There are other examples in the Bible of this. Moses is a good one. He took off from Egypt for 40 years, but God had him go back to finish what he started.
I think for me the biggest lesson is to not get angry with God if, when circumstances change, He doesn’t do what I feel He had indicated He would. The book of Jonah leaves us hanging, as it doesn’t tell us whether Jonah cooled down from his hissy fit when God explained that the Ninevites had repented, and He needed to repent from the disaster He had warned them was going to happen. There have been times in my life when I was pretty frustrated when things didn’t pan out as I thought God had told me they would. Obviously there were reasons God had that meant a different outcome was better in the overall. Nevertheless, we, like Jonah, might have a rough time of it, and we can get upset when all we have done and been through seems to have been in vain.
Even though I try to not be self-centered, I am at the center of my own universe, and so tend to judge things from what would be best for me. But what’s best for God and others is the Christian’s life-code, and that is a code that is not generally easy to live up to. However, tough or not, that is what God expects, and the book of Scotty Mac, like Jonah’s, doesn’t have a satisfactory conclusion … yet. But if God has anything to do with it … well … anything is possible.
1 2 Kings 14:25 NLT
2 Matthew 23:34 ESV
4 Matthew 12:38–41 NIV
5 Matthew 16:1–4 ESV
Read by Stephen Larriva. Music by sindustry(CC). Copyright© 2013 by The Family International