The Five Story-lines of Jonah
The Rebellion - (Jonah 1:1–3). The story begins as Jonah the son of Amittai is called by God:
“Go to Nineveh, that great city, and speak out against it; I am aware of how wicked its people are.”
Ordinarily when a prophet is told, “Arise, go to X” the story then continues, “And so the prophet arose and went to X.” But not so much with Jonah. When God told Jonah to go northeast to Nineveh, he sets out 180 degrees opposite, toward Joppa, to catch a boat to Tarshish (probably Spain). Immediately we are left thinking… what will happen to a prophet who so blatantly disobeys a direct command from God? Surely this can't be good. And if you have a sense of God's heart, you also wonder what will happen to the city of Nineveh because of Jonah disobedience? This is more than just a thickening plot-line for an interesting story. It is unfortunately a repeated human behavior that always has a terrible consequence. The next question should then be - is this a teachable moment for me?
The Storm - (Jonah 1:4–16). Here is the answer to what happens to Jonah. The Lord sends a storm, the story continues, and the ship carrying Jonah is in danger of breaking up and sinking - leaving all of its passengers to perish. Now we meet the ship’s crew. Historical research from an ancient Midrasha (a Jewish Seminary for women) tells that a ship with that kind of travel range would have had a crew from at least 50 to 70 nations of the world. This would have been for the purpose of commerce and control of the ship. In any case they were not Israelites (Jews) and would be considered outsiders and gentiles by those who would hear the story. How did this crew respond to this violent storm? Of course, they prayed, “each one to his own god.” Then they act, throwing the cargo overboard to lighten the ship. And where is Jonah, the hero/anti-hero of our story? The captain finds him down in the hold (space for cargo) of the ship, sound asleep. The captain (again, an “outsider”) seems a decent and pious sort, too. His first words are not, “Why aren’t you helping?” but “Why aren’t you praying?” He says to Jonah,
“Get up and pray to your god for help. Maybe he will feel sorry for us and spare our lives.”
The storm gets worse. The crew cast lots to determine who is responsible for their misfortune. Perhaps there is a criminal on board. Of course, the lot falls on Jonah.
Now the crew comes at Jonah with a barrage of questions, like CNN going after Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “Who are you? What are you doing here? Where are you from? What is your work?” Jonah tells them that he is a Hebrew who worships the Lord, the God of Heaven, who made both sea and land. Jonah tells the terrified men that he is running away from the Lord.
“Throw me overboard and the storm will end and the sea will calm down”
But they do not listen to Jonah, and ironically the sailors try to save his life. They row all the harder to reach the shore. Their sense of duty and human compassion and concern is impressive under the circumstances - they owe Jonah nothing. But their efforts are in vain because storm and sea become even more difficult and treacherous. Finally, they throw Jonah overboard and the sea becomes calm. The awestruck crew offer a sacrifice and promise to serve the God of Israel.
The Fish - (Jonah 1:17–2:10). The story could have ended there, with Jonah disappearing under the waves. Then the point of Jonah’s story would have been, “Don’t disobey the Lord’s call!” But there is more. Jonah has not been forgotten and left to drown at sea. God sends a great fish to swallow Jonah; for three days and three nights the prophet makes his home in the fish’s belly. From there the bible says the he offered a prayer to the Lord. British author Aldous Huxley (Brave New World - 1932) wrote a sketch of the scene:
“Seated upon the convex mound
of one vast kidney Jonah prays
and Sings his canticles and hymns.
Making the hollow vault resound
God’s goodness and mysterious ways
‘Till the great fish spouts music as he swims.”
Then the Lord gives the command, the fish spits Jonah up on the shore-line and there he is, sitting in the sunshine.
The City - (Jonah 3:1–10). We are right back where we started from. The Lord speaks to Jonah, “Arise, go to Nineveh.…This time Jonah having gotten his sea legs under him knows better than to disobey. He “arose and went to Nineveh.” However, he goes without sincere or genuine enthusiasm to deliver his message, five words in Hebrew: “In forty days Nineveh will be destroyed.”
This announcement is like a spark that sets off an explosion of Ninevite repentance - from top to bottom. From the king to the humblest servants, even the animals, all put on sackcloth and sit in ashes to show that they are sorry for their sins. And God changes his mind and decides, not to punish them. Nineveh will survive - for a while!
The Question - (Jonah 4:1–11). How does Jonah feel about all this? We might expect him to be happy. Then when he returned home and his family asks him, “How did it go in Nineveh?” he would be overjoyed! What evangelist would not be delighted at the response of the people of Nineveh! But as we see in the real story, Jonah is not happy at all about how things went. “Lord, didn’t I say before I left home that this is just what you would do?” he complains. “That’s why I did my best to run away to Tarshish. I knew that you are a loving and merciful God, always patient, always kind, and always ready to change your mind and not punish. Now then, Lord, let me die. I am better off dead than alive.” (Jonah 4:2–3).
Here is what I hear Jonah saying. “If those outsiders from Nineveh get in, then I want out!” Do you hear that too? Well, in so many words he is - and even more.
Next Jonah sits outside the city of Nineveh and just looking at it, wondering what is going to happen. The heat is unbearable. The Lord causes a plant to grow, giving him some shade. This changes his mood briefly, until God commands a worm to attack the plant and it dies, prompting Jonah to tell God that he is “so deeply grieved about the plant that he wants to die." Jonah is still angry when the Lord asks him a question:
“You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. And should not I care about Nineveh, that great City, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well?”
And, there the story ends. Jonah, like you and I, must answer the questions.
Do I care about what God cares about?
If I do, then what am I doing about it?