Holy Fools: Jonah

Holy Fools: Jonah

Holy Fools: Jonah.

WANTED: A fearless prophet needed for a ministry to the Gentiles. Must be willing to enter the capital of an evil enemy and demand repentance for their wickedness. Preaching experience required. Must be able to endure possible ridicule or assault. Burlap leisure wear recommended. Loud voice a plus. Walking shoes a must. Must overcome initial reluctance. Inevitable obedience required. When calling the enemy to account, a comfortable balance of justice and mercy is helpful. Maybe heavier on the mercy. Swimming skills might be needed. 

“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.” (Flannery O’Connor).

For many readers, Jonah has become a fictional character. Many have heard this fanciful story and said it must be a fable, or an allegory, or an ancient myth. The problem with that is that Jonah was singled out as a great preacher from Galilee in 2 Kings 14:25. We can historically point out his birthplace, his name, his father, even the ruler he served under as God’s prophet. There is no getting around this… The story of Jonah is most probably true, a piece of history, as crazy as that sounds. He was a prophet between 793-753 BC in Israel. The book was probably written sometime between 785-760 BC, and it has been accepted as historical by rabbinic literature. Jonah’s prophetic contemporaries were Amos, Isaiah and Micah.

Jonah eventually became an outstanding holy fool, fearless and effective. But he was at first very reluctant to accept God’s calling to Nineveh. God’s first words to Jonah were “Arise, go to Nineveh, and cry out against it.” This was not good news to Jonah. Nineveh was the capital of Israel’s hated enemies, the Assyrians. The city was well-populated, over 120,000 people, and full of violence and cruelty. The residents there practiced witchcraft and pagan idolatry, were known in that part of the world for their atrocities, and were unspeakably inhumane. Recent excavations have shown Nineveh to be 60 miles around the city walls. In addition to being understandably fearful, Jonah was resistant to this call from the Lord because they were Gentiles. During this time Israel was extending its borders and its people were full of nationalistic pride. They wanted nothing to do with the unchosen people. These Gentiles, they thought, deserved nothing but the harshest of judgments from God.

So Jonah did not want to be the type of fool who would walk through enemy territory preaching the word of the Lord. It seemed foolhardy, too dangerous, and even unbiblical to approach Gentiles in that way. So what did Jonah do? He takes a ship on the Mediterranean Sea going in the opposite direction, towards the magical garden spot on the coast of Spain called Tarshish. That’s quite a different assignment than the one God had planned for him. So, in God’s mercy, Jonah’s ship gets caught in a storm brought by God, he gets thrown in the Sea to quiet the storm, and then swallowed whole by a giant fish sent on assignment from our ever-creative God. Jonah wasn’t listening before, but he sure was listening to God now. The Lord finally got Jonah’s attention. And a humbled Jonah sings a mighty prayer sitting there in the digestive system of a giant fish. What kind of fish was that? It could have been a whale shark, a whale, or maybe a special one that God created just for that occasion.

Why did God in His sovereignty send a fish, of all things? Several reasons come to mind. He wanted to save Jonah from drowning. He wanted to get Jonah’s attention, not kill him. God still had plans for Jonah. God wanted to teach Jonah a lesson. God wanted to punish Jonah for running away, but the Lord didn’t want to destroy him. God wanted to give Jonah a second chance. God wanted to repeat His call to Jonah and give him another opportunity to obey. Also, Jonah was stuck in the middle of the Sea somewhere, and what more efficient method of transportation could there be than in a living submarine? And then to spit out Jonah within walking distance of Nineveh? The fish was a  miraculous act of mercy, any way you look at it.

So there he was, trapped in a tiny space with murky water everywhere, rotting fish floating around, seaweed getting on his clothes and in his hair. Not only that, but he was stuck in a frightening darkness with no hope of natural light. Jonah was finally a captive audience for God. Jonah thought he was very smart by avoiding God, but he won’t win in the end. In that fish, Jonah went from a selfish fool to a holy fool. He sung a song of thankfulness, quoting or alluding to the Psalms in almost every line of his song. And he seems to gain confidence in the Lord as his song progresses from merely describing his plight and reviewing his predicament, to expressing faith in the God who has rescued him from certain death. Jonah closed his song with a classic biblical statement of faith, “Salvation comes from the Lord.”

After three days of smelly fish and total darkness, the giant fish spit Jonah onto a shore about 500 miles from Nineveh. Jonah, with his renewed faith and commitment to the Lord’s command, walked the whole way into enemy territory. Then he walked throughout Nineveh for three days, preaching fire and brimstone. He effectively preached judgment to Nineveh if in 40 days they didn’t repent. Miraculously, everybody in the city, from the king to all its citizens, repented and committed to turn their lives around to righteousness. And God mercifully forgave them for their cruelty and violence and demonic idolatry.

But Jonah resented God’s mercy. He wanted to see Nineveh get burned to the ground in judgment. He was disgusted that God would be true to His nature and forgive these pagan Gentiles. Jonah even acknowledged the famous passage in Exodus 34:6 which unpacks God’s character, “You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abundant in loving-kindness, who relents in sending calamity.” Jonah was certainly a reluctant prophet at the start of the story, then he became a selfish fool, then a holy fool, and then he revealed his bitterness against his enemies. Jonah ends up being petty and petulant, upset that he lost his shade, instead of being happy that 120,000 people were just saved from destruction. Since this whole story ends up with Jonah looking bitter and resentful, it’s amazing he even decided to write the story down for posterity. Perhaps it reveals that he ended up a humble, obedient prophet after all.

Isn’t it interesting that Jonah is not the main character of his own story? That’s right, God emerges as the main character. Either Yahweh or Elohim is mentioned 39 times in the story, and Jonah is only mentioned 18 times. God is front and center: the God who controls all creation, and can command wind, sea and even fish to obey Him; the God who is attractive to pagans like the mariners in the boat and the Ninevites; the God who is universally merciful, giving everyone a chance at redemption; the God who goes outside the borders of the Chosen People to express His accountability, His judgment, and His compassion; the God who wouldn’t give up on a reluctant prophet no matter what that prophet did to avoid Him. It seems that in every story of a holy fool, the Lord ends up being the central character. And that’s the way it should be.

Here is an animated version of the Jonah story, with a catchy soundtrack. Enjoy.

Jonah And The Whale. Animated bible songs for children. Two By 2 – YouTube