The Gospel According to Jonah

The Gospel According to Jonah

The Gospel According to Jonah.

“Jesus answered and said to them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign, and yet no sign shall be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, so shall the Son of Man be three days and nights in the heart of the earth.'” (Matt. 12:39-49). “For just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so shall the Son of Man be to this generation.” (Luke 11:30).

No one has claimed authorship of Jonah, but tradition has always maintained Jonah as the obvious author. He was a prophet between 793-753 BC, during the reign of Jereboam II. Jonah was a great preacher from Galilee (II Kings 14:25) during the expansion of Israel, when the borders were extended and Israel was growing in its rather arrogant nationalism. The book itself was probably written sometime between 785-760 BC, and has been accepted as historical in rabbinic literature. Jonah’s prophetic contemporaries were Amos, Isaiah, and Micah.

Jonah the book is a classic story in ancient folklore. Read the story of Pinnochio if you want an interesting allusion to Jonah. This book is unusual in prophetic literature. Most of the Bible’s prophetic books are centered on the prophet’s messages, focused on the words of the Lord being spoken by the prophet. But Jonah is all about the story, the narrative of this time during the prophet’s life. Jonah’s words in the book for the most part were contained in his song, but there were was no one around to hear those words, except God, of course.

There is much scholarly controversy about the genre of the book: a myth? an allegory? a parable? a fable? Or was it actual history, filled with unlikely but miraculous drama? The truth is that the story doesn’t fit easily into those fictional genres. So rather than force the book into a product of the imagination, it might be better to simply accept the story as true, an historical series of events in the life of a real Biblical prophet. The fact that we can point to his birthplace, his name, his father, and under whom he served as a prophet of the Lord seems to allow us in good conscience to think of his story as historical. The hero of the story isn’t Jonah, interestingly enough. The protagonist, the main character, of the book is God. Either Yahweh or Elohim is mentioned 39 times in the book. Jonah is only mentioned 18 times. God is front and center: the God who is sovereign over all creation, and can command wind, sea and fish to obey Him; the God who is attractive to pagans like the mariners and the Ninevites; the God who is universally merciful, everyone deserving a chance at redemption; the God who goes outside the borders of the Chosen People to express His accountability and judgment and compassion.

Jonah is called by God to preach repentance to his arch enemy, the hated people of Nineveh.  But 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, anti-Israel, 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 into 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 giant whale shark, a gigantic whale, or maybe even a special, miraculous sea creature that God created just for that occasion.

Jonah was in quite the predicament. He was trapped inside the digestive system of a giant fish. Any way you look it, Jonah was confined in a genuine claustrophobic environment. Add to that the fact he was trapped in a tiny space with murky water everywhere, rotting fish, seaweed floating around and getting in his hair, and a frightening darkness with no hope of natural light. Jonah was indeed a captive audience for God. There was no way out of this solitary confinement. He expressed his feelings about his tight quarters in his song… “the deep surrounded me; the earth beneath barred me in forever.” Yet, Jonah was thankful God had saved him from the storm, and from being eaten alive by the fish. No doubt he thought about Ps. 18:16, “He reached down from on high and took hold of me; He drew me out of the deep waters.” God loves to make a way where there is no way. After three days in the fish, God had the fish vomit Jonah onto the shore, safe and sound. Once again, Ps. 18 says it well, “He brought me out into a spacious place; He rescued me because He delighted in me.” (v. 19). Whenever we feel constrained or trapped, remember Jonah in the fish, and call to mind God’s delight in you. Jonah’s gratitude released his spirit before he was physically rescued. God can bring us into a spacious place, a wide-open freedom of spirit, even in the midst of containment. Many people in this world are trapped in isolation and confinement. It takes a toll on the spirit. Let us continue to pray for and minister to those who are incarcerated, in detention, refugee centers, in a nursing home or hospital, or trapped in never-ending chronic pain or addiction. Ask God to free their spirit into a spacious place, liberated in the Spirit of the Lord.

The song of Jonah is a prayer of thanksgiving. Because God intervened, Jonah did not drown in the stormy sea, and was not eaten by this giant fish. He survived certain death, and now in the belly of the fish it was time for some soul-searching. Jonah was somehow able to collect himself, and he gratefully addressed his God. He was immersed in Scripture, he referred to the Psalms, and he spoke to the Lord from the heart. He seemed to be  more upset over his distance from God than anything else. “I have been banished from your sight.” He was disheartened over the fact that God had abandoned him there in the fish. Jonah desperately wanted to return to the Presence of God in His holy temple. Sitting there forlorn and dejected, Jonah “remembered” the Lord. He thanked Him and worshiped Him, and vowed that he will approach God with sacrifice and thanksgiving. “What I have vowed I will make good.” Jonah seems to gain confidence in the Lord as the song progresses, from merely describing his plight and reviewing his predicament, to expressing faith in the God who has rescued him. Jonah closes with a classic Biblical statement of faith, “Salvation comes from the Lord.”

And this is the first “sign of Jonah” mentioned by Jesus. Jonah was as good as dead sitting there in the giant sea creature. Any reasonable person would have assumed that, after three days and nights, he would never come out of this alive. But Jonah was given new life, a fresh start, and Jesus used this story as a symbol of the Passion and Resurrection. Jesus said that the Good News of His death, burial and resurrection was acted out there in the middle of the sea by Jonah and the gigantic whale.

After being spit out by the fish onto the shore near Joppa, Jonah is convinced he needs to obey the Lord’s mission and go to Nineveh. The fugitive prophet finally decides to heed the call. He might still be reluctant, his heart might still be divided, but he is no longer a rebellious renegade. God has saved him from certain death, and he is feeling morally obligated, to be sure. He never wanted this mission in the first place, because the Assyrians were dreaded enemies of Israel, unspeakably cruel, and deserved nothing but judgment from the righteous Yahweh. And the people of Israel, in their nationalistic pride, wanted nothing to do with pagan Gentiles. They knew they were the Chosen People, and they acted like it. But Jonah was grateful to God, and he decided to complete his unpleasant mission to save his enemies. So Jonah walked the 500 miles to Nineveh, preached God’s salvation to the Ninevites for three days, and waited outside the city to see what would happen.

And here is the second “sign of Jonah” noted by Jesus. Jonah preached the Gospel to the Ninevites, the Good News that salvation is not only for God’s chosen people. Jonah proclaimed that God’s mercy is so wide that even the treacherous Ninevites can be forgiven through their repentance. Ironically, God’s mercy can even select those not “chosen.” The Ninevites will be saved because the God of the Hebrews loves all people, not just the Jews. This is quite a wake-up call for the Jews, including Jonah.

Jonah was profoundly effective and the Spirit was moving as the people of Nineveh repented. And God mercifully forgave them of their witchcraft, pagan idolatry, and various atrocities. But soon after, Jonah resented God for His mercy, compassion, and ability to stay His anger. Jonah was disgusted that God would be true to His nature, and he even quotes Exodus 34, the great self-revelation of God’s loving character… “You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abundant in loving-kindness, who relents in sending calamity.” (Jonah 4:2).  This was the same mercy, remember, that God had just showed Jonah in the whale. But Jonah was petty and petulant, especially after the Lord sent a worm to take away his shade-plant. Jonah was upset at the shriveling up of the plant, but he wouldn’t have blinked an eye if 120,000 people would have been wiped out.

The story ends abruptly. Jonah gets a gold star for even writing this story for posterity, as he looks like a very resentful, unmerciful believer throughout most of the book. The fact that he humbly wrote the story which would only humiliate him for generations is an impressive miracle in itself. It’s interesting that Nineveh’s spiritual turnaround didn’t last for very long. 100 years after Jonah, God tapped Nahum to preach exactly the same thing to Nineveh. Only this time, they did not respond with repentance. Within a few years of Nahum, the Assyrians were obliterated by the Babylonians.