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The Prophet Jonah
The story of Jonah is one of great theological meaning. Jonah the disobedient prophet rejects his divine commission, is cast overboard in a storm and swallowed by a great fish, saved in a marvelous fashion, and returned to his starting point. He obeys God and goes to Nineveh to convey a message of doom if they do not repent at once. They all listen from the king to the lowliest of persons. God, seeing their repentance, does not carry out their destruction. The Ninevites were an ancient enemy of Israel and Jonah was upset and angry that God spared them. JThe didactic messages of this book apply equally to the people of Jonah’s time as well as to people today. The power of repentance and faith, God’s mercy and patience, and mankind’s inability to escape God’s power and divine influence in the world.
Jonah was the son of Amittai, a prophet from Gath-hefer. He received prophecy three times. The first time he was sent to restore the borders of Israel (Shucat 46).
He restored the border of Israel from the entrance of Hamat to the sea of the Arava, according to the word of the Lord God of Israel, which He spoke by the hand of His servant Jonah, the son of Amittai, the prophet, of Gath-hefer. For the Lord saw the affliction of Israel that it was very bitter: for there was not any shut up, nor any left free, nor any helper for Israel “(II Kings 14:23-26).
This prophecy came to fruition and Jonah might have been viewed as a local hero (Shucat 47). The second prophecy of Jonah was that Jerusalem would be destroyed if the people did not repent. However, God in His great mercy overturned the evil decree and Jonah then became labeled a false prophet. Jonah was from the Northern Kingdom which did not get along with the southern inhabitants such as those of Jerusalem, the capital city of Judah. The third prophecy was the mission to Nineveh. It is the one that made Jonah run away.
Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, an archenemy of Israel and an imminent threat to their Northern Kingdom. Jonah was loyal to his Israelite people and certainly did not want to help the Assyrians even if this meant disobeying God in the process. In chapter one, the Lord came to Jonah with instructions to travel to Nineveh and preach against it. God had seen their wickedness and evil ways and would destroy them if they did not repent.
JONAH’S DISOBEDIENCE AND FLIGHT
Trying to avoid God’s command, Jonah flees and boards a ship to the far-off city of Tarshish. Soon after, the winds blew and a great storm raged on, but Jonah slept down below in the hold of the ship. The pagan sailors, in sharp contrast, were terrified of God’s wrath and power. They began praying while the prophet of God was sleeping. To lighten the ship, they began throwing their cargo into the sea. The ship’s captain went below deck and woke Jonah. He demanded that Jonah get up and pray to his god so that the entire ship would not perish. Meanwhile, the sailors cast lots to try and determine who among them was the cause of this evil. The lot fell on Jonah, so they began questioning him about his business, where he came from and who were his people. “I am Hebrew,” he replied; “I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9). Jonah still maintained his calm despite the deadly storm. The pagan sailors discovered that Jonah’s fleeing from the Lord was the cause of the tempest. Impressed by the storm and singled out by the casting of lots, Jonah finally acknowledges the might of God and, confessing all, accepts a strict and merciless judgement (Schleusener 962). They begin asking what can be done to appease God and calm the storm. Jonah responds, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea and then the sea will calm down for you. For I know that this great storm has come upon you because of me” (Jonah 1:12). Instead of throwing Jonah into the sea, the sailors began rowing hard to return to dry land. They were not only trying to save their lives, but Jonah’s life as well. The irony was that Jonah refused to do anything to save the lives of the pagan Ninevites, but the idol worshipping sailors were risking their lives to save his. The rowing was unsuccessful, so they cried out to the Lord asking that they do not perish on account of Jonah. They also asked that they not be held accountable for his death if they hurled him into the sea. Rather than surrender to God, an unrepentant Jonah was willing to lose his own life. The sailors hurled Jonah into the sea and it stopped raging. The men offered sacrifices to the Lord and made vows which can be inferred to mean that they were converted to serve Yahweh as God alone.
The sailors abandoned Jonah, however, God did not. We continue to see His great mercy and patience when He sends a fish to save him. The Lord sent a great fish to swallow Jonah, and he remained in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights (Jonah 2:1). It is God’s power and divine intervention that allows for Jonah’s survival in the whale’s belly. Jonah might have given up, but God did not. It is at this point that Jonah, finding himself still alive, realizes the joyous possibilities of mercy and begins to pray. It is both a prayer for help and for thanksgiving. It is not a prayer of repentance. There is no escaping from the power of God, and this power is the source of God’s mercy and his patience (Schleusener 960). Jonah finally agrees to fulfill his prophetic task: “I will pay that which I have vowed. Salvation belongs to the Lord” (Jonah 2:10). He realized that man cannot act against God even if he thinks he might save the Israelite people (Shucat 49). God then commanded the fish to vomit Jonah upon dry land so that he may continue his mission.
JONAH’S OBEDIENCE AND NINEVITES REPENTANCE
Jonah, now obedient, meekly submits and does as God has directed. He still seems reluctant and hesitates in carrying out his task. Nineveh is an exceedingly large city; it takes three days to walk through it. Jonah, however, only walks a full day before announcing his prophecy. “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth (Jonah 3:4-5). The king of Nineveh makes a proclamation that every man and animal be covered with sackcloth and not eat or drink. They also must call out to God and turn away from their evil and violent ways. When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil he had threatened to do to them, he did not carry it out (Jonah 3:10).
JONAH’S ANGER AND GOD’S REPROOF
Jonah becomes very upset and angry that God spares Nineveh. He is aware of God’s gracious mercy, kindness and forgiving nature. What he struggles with is how God distributes His justice and mercy. They are not always equally proportioned and like a spoiled child, he pouts because he does not get his way. So great is Jonah’s revulsion to the forgiveness granted to Nineveh that he even asks God to take his life. It is obvious that he is not serious. This is all part of his pouting to try and get God’s attention and change His pattern of forgiveness. He then leaves the city and builds himself a shelter right outside where he waits under the shade to see if God would change his mind. God even provides a plant to shade Jonah’s head which Jonah is very delighted with. The very next day, God provides a worm that attacks the plant so that it withers and dies. He also provides a scorching wind and hot sun to beat down on Jonah’s head until he becomes very uncomfortable and faint. Once again Jonah wishes for death saying, “It is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:8). God asks Jonah why he thinks he has a right to be angry over a plant. Again, Jonah defiantly tells God that he has a right to be angry, angry enough to die. God then goes on to chastise Jonah, pointing out that he cares more for a plant that he had nothing to do with than the great city of Nineveh. The plant came one day and was gone the next. “And should I not be concerned over the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot know their right hand from their left, not the mention all of the animals (Jonah 4:11)?
Although a very short book, four chapters to be exact, the book of Jonah’s messages are powerful. God is the shaper of people’s lives. It is His plan, purpose and will that will be providential, not mans’. Men are the agents of His plan. Even though men may try to pursue their own interests and work against God’s, in the end they are the vehicles that contribute to God’s overall plan. The story of Jonah also reveals the active presence of God in our lives. He is an immanent and influential force. Even Jonah testifies to this when he explains himself to the sailors: “I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and dry land (Jonah 1:9). The story of Jonah presents the fact that God can work all things to our benefit even if at first it is not apparent. God is in control of the universe and humans can make real choices because of free will. God allows things to happen, yet His will is still accomplished. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
God’s mercy and justice are not always equal. Many people have a problem with this. The humanity of Jonah felt that it wasn’t fair for God to freely grant mercy when he felt the Ninevites deserved justice. He is applying his limited human awareness to the concept of divine grace. Only God can see into people’s hearts. God’s actions cannot be comprehended by Jonah’s limited human abilities. As Psalm 103 points out so eloquently;
The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him (Psalm 103: 7-13).
In the first chapter of Jonah, we see God as a God of wrath as he hurls the boat upon an angry sea in his search for Jonah. There is no escaping His power. However, later in the story, God is revealed as the God of forgiveness. The power of repentance and faith cannot be underestimated in this story. The repentance of the Ninevites and their instantaneous obedience to God stand in stark contrast to Jonah, who never repented and became obedient only under extreme duress (Hauser 31). The Ninevites are wholehearted and immediate in their obedience to God. There is no hesitation in their commitment and humbleness. They turn from their evil ways and seek God’s forgiveness. Not only do they take Jonah’s message from God to heart, they announce a fast and the entire community dresses in sackcloth. Even the king puts on a sackcloth, sits in ashes and requires everyone to take God’s message seriously. He even mandates that animals be covered with sackcloth and refrain from all food and drink. The people of Nineveh’s repentance are accepted, and God spares them. When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out (Jonah 3:10). God is forgiving to those who seek Him with contrite and humble hearts. God pursues Jonah who is unrepentant. The Ninevites pursue God and He grants forgiveness.
God is merciful and He is patient. Jonah tries God’s patience. Upon first hearing the word of the Lord asking Jonah to set out and preach against the city of Nineveh, he flees. Later it is discovered that Jonah fled because he feared God would forgive Nineveh. God’s pursuit of Jonah takes a lot of time which is in sharp contract with the quick response of the pagan sailors and the immediate response of the people of Nineveh. Both were spared God’s wrath. The sailors, when faced with an angry God and a deadly storm, do not run but rather do everything they can to appease his wrath. The Ninevites when faced with God’s destruction, humble themselves before God and repent. They do this without hesitation. The Ninevites trust in God’s forgiving nature, and therefore see no reason to flee. It is Jonah’s inability to personally feel the power of God’s forgiveness that makes it so difficult to accept forgiveness granted to others just because they asked for it.
People can be vindictive, self-serving and unforgiving, God is not. God had a plan for Jonah. He tells Jonah that the Assyrians are a wicked people. Jonah agrees whole heartedly. Then God goes on to tell Jonah He is thinking of destroying every living creature in it’s capital city of Nineveh in forty days. Jonah would love nothing more than enemies of Israel to be annihilated by an angry God. Finally, God informs Jonah that He is a God of mercy, so He wants Jonah to travel to Nineveh and tell the people to repent. Upset by God’s request, Jonah flees aboard a ship to avoid doing what God asked. Jonah knows that God will be true to His word. If he can stall for forty days, maybe the destruction of his country’s archenemy will come to fruition. Regardless, Jonah does not want to be the one that brings the Assyrians to repentance. Their destruction would have saved the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Assyria’s continuation might mean the end of this Northern Kingdom. Ironically, it eventually did mean the end of the Northern Kingdom. But God was concerned for the more than one hundred and twenty thousand people who lived there right now. Even though the Assyrians go on to destroy this kingdom in the future, God judges them by their present actions. Human beings have a free will and therefore can change their actions. If Nineveh was capable of repenting, so was Israel. In the end, Jonah cannot override God’s decision to forgive Nineveh even if he knows the future will be catastrophic for the Israelites.
God is wise and has a broad vision of love for his creatures. Jonah can be petty and would rather inflict wrath rather than grant forgiveness. His anger and vindictiveness are unwarranted in the presence of God’s forgiving nature. God is seen as one eager to forgive his people, Jonah is self-serving.
The story of Jonah relates to Saint Leo’s core value of community by demonstrating how a person who is challenged, in this case by God’s will, can rise to serve. Jonah belonged to a special community. That community was the Israelite people. In this story, it can be pointed out that Jonah had an unconditional love for his people. He risks it all to defend them, even if that means giving his own life for their sake. In the end, he realizes he cannot reverse God’s will even if it means an eventual calamity for his people.
God was Jonah’s teacher in this story. He challenged Jonah to listen to His word. It took two tries but eventually Jonah listened. Jonah made many mistakes, but God was patient. Eventually, Jonah learned from his mistakes. In the beginning, Jonah had a very limited mindset. Perhaps it was his pride and nationalism to Israel. Jonah could only envision God’s love and mercy being given to the chosen people of Israel. God challenged Jonah to go beyond his narrow mindset. He challenged Jonah to see His love and mercy extended to all people, not just the Israelites. Finally, God asked Jonah to serve. Not just God, but all his people, Israelites and Gentiles alike.
- Shuchat, Raphael. Jonah the Rebellious Prophet: A Look at the Man Behind the Prophecy Based on Biblical and Rabbinic Sources. Jewish Bible Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 1, 2009, pp. 45-52.
- Schleusener, J. History and Action in Patience. PMLA, Vol. 86, No. 5 (Oct., 1971), pp. 969-965. www.jstor.org/stable/461079. Accessed 28 May 2019.
- Hauser, A.J. Jonah: In Pursuit of the Dove. Journal of Biblical Literature. Vol. 104, No. 1 (Mar., 1985), pp. 21-37, www.jstor.org/stable/3260591. Accessed 27 May. 2019.
- Kaplan, Jonathan. Jonah and Moral Agency. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. Vol. 43(2), 2019, pp. 146-162.
- Senior, Donald, et al. The Catholic Study Bible. Oxford University Press, 2016, 3rd Edition.
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