Jonah, the Storm, and the Big Fish (1 of 3)

Three cartoon figures march across the screen – a mammoth, a saber-tooth tiger and a sloth – as my children and I watch their journey across a frozen landscape at the dawn of the Ice Age. The mammoth looks to the left as they pass Stonehenge. “Modern architecture!” he exclaims derisively, “it’ll never last!” I laugh out loud. My 3-year-old and 5-year-old stare blankly.

If you have ever watched a kids’ movie with young children, you may have noticed that certain elements of the story are not meant for the children, but for the adults who are watching with them. I’m at the stage in life where I observe this quite often: the embedded humor in books and movies makes me laugh, but is lost on my kids.

This is similar to the experience I’ve had with the biblical book of Jonah. I heard the story of “Jonah and the whale” as a little blond boy in Sunday school; When I got a little older and read it for myself, I was baffled by the conclusion of the book.  The “moral of the story” in chapter four was often omitted in the children’s version; and as an adult, I was struck by just how much is overlooked throughout the book. These days, I find myself laughing, with new understanding, at the satirical humor of the book.

This is my attempt to point out some of those details, in the hope to increase our enjoyment and understanding of the book of Jonah. To start, allow me to retrace the familiar events from the famous “Sunday school story” of Jonah:

The Lord tells Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh with a message, but Jonah disobeys: he gets on a ship going the opposite way. The Lord sends a storm, and the ship is in danger of sinking. When the men find out that Jonah is the cause, they throw him into the sea (even though they don’t want to). God rescues Jonah by sending a whale (here, many storytellers will point out that the Bible literally says “a big fish”) to swallow him. Jonah prays from the belly of the whale and the whale spits him onto dry land. When God tells him, again, to go to Nineveh, he obeys. When he finally preaches to Nineveh, the city repents and is saved.

That’s the typical Jonah story. And there’s not really anything wrong with it, in one sense: These events, with the lesson of obedience to God, form an important theme of this narrative. But when we look with grown-up eyes at this story, there’s much more depth to tease out in each scene of the book. There’s more to the story.

Let’s begin with chapter one: where Jonah, a chosen prophet from the chosen people, is upstaged by a bunch of pagan sailors. As the ship sails, the Lord takes action: he “hurls” a storm onto the sea (1:4), which threatens the ship. In response, the sailors “cry out” to their gods and “hurl” cargo into the sea, seeking to save the ship. What is Jonah doing in the midst of this? He’s asleep in the bottom of the ship (1:5). The captain of the ship has to come rouse the prophet of the Lord and say, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god!” When everyone realizes that Jonah is the cause of this trouble, they ask more about who he is. Jonah states simply, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (1:9). He knows the LORD, and yet it does not seem to bother him to be running away from the Creator God. The sailors, however, “were exceedingly afraid and said, ‘What is this that you have done!'” (1:10). What a stark contrast between Jonah and the sailors when they’re faced with the danger of the storm: the pagan, idolatrous sailors are quick to fear the LORD, while Jonah, the prophet, is comfortable in his disobedience, even though he knows the LORD is the one, true, all-powerful God.

The contrast grows as Jonah tells them that the solution to their problem is to throw him into the sea. Now, based on how the LORD is presented throughout the Old Testament, we know that he is merciful. So, we may assume that if Jonah were to cry out to his God, as the captain urged, the situation would resolve. But this would require obedience and repentance, and we will later see that Jonah both begrudges submitting in obedience to the Lord, and also firmly refuses to repent up to the end of the book. The sailors, on the other hand, want to believe Jonah (that throwing him into the sea will end the storm), but they feel a tension with their moral conscience. Unlike the prophet, who was lost in a REM cycle while the lives of the others were in danger, they value life. This includes the life of the one who is foolishly bringing this trouble on them. They’ve already tossed their cargo (= their income) overboard, and now they expend more effort seeking to row to land. But the storm only grows worse, “Therefore they called out to the LORD, ‘O LORD, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you'” (1:14). They do not understand exactly why, but they finally accept that this is the Lord’s doing, and obey the prophet’s word. The verb “hurl” shows up again, as they hurl Jonah into the sea. When they see the immediate calm that comes, we read again that they “feared the Lord exceedingly,” and then offer a sacrifice and vows to the Lord. While the prophet of the Lord sinks downward into the sea, ready to give up his life rather than fear the LORD and obey his command, the gentile, polytheistic sailors have come (in spite of God’s prophet) to recognize and fear the true God, who is worthy of their worship and sacrifice. Earlier in the Hebrew Bible, Israel was called to be a “kingdom of priests” and the Lord promised that “all nations would be blessed” through Abraham’s descendants. When we imagine how these glorious callings for God’s people will be fulfilled, a scene like this is not the first thing that comes to mind! But the Lord continues doing what he wants to do in the world: even when he has to drag his unwilling servants along; even when the only way to bring fruit from a situation is to redeem the stubbornness and disobedience of those he has called.

Through the first chapter, Jonah has been in continuous downward motion as he sought to move “away from the presence of the Lord.” In 1:3, he “went down” to Joppa, where he found a ship, paid the fare and “went down” into it. In 1:5, as the tempest howls on the sea, the author reminds us that Jonah “had gone down in the inner part of the ship and had lain down.” In chapter 2, Jonah spoke to the Lord from inside the belly of the fish, and he picked up on this theme, describing just how far he’s fallen. He described the Lord as the one behind his descent into the depths: “For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me” (Jonah 2:3). Cradled in the belly of an aquatic creature below the sea, Jonah says, “I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God” (2:6).

Jonah prays a fine prayer, in principle. In fact, it could probably be made into a worship song and sung in church without any controversy. Yet, in the context of the book, it’s lacking the thing the Lord desires most: repentance. In his prayer, Jonah points out his action in seeking the Lord’s salvation – “I called out” (2:2) and “I remembered” (2:7); he favorably contrasts himself with those who worship idols (2:8); he announces what he promises to do (2:9) and he thanks the Lord for his personal salvation (2:2b, 2:6b, 2:9b). All of his phrases and ideas are good, in one sense: they fit with the language of faith that God’s people use. And after this low point, he will obey and go to Nineveh as the Lord told him to do. Jonah shows that he is grateful for the salvation he received, but his prayer does not show a willingness to change his perspective. What becomes evident in the second half of the book is Jonah’s refusal to repent and align his heart with the Lord’s – despite his outward obedience. And from the Lord’s perspective, it’s not enough for Jonah to simply be better than “those who pray to idols” or to only be thankful for being saved. The Lord longs for Jonah to realign his heart with God’s heart through repentance.

More on that in the next post.

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