“Jonah and the Whale,” Pieter Lastman, 1620, made available through the Google Art Project
The Book of Jonah
Do you ever wish God were different? It sounds like a strange question, but the prophet Jonah could have easily answered, “Yes.”
The story of Jonah opens with the prophet at home somewhere in Israel, hearing from God with the clarity most biblical prophets seem to experience. God gave Jonah a simple command: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”
Nineveh was to the east, in what is now the northern part of Iraq. (Its ruins are near the city of Mosul, where so many battles have been fought in recent years. With Mosul currently under control of Islamic State, we’re likely to see more.) It was one of the great cities of the Assyrian empire, a wonder to those who beheld it. Jonah had no doubt which direction Nineveh lay, yet Jonah headed west by sea, rather than east by land.
The story tells us Jonah went to the coast and got on a ship bound for Tarshish, a place not easily identified today. In the novel Moby Dick, the clergyman at the New Bedford Whaleman’s Chapel, Father Mapple, preaches on Jonah and asserts that Tarshish must have been a port in Spain, the farthest point west a Jew in Jonah’s day would have known. It’s not a bad notion—we’re told Jonah is trying to go “away from the presence of the Lord,” so what seemed like the end of the earth would have been a logical destination.
Storms soon began to worry the ship on its journey to Tarshish, however, to the point that the pagan crew cried out to their various gods. The captain implored Jonah to pray, too. They cast lots to determine who was the cause of the problem, and the throw of the dice showed it was Jonah.
And, very early in the story, Jonah began to understand that God was present regardless of how far Jonah ran or sailed. He admitted to the crew who he was and what he had done, and despite their initial reluctance, he convinced them to throw him in the sea. The sea immediately became calm.
This brings us to the part we know best from childhood: God sent a big fish to swallow Jonah. (Yes, it could have been a whale; the Hebrew word used in the story literally means a large fish, but the Jews would have used this word to include whales.) In the belly of this large sea critter, Jonah prayed a powerful psalm, in part acknowledging that God is everywhere, even capable of hearing one of his rebellious prophets trapped beneath the waves, “at the roots of the mountains.”
In response to this prayer, God had the fish vomit Jonah out somewhere on dry land. And Jonah once again heard his marching orders: “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” This time, Jonah headed in the right direction, presumably after cleaning himself up.
Once in Nineveh, Jonah preached his message. “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And here’s the twist we might not expect when reading this story the first time—those pagan, supposedly godless residents of sprawling Nineveh responded!
Even the king put on sackcloth and ashes and repented. He ordered everyone to do the same, and to fast. They went so far as to cover the livestock with sackcloth and withhold the animals’ food or water. The prayers, wails, bleating and lowing set up a din that had to reach to heaven.
God heard, and God relented from the destruction he had promised. And that, we learn, was precisely what Jonah feared would happen.
“O Lord!” he prayed. “Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
Jonah was so bitter, he prayed that God might kill him. You see, the Israelites considered the people of Nineveh their enemy. The Jews had suffered terribly under Assyrian rule; Jonah had hoped for a scene of destruction worthy of Sodom and Gomorrah. And now, here was the God the Jews acknowledged, the God over all things, showing mercy to these people!
All Jonah could do was pout. That pretty much sums up the rest of the story of Jonah. He pouted while God explained his deep concern for the people of Nineveh, using a simple plant as an example.
God is love. God is mercy. Yes, God’s holiness demands justice, too; and yet, God seems to have this unrelenting desire to let people off the hook, to forgive, to find a way to draw people back into relationships with him.
That truth is best expressed through Jesus Christ, of course. Through the great sacrifice of Christ on the cross, God found a way to extend mercy to all, no matter what evil has been done. Repercussions in this life for our bad deeds may be unavoidable, but a renewed, ongoing relationship with God is constantly available, in any moment, on any day, under any circumstances.
When we find ourselves hoping God will crush someone, we’re wishing God were different. When we think there’s no way God could love us, forgive us, or change us, we’re underestimating who God is.
Question is, why would we want to wish for a different kind of God? The one we have offers eternal life. We’ll do no better than that.