It is important that the biblical story of Jonah be more than the beginning of a “did that really happen?” debate.
In fact, Jonah’s placement among the prophetic books of the Bible should tell us that, like the other prophetic works, the story of Jonah will cause us to consider our place in God’s world and confront us with critical questions about the way we are living our lives.
When God’s word comes to Jonah, instructing him to go to Nineveh (the capital city of Assyria), his first response is to flee in the opposite direction.
Instead of joining a caravan heading east, he goes to the seaport of Joppa and buys a ticket to Tarshish, a city at the western edge of his Mediterranean world. He heads toward modern Spain instead of modern Iraq.
The Hebrew prophet that he was, Jonah would have been familiar with the poetry of Psalm 139 – “Where can I flee from your Spirit?” – still, he gets on the ship heading to the edge of the known world.
Here we encounter the first critical question of Jonah. Is there anywhere we can flee from God’s presence?
Once at sea, the ship encounters a violent storm. There is confusion and debate about what is happening and how to respond, but in rather short order, Jonah says to the crew of the ship, “Throw me overboard. I am the problem. Once I hit the water, the seas will calm.”
To their credit, the sailors are not anxious to follow Jonah’s instruction and try to row back to shore. It is only after this effort fails that they relent and hurl Jonah into the sea. At this point, the “sea stops its raging” and the crew worships Jonah’s god.
We are met with a second critical question: In the raging storm that is life in 2021, are there actions, beliefs or attitudes that are not serving us well that we need to throw overboard?
Rather than drowning, Jonah is swallowed by a great fish, spending three days and three nights in the belly of the fish. While the conditions there were far from desirable, Jonah’s life is spared.
While in this strange life raft Jonah prays, acknowledging that God is delivering him from his own selfishness and from the chaos of the deep. When the time was right, “The LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.”
The question comes: There are many in our world, such as the people of Haiti and Afghanistan, who are being engulfed by great storms. What are we doing to construct ‘great fish,’ systems that might save them, that might help bring them to safety?
Once he is back on dry land, Jonah goes to Nineveh and preaches to the Assyrian people – the archenemies of Israel and Judah. Remarkably, Jonah has barely begun preaching when there is a widespread repentance.
The citizens of the great city – king and commoner alike – turn away from their evil and toward God who, seeing their repentance, cancels all plans to destroy the city.
Jonah is not at all happy about this. It becomes clear that this is why he tried to flee in the first place; he wanted to see the hated Ninevites suffer for their sins rather than be forgiven of them.
The fourth critical question with which Jonah confronts us is thus, Who are the Ninevites in our lives who we would rather not see forgiven?
The story ends with Jonah pouting about God’s ways and with God, in essence, responding, “Come on, my friend. Did you really want me to bring great suffering to Nineveh? Is vengeance really my primary work?”
The reader is left to ponder what it is that we expect from a just God.
We want the guilty to be held accountable for the wrongs they commit, but if all God offers is accountability for the guilty in the form of destruction and death, where does that leave us?
Is it not our hope that, in the end, God will deal with us compassionately, that mercy will triumph over judgement?
As the book of Jonah reaches its conclusion, we are left with a fifth critical question: In our theology, is there a way to balance the need for accountability and promise of mercy?
My hope is that the questions of Jonah will stay with us – that they will rattle around in our minds; that they agitate our souls.
Senior pastor of Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland, California, since 1989, and a board member of BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty).