For most of us, whenever we hear about Jonah, we immediately think, “Oh yeah, the story of the big fish.” But like it or not, this big fish plays a pretty small role in the story of Jonah. Out of the 48 verses the story takes up, the big fish gets a meager three verses of attention.
This story isn’t about Jonah and a big fish. It is about Jonah and God. And Jonah has a really big problem with God.
There Jonah was. Just a regular guy, minding his own business, doing whatever it is that he does, when suddenly something started to stir within him. Or was it coming from outside of him? He probably couldn’t tell. Either way, it was the voice of God coming to him, speaking to him, saying, “Go to Nineveh. Tell them that I’ve had it with them. They have gone too far and their days are numbered.” Now, in most cases, when God tells you to do something, you go and do it. But not for Jonah. No, after hearing this, Jonah hightails it in the other direction, jumping on a ship headed for the other side of the world, getting as far away from Nineveh and the presence of God as he can. We don’t really know why he runs. To hear that God had had it with Nineveh and was going to judge and destroy them should have been music to Jonah’s ear. Being an Israelite, Jonah’s greatest enemy was the city of Nineveh. Nineveh at the time was like Nazi Germany to the Jews, or Ursula to the Little Mermaid. Nineveh was the archenemy, the one who had brought about incredible disaster and destruction upon the Jonah’s people of Israel. In fact, Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, which is modern day Iraq. The conflict that boils there has been long standing, reaching back to the days of Jonah.
We don’t really know why Jonah flees. Was he scared? Perhaps. I mean, God’s call to Jonah would be like God asking you to go face to face with Osama bin Laden and tell him that his days were numbered. But for reasons unknown to us, Jonah decides to hide from God and from this call of God.
Once aboard the ship, things start to take a turn for the worst. God wasn’t through with Jonah. Jonah’s abrupt, “No thanks God” wasn’t going to cut it. Suddenly God’s judgment for Nineveh had shifted towards Jonah. The waters start to churn and the sky begins to crackle and crack. The boat starts to be tossed around like an amateur surfer on an 8-foot wave. The panicked sailors start praying to all sorts of gods and tossing all the cargo overboard – anything so that they might survive. Meanwhile, Jonah, the one responsible for such a mess, has settled himself in the cabin of the ship, curled up like a baby and sleeping soundly.
It is not long before Jonah is kicked awake by the captain, wondering how Jonah could be sleeping at such a time. Eventually, Jonah comes clean telling the sailors that he is the reason they are in this disaster and that in order to save themselves, he should be thrown overboard.
So over the side of boat Jonah went. And just about as quickly, the storm settles and the pagan sailors are saved from an innocent death. Jonah on the other hand was most certainly a goner, paying the ultimate price for turning his back on God…until God sends a large fish with plenty of room in its belly for Jonah to continue that nap he was taking. Only he couldn’t sleep. For three days and three nights, Jonah prayed and sang. He gave thanks to God for saving him from judgment and destruction.
Just as Jonah was closing out his praise to God, this Israelite indigestion got the best of the poor fish, and Jonah was vomited up, landing in the place where God had first called him. Back where he started, the story begins again. Dripping wet and covered in fish guts, Jonah hears the voice of God a second time, giving the same instructions, “Go to Nineveh. Tell them that I’ve had it with them. They have gone too far and their days are numbered.” And Jonah goes.
Once in Nineveh, Jonah delivers the shortest and most half-hearted sermon the world has ever heard. It’s clear he’s not there by choice. He walks only part way through the city and says, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be over thrown.” That’s it. That’s all he said. But here is the thing, for as bad of a sermon as it was, it worked. As quickly as Jonah fled the call of God, the evil Ninevites respond to the call of God. The whole town stopped in its tracks. Rich, poor, young, old, human, non-human…the whole town gets caught up in it. All begin to fast, even the animals, and turn from their evil ways. According to Jonah’s prophecy, there was no chance that God would save this city. It wasn’t, “If you don’t repent or change, God will destroy you.” It was simply, “You’ve got forty days, and then you are done for.”
But then in a sudden twist of fate, God sees how this city had responded to such a threat, and God changed God’s mind, mercifully offering Nineveh a stay of execution. And the city rejoices.
Jonah, on the other hand, had a different response. Enraged and furious with God, Jonah can hardly believe…or maybe I should say doesn’t want to believe what has just happened. Jonah has good reason to be angry. Not only has Jonah just become a false prophet, since what he said would happen didn’t, but it simply isn’t fair what God did. How could God let them live? After all the violence and destruction that Nineveh had brought up Israel, how could God let them off the hook like that. It isn’t fair!
At this point in the story, we discover the mystery of the story. The answer to the question in the very beginning – why did Jonah flee from God? In his rage at God, Jonah comes right out with it, “This is why I fled from you in the beginning…because I knew that you were a gracious God. Merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and hesitant to punish.” He fled because he did not want the people of Nineveh to be forgiven. Jonah wishes that he were dead rather then live with such an inconsistent and unfair God. After this, Jonah then flees once again from God to go and sit alone.
Rather than grant Jonah his wish and take his life, God wishes to change Jonah’s mind. So God goes after Jonah and God makes it so that a plant grows up over Jonah’s head, offering him shade from the stiflingly hot sun, saving Jonah from the heat. Immediately, Jonah is overjoyed by this gift. But then just as quickly, God causes a worm to attack this plant, making the plant wither and die, thus exposing Jonah to the awful heat yet again. Once more, Jonah expresses his desire to die. How could God punish Jonah when God let the Ninevites live?
But then God asks Jonah a question, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” I mean, Jonah had not done anything to deserve the bush. It was a gift and a gift God had the right to take away. Jonah responds, “Yes, angry enough to die.” And then the story ends with one last question from God, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow. Shouldn’t I be concerned about Nineveh, that great city of 120,000 people and also many animals?”
That’s where it ends. Open ended. Leaving the reader to answer that question for themselves. Shouldn’t God be concerned about Nineveh, however violent awful they have been? How forgiving can this God be?
At the center of the story is not Jonah and the fish, but a problem between Jonah and God. Jonah is not concerned by the fact that God changed God’s mind and showed mercy. It is not that God was lenient, but that God was too lenient. But in the end for Jonah, if God is to be God, then people should get what they deserve. You reap what you sow. You made your bed, so now you have to lie in it. That’s only fair. “God lets Jonah experience (God’s) judgment (on and in the sea) so that he might know at first hand what judgment is like. And then (God) delivers Jonah from the sea quite apart from the question of whether the disobedient Jonah deserves to be delivered. Jonah thus becomes the recipient of God’s grace in a way no different from what would be the case for Nineveh.” If God is merciful, willing to save Jonah, though he does not deserve it, why shouldn’t God be merciful and willing to save Nineveh?
This is all to say that God is not fair. To be fair is to give people what they deserve. God is not fair; God is merciful. Like it or not, the message of Jonah seems to be that God’s love and concern for the world is much broader and wider than some of us would like to think.
But then in the end, we are left with the question in the end. Perhaps you relate to Jonah, feeling like God is too lenient and too forgiving of some people. Or perhaps you relate to the Ninevites, having once been an enemy and then having received undeserved grace and compassion. Whoever you are in this story, you are invited to respond and live into the final question: Is anyone to be excluded from God’s love and mercy? How merciful is this God?