JONAH AND ME

Activated - - NEWS - By Scott McGre­gor Scott McGre­gor is an au­thor and com­men­ta­tor and lives in Canada. ■

One of the best-known sto­ries in the Bi­ble is also one of the strangest. Nearly ev­ery­one, it seems, knows about Jonah and the whale. It’s a Sun­day school fa­vorite. But it’s also one of those per­plex­ing tales that makes one won­der, Why, God, why?

The first men­tion of Jonah in the Bi­ble1 es­tab­lishes that Jonah was alive circa 800–750 B.C. and was from the town of Gath-hep­her in Is­rael, a few miles from Nazareth. He ap­par­ently al­ready had a rep­u­ta­tion as a prophet when God called him to proph­esy against Nin­eveh, the cap­i­tal of Assyria.

I can un­der­stand Jonah’s re­luc­tance. Nin­eveh was a wicked city and the cap­i­tal of a cruel em­pire. The Assyr­i­ans have a de­served rep­u­ta­tion in the an­nals of his­tory as hav­ing been par­tic­u­larly nasty and vi­cious. More­over, be­ing a prophet of doom is al­ways go­ing to be a risky ven­ture.

Jonah doesn’t see much hope in the as­sign­ment, so he heads off in the ex­act op­po­site way. In­stead of go­ing east to Nin­eveh, he de­cides to head west, by boat, to Tarshish, re­port­edly the fur­thest trad­ing post of the mer­can­tile Phoeni­cians, who were the neigh­bors of Is­rael.

So Jonah gets on the boat, and be­fore long, an epic storm is whipped up. Af­ter dump­ing the cargo and do­ing ev­ery­thing they can to ride out the storm, the crew fi­nally re­sorts to cast­ing lots to see who is bring­ing this curse upon them. The lot falls on Jonah, and he con­fesses that he is the prob­lem and tells them to toss him over­board. Ap­par­ently the crew was re­luc­tant to do this, and first they tried row­ing to shore, but that was all in vain. So Jonah “walked the plank.”

But the story didn’t end there, be­cause a mys­te­ri­ous “big fish” swal­lows him. There are a num­ber of the­o­ries of what ex­actly hap­pened, but when it comes down to it, the whole episode is im­prob­a­ble un­der purely nat­u­ral cir­cum­stances. The sit­u­a­tion has to in­volve su­per­nat­u­ral in­ter­ven­tion for Jonah to sur­vive three days in such an

en­vi­ron­ment—not to men­tion, com­pose the prayer re­lated in the book of Jonah, chap­ter two. Af­ter the three days, God had the big fish vomit Jonah up on the coast, ap­par­ently just about where he’d boarded the boat at the be­gin­ning of his trip.

And sure enough, God again calls him to go proph­esy against Nin­eveh. Hav­ing re­al­ized that the as­sign­ment was ap­par­ently not op­tional, Jonah heads off to that great and wicked city. Once he en­ters the city, he spends the day cry­ing out, “Nin­eveh will be de­stroyed.” But sur­prise, sur­prise, the Ninevites re­al­ize that they have been a bad lot, and at the king’s com­mand, ev­ery­one re­pents and fasts in sack­cloth and ashes, in­clud­ing the live­stock.

Mean­while, Jonah has taken shel­ter at a van­tage point out­side of Nin­eveh to watch the im­pend­ing fire­works. When God tells him that He’s changed His mind and is now go­ing to spare Nin­eveh, Jonah is livid and more or less tells God, “What?! You dragged me through this or­deal and then You changed Your mind?! What was the point of it all?”

You’ve got to have a lit­tle sym­pa­thy for Jonah, be­cause he did go through the wringer and he was hop­ing for a lit­tle rec­om­pense. The Assyr­i­ans were a bunch of thugs, and he was ap­par­ently look­ing for­ward to see­ing them get their due pun­ish­ment. But now he even had to give up on that, and he wasn’t at all happy.

So what was the point? And why is this ac­count even in the Bi­ble?

I find sev­eral in­ter­est­ing things about the story of Jonah. First, while it’s a story on the fan­tas­ti­cal side, Je­sus used it twice as a fore­shad­ow­ing of what He Him­self was go­ing to go through. And I think He did so for

2 not only the ob­vi­ous rea­son that He was go­ing to die and rise again in three days, but also to im­ply that if they could be­lieve the story of Jonah, then why couldn’t peo­ple be­lieve in Him and what He was say­ing?

It’s also a ter­rific story about do­ing what God asks and not putting Him off.

The big­gest les­son I take from it is to not get an­gry with God if, when cir­cum­stances change, He doesn’t do what I feel He’d in­di­cated He would. There’ve been times in my life when I was pretty frus­trated when things didn’t pan out as I thought they should. Even though I try to not be self-cen­tered, I am of­ten at the cen­ter of my own uni­verse, and so of course, I tend to judge things from what would be best for me. But what’s best for God and oth­ers is the Chris­tian’s life-code. If God is in the story, any­thing’s pos­si­ble.

1. See 2 Kings 14:25. 2. See Matthew 12:38–41;Matthew 16:1–4.

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