This is a story that many have heard, probably since birth, until they are bored to tears with it. The message is usually conveyed as “you can’t run away or hide from God.” While that could be part of the message, it doesn’t convey the full context of the book.
Usually, it seems only portions of Jonah are taught, tailoring the message around an agenda. Often, chapter 4 isn’t focused on or left out altogether. I’ve been told something that conveys the thought of, “Don’t be like Jonah. Non-conformance is running away from God.” I understand the premise behind this but have experienced it to be horribly wrong. I also understand this overseeing is an attempt to keep people on the straight and narrow. Again, I believe this to be mis-defined. Having been on, what looks to be, an indefinite leave of absence from religion, I’ve found such freedom in Jesus that I’m not sure if I can ever go back. It’s as though I can’t fit into the box of conformance based religion anymore no matter how hard I would try. I don’t mean this as an affront, but I was spiritually stagnant for so long that the growth towards God I’ve experienced outside of religion is too beautiful to renounce. This is partially what leads me to write about the story of Jonah.
There are many aspects of this book to take into account. Some statements are made such as, “A person can’t survive inside of a fish like that” and questions like “Is this a ‘real’ story?” To both of these I would say it really doesn’t matter as these tend to focus on the wrong things. Like Jesus’ parables, this book could be a story meant to convey some lesson(s). Making such statements as those above tend to miss the forest for the trees. Did anyone ask Jesus if his parables were “real” stories? Probably not because that wasn’t the point. Likewise, when the focus of much of the Old Testament is placed on “Did it really happen/happen that way?” lessons can be lost because of the “Bible says” attitude which ends up misappropriating the intent.
So, what might this story be trying to convey? Like mentioned before, “No where to hide from God” is partially right. I’d take this a bit further to say there is no where to hide from God’s love as his love wins in the end. I’ll elaborate on that in the rest of the story.
First, we see that the intended destination for Jonah was the “evil” city of Nineveh. Often, the point is missed of the significance of this city to the world Israel was a part of at that time. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire—the same empire that desolated northern Israel (~2/3 of the kingdom). This wasn’t just any misguided city, this was the capital of Israel’s most hated enemy of the time. And God wanted Jonah to go there and preach a message to them.
So what was so bad about that? Jonah knew God would be with him, so why would he run away? Could it be that Jonah didn’t want his most hated enemies to hear the message of repentance and forgiveness? If they repented, then God might just forgive them, and if forgiven, they would no longer be on their self-destructive path. If God was going to forgive them, Jonah and the rest of Israel would no longer be justified in their hatred. So, perhaps Jonah ran away because he didn’t want Nineveh to be spared. We know the story though of how God had other plans.
This brings up two interesting points. Did Jonah have free will? If so, why did he get redirected back to Nineveh via a fish?
To answer the first question, I would say yes, Jonah had free will and his free will played perfectly into God’s will. That is, we have free will, but God’s will is love, and love always wins in the end. If the situation doesn’t seem so, then maybe it’s not the end yet. As stated before, a more appropriate lesson from Jonah would be “There’s no where to run or hid from God’s love!” Many times, however, this message gets twisted to state there’s no where to hide from God, as if he’s some kind of divine boogeyman out to hunt us down and torment us for not eating our veggies or performing the correct rituals.
And this brings us to the point of the most famous, yet probably least understood, part of the tale—Jonah gets swallowed by a big ole fish then spat out 3 days later (foreshadows of Jesus?). So what’s the deal with the fish itself and how could the concept of a whale be less accurate? Here’s where Nineveh fits perfectly into this story. Dagon was the Assyrian fish-god. Those possibly witnessing Jonah spat out could have spread the word throughout the land that a messenger from Dagon was approaching. Imagine the Ninevites’ shock when Jonah shows up smelling and looking very fishy, but stating he wasn’t a messenger from their fish-god, but instead a prophet from the God of Israel. Yahweh had complete control over Dagon (Jonah 2:10) and uses the Ninevites’ understanding to bring his message of repentance and forgiveness. He comes to them where they are at in a way they would understand. (hmm, more foreshadows of Jesus perhaps?)
Jonah pursues his own will yet God works that completely into his plan. In the end, we see the real reason Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh—he didn’t want God to show mercy on them (Jonah 3:10-4:2).
A side-note about my personal thoughts. The way people understood God at this time was through the rest of the cultures’ understanding—the gods could get furious and punish those who didn’t follow certain standards. It would seem God’s intent was to save Nineveh from destruction at the hands of another nation (Babylon?)(Jonah 3:4). Of coarse no one knows the mind of God, but if he is truly love as Jesus represented, he wouldn’t wish destruction on anyone. Often though, the message can be convoluted with man’s current understanding of the world.