You knew this would be different – or perhaps you thought that the actual bible version would be longer and more like the other prophets? Nope, this is a story or fable or narrative with very little poetry or oracle. Sure, you can connect Jonah and Amittai’s names to place an original guy in the context of 2 Kings – and you can place Nineveh as the capital of Assyria, conqueror of Israel. Sure!
There is something in the voice and point of view of the omniscient narrator that rises above some factual account, long before a big fish comes into it. This is nearly a parable on the challenges off feeling called to bear witness to Gentile dominant culture, rather than just ‘preaching to the choir’.
Today, Jonah gets a supernatural and unwelcome call from God to go tell the imperial capital city they’ve got it all wrong. Calvin makes a great point of the opening Hebrew consonant to prove that Jonah was already a prophet within and among Judeans – just moved by God to address a new audience.
Jonah runs away. Is he weak? Is the message too outrageous? Is the audience too intimidating? Is the prospect of success too small? The sermons abound on Jonah’s resistance to bearing witness to a wider world – and to ours. He jumps onto a ship heading toward Galicia from Jaffa – with Gentile crew.
Storm comes, crew dumps cargo – and Jonah sleeps below. The seek a cause for their calamity, cast lots to identify Jonah, and demand his story. His confession of identity is more one of sin than of faith. Jonah suggests murder, but the sailors resist the crime and keep rowing, more moral than the prophet.
Failing in their struggle, the sailors pray to Jonah’s god for forgiveness, pointing out that God will cause this death, not them. Sure enough, God provides miraculous relief from the moral crisis, in a true deus ex machine plot twist, a big fish to carry Jonah 3 days and 3 nights.
Allegory is a wildly flexible interpretive tool, and people have been playing with Jonah for a long time. Christians liken the belly to Jesus’ 3 days entombed, and try to parallel Jonah to the Messiah. Place yourself in the story: the lottery that identifies criminals, the ambiguity of judgment and remedy feeling like murder.
Perhaps a more cautious choice of a couple of metaphors is in order. What’s our resistance, and our complicity, to providence? What are the consequences for us and for others? Does it matter if people ‘believe correctly’ to influence these providential outcomes or prudent responses?
Jonah 1 (NRSV)
1 Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying,
2‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’
3But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.
4 But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up.
5Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep.
6The captain came and said to him, ‘What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.’
7 The sailors* said to one another, ‘Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.’ So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah.
8Then they said to him, ‘Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?’
9‘I am a Hebrew,’ he replied. ‘I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.’
10Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, ‘What is this that you have done!’ For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them so.
11 Then they said to him, ‘What shall we do to you, that the sea may quieten down for us?’ For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous.
12He said to them, ‘Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quieten down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.’
13Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them.
14Then they cried out to the LORD, ‘Please, O LORD, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you.’
15So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging.
16Then the men feared the LORD even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.
17 *But the LORD provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.