And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?
Jonah is one of my favorite Bible stories, and it’s not about a big fish. Personally, I don’t think it is meant to be taken literally at all. It’s a great example of the power of stories to tell the truth in ways that less powerful genres cannot.
The story begins with God telling Jonah to go to Nineveh and warn its people that God is not pleased with their behavior and if they do not change their ways, they are headed for destruction. Nineveh was a major city located near current Mosul, Iraq, and the capital of the Assyrian empire under Sennacharib. To say that Assyrians were not nice people would be an understatement: ISIS seems to have taken a few pages from their playbook. Assyria was bent on capturing and subjugating Israel, and waged war with exceptional cruelty, which is described in the Bible and also in external sources such as as the Lachish reliefs . The Biblical book of Nahum elaborates on Assyrian atrocities in poetic detail, calling it a city full of blood among other vivid descriptions.
Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh, and who could blame him? Instead he books passage on a ship headed in the opposite direction. God brews up a storm that threatens to sink the ship, which Jonah apparently sleeps through until awakened by the ship’s captain. Lots are cast to determine who is responsible, and the lot falls on Jonah, who by now feels guilty and urges the sailors to throw him overboard. Ironically, the pagan crew seems to hold high moral standards of their own: they initially protest the idea of sacrificing Jonah to save themselves. The storm grows worse, so they give in and as soon as he goes over the side, the seas calm. Meanwhile, God “provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah” and Jonah winds up in time-out in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. Upon his exit from the fish, Jonah again hears the voice of God telling him to “go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you”. Jonah reluctantly obeys this time, meets with astonishingly successful results, and God relents and doesn’t destroy the city or its people.
One would think Jonah would be pleased, especially considering that the outcome for most of God’s prophets in Israel were not quite so sunny. But he isn’t, and in fact is quite angry with God. He complains, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” Jonah wanted Nineveh to be destroyed as punishment for its many sins, and thinks God is wrong for sparing it. God responds by declaring both his sovereignty and his care for all his creation. And that’s the end of the story. Nineveh repents, but we don’t know whether Jonah ever does.
One of the most fascinating details of this story to me is that it presents both the pagan sailors and the pagan Assyrians more positively than most of the rest of the Old Testament treats nonbelievers. The sailors place a high value on human life, as evidenced by their unwillingness to sacrifice Jonah if they could find a way out of that. All the Ninevites, from the king on down, listen to God and change their behavior.There are plenty of Biblical examples of times the children of Abraham, who are supposed to be a moral and theological light to the rest of the world, fail abysmally. That is as true today as it was then. I know some atheists who are kind and caring people and some Christians who are quite mean and nasty people.
But I think the main point of the story is this: God loves everyone, bad people and good people alike, and will go to incredible, even ridiculous lengths to demonstrate that love. Isn’t that what the message of the cross is all about? There is nothing we can do to change God’s love for us. There is nothing God will not do in an attempt to bring us back into relationship with him. And that’s really good news to me!