Think You Know Jonah?
Updated: Aug 14, 2020
Some things I learned through the Script Study.
Jonah and I have a long history. We go way back. I'm not sure why. Maybe because it's short or perhaps because it's got this narrative style and it's full of action - fantastic, miraculous, awesome on stage, action. It's very dramatic so it gets called up for Vacation Bible School, Sunday school, and youth dramas. A lot.
I like it. It's an interesting story. But I got bored with it, so it wasn't on my radar as a candidate for the Script Study. I figured we'd get there eventually, but I was not in a hurry.
Oh, how wrong I was!
Jonah, have some Whine!
I've always read Jonah as a historical narrative, meaning that it actually happened. As such, I found Jonah to be a bit of a jerk. He's whiny, disobedient, and privileged. The whole book ends with a rhetorical question from God asking if Jonah's anger is justified. If Jonah were writing his memoirs, wouldn't he want to wrap them up with understanding? Isn't his job, as a prophet of Israel, to point to the Messiah? How does he accomplish this by staying angry at God?
My conclusion was Jonah never got it. He wrote down his story as it happened then stomped off to sulk in a corner. It bugged me.
Then it was decided that Jonah's story would be the basis for an upcoming church event I was asked to participate in. I dove into the familiar tale with my Script Study method and found myself pleasantly surprised. Research led me to a number of sources claiming (and, in some cases, refuting) that Jonah is a parable. A parable is a story used to illustrate a spiritual or moral truth. I re-read Jonah with this idea in mind and a light bulb clicked on in my brain.
Art and the Prophets
The Prophets of Israel are literary geniuses who made use of a wide range of the arts - poetry, song, allegory, parable, metaphor, and so on - to deliver God's message to the people. Isaiah's work is compared to Shakespeare's in terms of the scope and the level of excellence he achieves. Could Jonah have tapped into the arts to tell his story?
Jonah was an early prophet. He ministered before the Israelites went into exile, during the reign of Jeroboam II, a bad king who did not follow God. The people were worshiping idols - the gods of other, neighbor nations - and their own sense of identity as the Jewish nation. Their status as the holy people of God, their sense of entitlement, and the prosperity they were experiencing, became their stumbling block. Jonah is the only prophet sent to a people other than the Israelites. Could it be that he had a message for them too?
Jonah's story serves as a mirror for his countrymen (and now for us...hmmm?). They could see themselves in him as privileged children of God, set apart for a purpose. That purpose was and always had been to shine the light of God's love to the nations, aka the Gentiles. Like the Older Brother in the Prodigal Son (a parable Jesus told in Luke 15:11-32), the Israelites did not think the Gentiles - especially their bloodthirsty, heathen enemies, the Ninivites - should have free access to God's mercy. They identified with Jonah's response. God says "go to Nineveh" and Jonah goes in the other direction!
God's question to Jonah at the end is really a question for anyone who calls themselves His people: if you can care about a plant, here today and gone tomorrow, can't I care about people, who belong to Me and bear my image?
Most of the trouble people have with the historical accuracy has to do with his experience being swallowed by a great fish. I don't have a problem with this. I still think Jonah is history. There is evidence that he was a real prophet who really worked and ministered in Israel. Jesus references him in Matthew 12:38 in a discussion with the religious leaders, and the context suggests that they accepted Jonah as a prophet like any of the others. If God wanted to save Jonah by sending a whale to the Mediterranean Sea, He could do it.
But I also think it's a parable. It makes more sense to me that Jonah would take his experience, his struggle with God's call, and express it artistically in a way that would shine a light on the people's sin by contrasting it with God's mercy and compassion.
Remember the story Big Fish? It's a book, a movie, and a musical about a Dad who told his life story to his son. His son is frustrated because he can't separate fact from fiction. In the end he realizes it doesn't matter. His dad may have exaggerated some details for the sake of good story telling, but the truth is in them.
Whether or not Jonah was actually swallowed by a great fish is not the point. God's mercy is for everyone who believes.
For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would inherit the world was not through the law, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. - Romans 4:13
Discover the story of Jonah for yourself with Jonah's Reflections: A Script Study, available as a free, PDF download!