We’re a bit more on familiar ground with this fishy tale, a book with a great story and loads of difficult issues. Jonah is called by God to preach God’s judgement in Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, a cruel and vicious enemy of Israel away to the north east, which is a bit like asking someone to run an Alpha Course at Islamic State headquarters. So quite naturally he runs off in the opposite direction, and gets on a boat in Joppa. However, his disobedience threatens the life of his fellow-passengers, and he is thrown into the sea, only to be rescued by some sort of sea creature. He spends three days inside the creature, singing, no doubt, since we all know that everyone sings in whales, until sadder and wiser he gets vomited out and goes and does what he’s told, only to see the Assyrians repent in great numbers, from the King downwards. However, Jonah is really annoyed that God is letting them off after all they’ve done to harm Israel, and he throws a hissy fit and decides to sulk himself to death. Using a gourd-vine and a worm God teaches him a lesson, but the book is left hanging as to whether or not Jonah is convinced.
The miraculous in this book is clearly a big issue for some, and different people tells tales of having survived inside a large fish or whale, while others tell of the physiological impossibility of this happening. It may be that we have a well-known folk tale here, which is given a more spiritual twist. We saw that when we looked at Job. The book is difficult to date too. It must be fairly late, when the Assyrian empire was at its height and had captured Israel. Some regard it as a treatise against the narrow nationalism of post-exilic Judah. When you’ve been in exile and finally returned to rebuild your own land it’s natural for you to feel a bit xenophobic, to want to batten down the hatches and keep God to yourself. The idea that God might love foreigners appears to be a novel one, and the idea that he might love the very nation responsible for the destruction of your fellow-Israelites up north is unthinkable. So Jonah’s sorry tale might be for the nation a reminder that the God of mercy and compassion is merciful to all. It might also serve another purpose, which we have touched on before, taking them back to the original call of Abraham to be blessed but also to be a blessing for the rest of the world.
So what might this book have to say to us? There is something, I think, about the consequences for others when the church loses its vocation and focuses on being blessed rather than on being a blessing. At the lowest level we leave people not being able to tell their right hands from their left. Of course that doesn’t in any way refer to my wife, but rather speaks of a nation lost and confused in their sin and ignorance. The people lack all moral perception, and are unable to see the consequences of their action. The abolition of ‘Sunday’, for example, had radical effects on Western family and working life. Many believe that the persistent erosion of stable families is going to reap a whirlwind in the future. We can read all the research that children thrive best in families with a man and a woman in lifelong commitment, yet we continue actively to promote alternatives. When the church loses moral battles, the nation as a whole is weakened. Without preachers of truth and repentance, the nation simply will not hear, and may lose out the opportunity to change its ways.
But it gets worse: might those on the boat with Jonah be a picture of the storms which threaten others when Christians are disobedient. The church continues to be rocked, for example, by accusations of abuse, and in a real sense many have simply shoved us over the side to drown. The fish or whale, therefore, becomes not an image of God’s judgement but of his rescue, a sign of hope that we may get a second chance, and that people might even start to listen when we simply do what God tells us.