The question this week is about Jonah, a minor prophet: “What was the message of Jonah and the whale?”
When Jonah’s name is mentioned, many people think about the fish scene. Jonah’s complex story described several events which presented important messages about human behavior and responsibilities and God’s will and nature.
The Bible includes a treasure trove of teaching stories using different modes of delivery. Unlike most parables with one unifying message, the story of Jonah has several messages and uses questions to encourage readers to reflect upon their own behavior. Readers can also study the text and find more symbolism and passages that have been linked to scripture in the New Testament.
The story of Jonah began with God’s command in Jonah 1:1, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” Jonah did not obey God and boarded a ship to Tarshish. This act of disobedience started the next event in Jonah’s life. When a strong storm became a serious threat to the ship, the sailors prayed to their pagan god without success. In the meantime, Jonah was sleeping when the captain asked in Jonah 1:6, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your God! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.”
To move the story, Jonah told the sailors to throw him overboard, but they felt compassion for him. As the sea raged, the sailors turned to God in Jonah 1:14,16. “‘Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life.’ They threw Jonah overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.” Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of the whale. Before this event, Jonah had not followed God’s command. While in this unusual situation, he prayed. “But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’” (Jonah 2:9)
The next event in the story started with the fish releasing Jonah, and he reached land by God’s will and in his favor. Again, God told him go to Nineveh and warn the people. In response, the King of Nineveh commanded that his people turn from evil, and God responded by changing his plan to destroy Nineveh.
In Jonah 4:1-4, Jonah’s anger returned. “But to Jonah this seemed wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, ‘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.’" God replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?" This was and remains an important life question.
The next event in Jonah 4:6-11 revealed Jonah’s changing feelings. “The Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade and to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head. Jonah said, ‘It would be better for me to die than to live.’ But God asked, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?’ God said, ‘You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left — and also many animals?’ ”
This story presented readers with the message that God expects obedience, but offers patience and compassion for those who repent. Readers should be challenged to answer the next question: For what and for whom should we offer care and compassion?
Readers could address another question: What will it take for our country to provide care, compassion and peace for those with health and economic needs.
“This is the bond of perfectness the anointing from above, and all the law of life and peace we find fulfilled in love.” — Charles Wesley
Earl Crow’s column is published Saturdays in the Winston-Salem Journal. Email him at email@example.com.