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Jonah Tries to Run Away from God
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But 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.
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. Then 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. The 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.”
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. Then 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?” “I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then 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.
Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.” Nevertheless 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. Then 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.” So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.
But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
Jonah present us with an interpretive challenge. Part of me wants to believe that this may be another allegory, that this is just a fantastic tale like Aesop’s Fables – meant to teach us a lesson about faithfulness and rebellion. But there is a problem. This story is not just about some generic prophet, or even just some prophet named Jonah. It is clearly written about a particular man name Jonah, son of Amittai. This same Jonah is written about briefly in the history books of Israel (2 Kings 14:23-25). So at the very least, this is a fantastic story about a real person as opposed to a mythological person altogether. Jonah was real.
That brings us to another problem then. Was the great fish real as well? A giant fish does not seem so out of place with what all we have found in the depths of the ocean. Someone surviving inside a fish’s stomach for 3 days though? That is another story.
Taken as a whole, this story is either irrefutable evidence that God likes to mix things up sometimes and do crazy things in response to our faithfulness and rebellion, or it is an extreme example of God’s foreknowledge of us and how perfectly He orchestrates all of creation around our decisions to follow God’s will or not.
I think it is more popular today to go with the former assumption, that God does wild and crazy sometimes… but something in me still sees something familiar in the God who harmonizes everything. Is it perfect? No. If God’s will was always perfectly accomplished every day, there would be no sin, no need for a Savior, etc. Wild and crazy seems too much of an easy answer, but there has to be some flexibility – and that middle space is a bit terrifying.
That place between God’s sovereignty and our freedom to choose to follow Him or not, means that the whole world may be much more detailed and purposeful than we ever imagined. God knows how many hairs are on my head and how many grains are on the seashore, and if He is truly orchestrating this all together then that means He has purposes for every one of them. That would mean that people are immeasurably valuable. It would mean that the environment around me, the plants and animals I share this world with may exist for something more than just my pleasure. It means we live in a world of potential and God is letting us hold the reins. We cannot take them from Him, but we get to hold on and influence in our own small but powerful ways.
I suppose it is like becoming a new parent, being handed this tiny life that holds so much potential and is so intricately woven together. Fearfully and wonderfully made, as King David wrote. It is more than I can grasp.
It makes me wonder, what if I mess it up? What if I am not the good servant that God wants and that this world needs?
Well then, perhaps God has a great fish waiting for me as well…