The Jonah Saga

Stephen Terry


Commentary for the July 25, 2015 Sabbath School Lesson


“Then they took Jonah and threw him 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. Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” Jonah 1:15-17, NIV

Several years ago, the story of Jonah was a part of the collection of Bible stories we acted out for Vacation Bible School. The stories included Elijah on Mount Carmel and the imprisonment of Paul and Silas. But the story that I remember well was made memorable because we opened cans of tuna and placed them in front of a fan to make a fishy smell for the time Jonah was in “the belly of the fish.” Hopefully the children found it as memorable as I did.

Perhaps this is one of the most shared stories from the Bible. Veggie Tales even did an animated movie about Jonah. Recapping from the book, Jonah is told to go to Nineveh to proclaim their destruction for their sins. Jonah runs from the assignment instead, taking a ship in Joppa. God brings about a storm over the sea, and Jonah is eventually tossed overboard. God causes a fish to swallow Jonah. He remains inside the fish for three days and then makes a prayer of repentance. The fish spits Jonah out on land, and he then goes on his way to Nineveh to complete his assignment. Once there, he traverses the city proclaiming their doom. Unexpectedly for Jonah, they repent of their sins. God then spares the city and Jonah sulks. While watching for the city’s destruction, Jonah takes shade in a newly sprouted vine. God then destroys the vine, and Jonah complains about it. God reveals it is a parable to make the point that people are more important than vines, so if compassion should be shown for the vine then why not all the people of Nineveh?

Much has been written by various commentators about Jonah’s attitude and how he needed to learn a lesson about compassion and obedience. Some has also been said about the illustration of God’s willingness to forgive as evidenced by His compassion toward the Ninevites, and even the grace He showed Jonah in response to his repentance prayer. One might even draw a lesson from the story about facing a hostile mission field as Jonah surely thought Nineveh was. In this case, repentance and not hostility was the response to his preaching. God may have already known this would be the result, but Jonah did not, and when we are faced with proclaiming the gospel in hostile lands, we may assume, just as Jonah did, that those we are preaching to will only resist the message, but also like Jonah, we may be wrong.

While all of these things are very positive messages related to missions and outreach, the story of Jonah also contains some troubling implications. For those faith traditions influenced by Arminianism[i] the compulsion Jonah underwent may be troubling. Jacobus Arminius, in the late 16th century maintained that we each have a free will choice whether to come to God or not. When Jonah turned from obeying God, the idea that God would hunt him down and threaten his life for failing to obey seems to challenge that concept. Most of us are fine theologically with natural consequences for our errors. For instance, if we exceed the speed limit while driving and have an accident, the accident can be seen as a consequence of our action. In the same way, we can understand a natural consequence of disobeying God is to place us under interdict as sinners. Of course the result of sin is death, but we usually see that in terms of eternal death after the normal course of our lives. We don’t usually see it as God hunting us down now and killing us. This makes God appear to be an “avenger of blood” as in the Old Testament provision for cities of refuge for deliverance from such vengeance.

Why is this an important concept to address? Because it reflects not only upon the character of God, but even on what the death of Jesus on the cross was all about. If God is seeking vengeance against sinners for their disobedience then Jesus death may be seen as a sacrifice of appeasement to satisfy the wrath of an angry God. This may be irreconcilable with the idea that God is love.[ii] Perhaps this requires us to revisit the story of Jonah from a slightly different perspective.

In Matthew 15, we find a similar strange act from Jesus when a Canaanite woman comes to him asking for healing for her demon-possessed daughter.[iii] Jesus rebuffs her request and even insults her with the reference to dogs. However, she perseveres, and Jesus gives her the healing she requests. In this case, perhaps Jesus was simply taking the hard line attitude toward Gentiles that the Jews often took in order to illustrate that some of those Gentiles have greater faith than some among the Jews. That He had concerns about that lack of faith can be seen in his reference to the story of Naaman the Syrian who alone was healed of his leprosy by Elijah, for no one in Israel apparently had the faith to seek healing from the prophet. He also pointed out that in spite of the famine and drought throughout Israel, Elisha only provided the blessing of sustenance to a Sidonian woman, who alone had the faith to take in the prophet and care for him.

If these instances in the Gospels are instructive then perhaps God’s actions toward Jonah are based on the prophets own perceptions about God. If Jonah saw God primarily as an instrument of vengeance, then he would expect such a God to hunt him down and even slay him in response to his disobedience. He may have also had a rather limited view of God’s presence beyond the borders of Israel. This may have been why he felt he could flee from God over the sea. Too many may have believed in an isolationist view of God. In other words, God was responsible for Israel and perhaps Judah, but everything else was “out there,” and He didn’t particularly concern Himself with what was beyond the pale and neither should we. Some, even today, may have an us-versus-them attitude toward those beyond the boundaries of the church and can learn from Jonah’s experience.

When God pursued Jonah out over the Mediterranean, it may have been a lesson to the prophet that God’s jurisdiction does not end at the borders of Israel. But it also may have initially reinforced Jonah’s idea that God is primarily concerned with vengeance toward the disobedient. Knowing he could not resist God, he acquiesced to his own demise by instructing the crew of his ship to throw him into the waves, where he would surely perish. When a fish swallowed him, he may have felt this was the end he would have expected from a vengeful God. Strangely, it apparently took him three days to realize he was not going to die and to seek forgiveness from the God who was actually not slaying him. God of course, being love, extends grace to the prophet and delivers him.

In spite of all God has done to reveal His compassion and His concern for what goes on beyond Israel, Jonah has only learned that he must obey God and sets off to preach against Nineveh. He has realized, of course, that God’s domain extends even to Nineveh, deep in Gentile territory. But he apparently expected God to unload an experience on them like He put the prophet through. Surprisingly, the Ninevites are not as disobedient to God’s calling as Jonah was, and they find grace without having to go through something like the prophet did. God decides to spare the city in response to their repentance and their desire to seek His mercy. But Jonah has not learned his lesson about God’s loving character yet. He sets himself up in a prime location to witness the destruction of the city, but as the day wears on, the prophesied destruction does not take place. As a result, Jonah becomes angry with God.

Perhaps he felt that God was inconsistent because He appeared to punish the prophet for his disobedience but let the Ninevites slide for theirs. God then puts Jonah through the parable of the vine which sheltered him from the hot sun. Then it withered when a worm attacked it. Jonah was even angrier that the vine was destroyed and felt God was only sending him suffering while sparing the Ninevites. As was already mentioned above, God pointed out that if Jonah cared for the vine, perhaps he should care for the Ninevites as well, who were worth much more than the vine.

The interesting thing about this book of Jonah is that it never tells us if Jonah learned his lesson about the character of God. That may be concerning to some, but perhaps the real point of the book is to challenge us as to whether we have learned enough about the character of God to discover His love, grace, and compassion toward each of us both inside and outside the church.[iv]



[i] "Arminianism,"

[ii] 1 John 4:8

[iii] Matthew 15:21-28

[iv] Matthew 5:43-48



This Commentary is a Service of Still Waters Ministry


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