You know what’s really weird about Jonah, as a Bible book? Until now, there have only been a couple books out of the last 25 or so that I immediately remembered the main gist of, from my Sunday school days, before reading them. There was Daniel, which I knew would involve a lions’ den, and there was Job, which I knew would involve a dude who would get screwed over royally and painfully. And now, there’s Jonah, which I knew would involve a wha- err … o.k. a “great fish” which would swallow him right up. But what’s so weird about Jonah in comparison with the previous two books is how utterly simple it is.
Both Daniel and Job – although I had remembered the main gist of each correctly – were far more detailed and/or convoluted than what I recalled being taught in Sunday school as a kid. Daniel’s backstory leading into the lions’ den tale was quite comprehensive, and then post-lions, his book took a weird 6-chapter acid trip of a turn that I was not expecting. Job, similarly, spent a surprising 35 chapters on Job & friends just sitting around speculating about God’s motivations for torturing him. But Jonah, conversely – which is only 4 chapters long – is not only exactly what I learned as a kid, but it provides what might be even less detail than the Sunday school stories as I recalled them. It goes like this:
God comes to Jonah and chooses him to be a prophet (i.e. it begins just like all the other prophet books we’ve read). This book continues the annoying recent trend of giving no timeframe for its events, but in this case we have an interesting twist – II Kings chapter 14 actually already referred to Jonah as having lived and prophesied during the reign of King Jeroboam II of Israel. Good job, II Kings. Anyway, God tells Jonah to go preach at some place called Nineveh, to give them the usual spiel: God is gonna punish them for being bad little boys and girls. Now this is the point where aaaallll the other prophets thus far in all the previous books have said to God, “Yessir no problem sir I will get right on that!” But Jonah? Nah … Jonah ain’t about that, brah. Jonah freaks the f*#$ out and bolts in the opposite direction, towards some other place called Tarshish. Getting there requires travel by sea.
Jonah pays a fare to get on a ship, headed for Tarshish. But while the ship is sailing, God sends a violent storm to thwart his plans. There are plenty of other sailors on this ship as well, and they all pray to their respective gods to save them. They decide to “cast lots” to figure out who on the ship is responsible for this calamity, and Jonah comes up guilty. So they ask him, “Who the hell are you and who is responsible for this damn storm that’s trying to kill us all??” Jonah answers, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”
Jonah tells the sailors that he is running away from God, so they ask him, “What can we do to fix this sitch dude because we reeaaallly don’t wanna die and stuff just because of your stupid religious commitment issues!” Jonah says, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea, and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.” “Uuhhhh … err … UGGH o.k. fine hold on, let us at least try to get out of this storm a little harder before we toss you out,” the men answer in return. But it doesn’t work. God only makes the storm get crazier.
“K dude, we tried. But now it’s time to throw you over. It’s been real. Good luck out there. Peace out.” As the men toss Jonah over the side of the ship, they cry out to God, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.” Once they toss Jonah out though, the sea becomes totally calm again and it’s instantly all good in the hood. WHEW!! They all worship and dedicate themselves to God now because they can’t even believe the mad sorcery that just happened.
Jonah, meanwhile, is still swimming around in the water, when God sends a “great fish” to swallow him up. Jonah spends 3 days and 3 nights in the belly of the fish. While inside the fish, Jonah prays to God. “2:2 In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry.” … yadda yadda … “2:7 When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple. 2:8 Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them. 2:9 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.'” So then God is like, o.k. I guess you sound sorry enough. And he commands the fish to barf Jonah back up again. whew.
God: “O.k. Jonah, now, for the love of … me … go to Nineveh please like I asked you to in the first place!! I don’t want to have to find another large animal to swallow you up again.” Jonah: “Yessir God whatever you say I’m on it!! I’m not gonna eff this up again!” So Jonah goes to Nineveh. He tells the Ninevites, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown because of your wicked ways.” And then it takes a major twist: The Ninevites actually listen to Jonah and quickly get their shit together so they can avoid the impending punishment from God! Their king immediately issues a decree that all the people need to fast, put on sackcloth, and to pray to God. He also tells them to give up their evil and violent ways. And they do it post haste. So God sees all this, and for the first time I can remember, like, maybe ever??, God says “O.k. cool I won’t punish you guys now.” WOW.
So far so good right? Well, chapter 4, the final chapter of the book, actually does get kinda weird. Jonah gets angry at God for all of this. It’s a little hard to tell why, but it seems that he’s pissed that he had to go through all this crap just so God could be the “gracious and compassionate” God that Jonah already knew he was in the first place, and have mercy on Nineveh. Uhh, I’m not exactly sure what evidence he’s using to draw that conclusion, since this is the first time I can remember God ever actually having mercy in a sitch like this, but o.k. Either way, it seems that Jonah feels like God wasted his time or something.
Jonah then proceeds to have a complete hissy fit about this, and goes and sits in a place east of the city to observe what will happen to it. God provides a leafy plant to give Jonah shelter, but then the next day, he makes a worm eat through the plant, I guess to prevent Jonah from sitting there pouting forever. This causes the sun to beat down on Jonah’s head and he starts to feel faint, which just pisses him off even more. God is like, “O.k. calm down dude why are you so pissed?” Jonah says – and I swear to god this quote is word-for-word from the NIV Bible – “I’m so angry I wish I were dead.” Waahh!!
4:10 But the Lord 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. 4:11 And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
No, really. I’m serious. The end. That’s how Jonah ends. Just like, mid-thought from God, and mid-argument between God and Jonah. It reminds me of the Snow White ride at Disneyland, which concludes abruptly mid-story, and on BAD note at that. If your only knowledge of the plot of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was from the ride at Disneyland, you’d think the story ended with the Evil Queen plotting Snow White’s death with the poison apple before quite literally cutting to “And then they all lived happily ever after!” Roll credits. That ride cracks me up every single time.
Now that we’ve covered the story, let’s go back to my assertion re: the simplicity of Jonah. First off, thank The Lord, it has an actual plot, a clear narrative, and characters that we can follow. It’s a super easy read for that reason, just like the first half of Daniel, and it is an extremely refreshing change of pace from most of the mind-numbing prophet books, which have almost zero plot whatsoever. Jonah consists of exactly what I remembered from my childhood, nothing more, nothing less. O.k. admittedly I didn’t recall the little temper tantrum at the end, but I feel fairly confident that was included in the Sunday school stories and I simply forgot.
But the part of Jonah that kind of makes me laugh is that we literally spend only one verse on the actual description of Jonah in the fish’s belly. I mean yes, we get a whole chapter of Jonah praying, but the prayer gives zero description of what’s going in inside the belly of the beast while Jonah’s chilling in there for three entire days. Did the old Sunday school stories embellish details here, or am I getting this story confused with Disney’s Pinocchio? I am dead serious about that, for the record. What I picture about Jonah in the fish’s belly is entirely intertwined in my brain with Geppetto and the whale. I’ll never know where Jonah ends and Geppetto begins.
So what else is good about Jonah besides the fact that it has an actual plot and it’s not boring? Well hmm, it’s also kind of nice to see a prophet actually have success for once – the people shockingly listen to Jonah and then God keeps his word and doesn’t destroy them. I really honestly cannot think of any other Bible story that has ended this cleanly before. Wikipedia points out the irony of the fact that while Jonah is probably the most reluctant prophet we’ve seen thus far, he is also by far the most effective. So, you know, it’s good that people don’t die in this book.
Well first off, Jonah is a whiny, wussy little brat. He runs away when God calls him to duty, he sleeps in the damn hull of the ship while all his fellow sailors are trying to figure out how to save it from destruction, and after he reluctantly saves Nineveh, he throws a temper tantrum like a 14 year old who doesn’t feel like doing his chores when his parents tell him to. He’s not exactly likable.
And then of course there’s the usual theme of God planning to kill people for disobeying him. He doesn’t go through with it this time, but he most certainly would have if the people of Nineveh hadn’t gotten their shit together so quickly. And of course, there’s also the hilarity of Jonah angrily telling God that he already knew God was a “gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” Not only has God proven in nearly every single book thus far that he is the absolute antithesis of these things, but he actually proves it to Jonah in this book when Jonah tries to flee! He is fully willing to let Jonah and those innocent bystanders on the ship die if push comes to shove when he sends that storm. If that’s your definition of “compassionate” and “slow to anger” then I sure as hell don’t want to see what angry looks like.
I’ll give Jonah a 4.5/10 for its clear and reasonably entertaining narrative, and for the fact that no one dies violently. I can’t score it any higher than this because its lead character is so lame and because God’s assholery is still here as always, it’s just not turned up quite as high as the other books. Next up, we have Micah. I remember nothing at all about Micah, so we’ll see how that goes.