Jonah 1 – Jonah, the Very Worst Prophet

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Today’s PassageJonah 1

If there’s one minor prophet you’re already familiar with, it’s probably Jonah. While the bulk of the minor prophets comprises divine messages of judgment, mercy, and calls to repentance, Jonah is largely narrative. When you add that it requires very little background knowledge to understand, you’ve got a prime candidate for a children’s Bible-story lesson. Plus, it’s got a big ol’ miracle fish.

The book opens, as the other prophetic books tend to, with the word of the Lord coming to the book’s namesake, but it takes a hard left turn as Jonah refuses to deliver God’s message to Nineveh as instructed. Instead, he straight-up books a boat ticket out of town in the opposite direction. We think of Jonah as a prophet, but the highlight of his prophetic career is defined by reticence, disobedience, and obstinacy. The book never describes him as a prophet, and when the VeggieTales movie depicts him as a prophet by profession in the song “Message from the Lord,” it’s pure interpolation. Asked what his occupation is (v.8, Hebrew מְלָאכָה, melakah, which you may recognize as that thing you stop doing on the Sabbath), Jonah responds, “I am a Hebrew” (9). That’s not your job, Jonah! But if Jonah’s response to the sailors is any indication, neither is prophecy.

The funny thing is that in many respects the pagan sailors prove themselves better men than the Hebrew prophet. They speak the first recorded prayer in the book–“We earnestly pray, O Lord, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life and do not put innocent blood on us; for You, O Lord, have done as You have pleased” (14)–and they quickly recognize what a knuckleheaded move it was on Jonah’s part to run away from God. Moreover, when Jonah tells them to throw him overboard so that God’s storm of wrath doesn’t take down their ship with him, they try to save his life by rowing for shore! They try to show compassion on Jonah in spite of his disobedience. This will be a lesson that the events of the narrative try time and time again to beat into Jonah’s head; we’ll see by the end whether or not he gets the message.

Jonah is specifically trying to flee from God’s presence. Right out the gate (the gate of the dry dock, I suppose (look, I’ve been good, I refrained from punning about the sailors grasping at straws)), the narrative states, “But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord” (3). It’s the story the sailors drag out of him when the storm hits (10). But of course this is a futile endeavor; God is omnipresent. As Jonah himself acknowledges, God “made the sea and the dry land” (9). Everywhere on earth is his property. Didn’t Jonah get the memo from David: “The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains” (Psalm 24:1)? Does he think God is some absentee landlord, or a limited being who can only be in one place at once, making the rounds of his various properties?

In the final verse of the chapter, the giant fish finally shows up, and as the narrative progresses, we’ll find that God is inside the fish too.

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