The Story of Jonah: Retold for a Modern Audience
A long time ago there was a city named Ninevah. It was a big city on the shores of the Tigris River. It was a big city of the Assyrian people. Now, the Assyrian people had done terrible things to the Hebrew people. They kept raiding and destroying until the ten Northern tribes were destroyed; only remnants remained. Down in the Southern Kingdom of Judah, where two Hebrew tribes lived on, lived a prophet named Jonah. Jonah knew the will of God. The Southern Kingdom had lasted awhile after the Northern Kingdom was destroyed, but they were afraid of Assyria.
God wanted to save the people of Ninevah in Assyria from their sin, from all their bad behavior. So, God called the prophet Jonah, and told him to go and preach in Ninevah. But, Jonah didn't want to go because he didn't want to help the Ninevites. He wanted revenge on the Ninevites.
So Jonah tried to escape from God. He went to Joppa, a port city on the Mediterranean Sea, and got on a ship to go to Tarshish in Spain, in the opposite direction from Ninevah, about as far as you could go.
But God didn't want Jonah to get away, so God sent a great storm. Soon, the boat was in grave danger. The sailors threw their cargo overboard so that the boat would ride high and not be swamped. But the wind just got worse. Now the sailors were very frightened and started praying to their gods. But Jonah was just sleeping it out in the bottom of the ship. The sailors guessed that the storm had come from some God and were upset that their prayers had not helped. If you think about it, it was kind of strange that all of the sailors who didn't believe in the Hebrew God were praying while the Prophet of God was not.
Finally, the sailors decided to find out what the problem was by casting lots. The lot fell on Jonah, and to this day the word Jonah means bad luck to sailors. The word Jonah actually means dove in Hebrew which is kind of a joke by the author, since Jonah was filled with revenge and not peace. When the sailors challenged Jonah, he admitted that the storm was his fault, sent by his God. Jonah directed the sailors to throw him in the sea. But the sailors who did not believe in Jonah's God were merciful. They decided to row the boat into shore and ground it, a very dangerous maneuver, instead of throwing him overboard.
Even though Jonah knew the storm was his fault for his disobedience, he would not repent, would not tell God that he was sorry. He let the sailors risk themselves. But God changed the wind and wouldn't let the boat be driven ashore. Finally they threw Jonah overboard. The wind stopped. The sailors offered thanksgiving to Jonah's God, the God of Judah, Yahweh.
Now, God didn't want Jonah to die, just to learn a lesson. So God sent a fish to swallow Jonah, and he lived in the belly of the fish for three days. The author sure had a good imagination. Still, Jonah did not repent. But he cried to God for help. Hearing him, God told the fish to go and spit Jonah up on the land.
God told Jonah a second time to go to Ninevah. Jonah still didn't want to go. But he realized when he was over-matched, and so he gave in and went to Ninevah. When he got to Ninevah he walked into the city and started preaching. What he said was, "Ninevah is an evil city, and God is going to destroy it." Now Jonah knew that God could also be merciful, but he didn't say anything about that, didn't offer any hope.
But even though Jonah said only words of judgement, that was good enough for Ninevah. Even the king joined in crying out about how sad they were that they were doing wrong, and set about changing their evil ways. Since this is what God wants from every one who does wrong, God decided not to destroy Ninevah.
Now, after Jonah finished his preaching he went and sat outside the city to see what would happen to Ninevah. He wanted to see God's destruction of Ninevah, but it didn't happen. So, Jonah yelled at God.
"See what I told you,"he cried. "It is just as I feared, you are a merciful God."
It was very hot where Jonah was sitting and to make things worse God sent a horrid hot wind. Soon, Jonah was feeling really terrible and he cried out to God that he wanted to die. But, instead of killing Jonah, God asked him a question.
"Is it good for you to be so angry?"
The next day God caused a gourd plant to grow up very fast and give shade to Jonah. Maybe it was a castor oil plant that has very big leaves. But the very next day, God sent a worm and killed the plant. Now, Jonah was upset again. He didn't like losing the shade, but he pretended like he was sorry for the plant instead of for himself.
God asked him if he was sorry for the plant and Jonah said yes. Then God gave Jonah one more chance to learn his lesson. God told Jonah, "You wanted mercy for the plant even though you had nothing to do with growing it. I want mercy for the city of Ninevah, 120,000 people who still haven't learned my ways."
The story doesn't tell us whether Jonah learned about mercy, or learned to tell all of God's truth, or learned that God loves everyone and not just the people he liked. It doesn't say Jonah repented of his revenge. What do you think?
Story retold by Pat Conover based on references from The Interpreter's Bible, November 3, 1997