Every so often I’ve been posting my thoughts on reading various biblical books. There’s no formal plan; I just comment when I have something to say about a particular document. Along the way I’ve posted on Leviticus, Numbers, and Job—sometimes taking just one post, sometimes two. In this post and the next one, I’d like to notice some things about Jonah. (I note that so far these have all been Old Testament books. There’s no particular reason for that.)
Everybody knows the story of Jonah and the whale; we all learned about it in Sunday school. A lot of people note that the Bible doesn’t actually call it a whale—it calls it a “great fish” (“huge fish” NIV), and as we all know, whales aren’t fish.
Well, wait a minute. Of course it’s true that whales bear live young and breathe through a blowhole, while fish have scales (um, not instead of live young, but you know what I mean) and use gills to extract oxygen dissolved in water. Fair enough.
But the zoological taxonomic system, including its definitions of words like fish, was developed long after the Bible was written. (And accusing the Bible of “scientific error” for this is to apply an ex post facto law, which is specifically forbidden in the US Constitution, Article I, Section 9, Paragraph 3. So there.)
The Old Testament cultures called marine creatures “fish,” just as they called flying creatures “birds,” even if a specific flying creature (e.g. the bat [Lev 11.19]) was later to be classified with mammals, for very mammalian reasons.
So maybe it was a whale. Or maybe it was a really big fish of some kind—maybe even a special fish created just for the occasion. The point is that it was there at that moment, and that God had directed it to be. A “great fish.”
Speaking of which, have you ever noticed how often the word great is used in this short book?
- Jonah is sent to “Nineveh, that great city” (Jon 1.2; 3.2, 3; 4.11).
- God sends “a great wind” (Jon 1.4) and “a great storm” (Jon 1.4, 12) before he sends “a great fish” (Jon 1.17).
- The sailors “feared greatly” (Jon 1.10, 16).
- The people of Nineveh repented, “from the greatest to the least” (Jon 3.5), and the repentance proclamation was issued “by the king and his great ones” (Jon 3.7).
- When they repented, Jonah was “greatly displeased” (Jon 4.1)—but when the Lord sent a plant to bring him shade, he was “greatly happy” (Jon 4.6).
This is a book of extremes. God does extreme things to see that his will is accomplished, and the characters respond extremely to what they see going on around them. God’s actions greatly humble a great city and its great people.
But the character for whom the book is named is the most extreme of all—oddly extreme. He goes to great lengths to disobey the great One whose message he is appointed to deliver. He delivers it with no compassion for his hearers—compassion that is clearly the motive of the One who sent him (Jon 4.11). Jonah’s actions and reactions are extreme, like those of the other characters, but they are ironically extreme—the opposite of what we expect.
Other prophets take on difficult assignments and deliver their messages in the spirit in which God sent them—and often no one listens to them (Isa 6.8-13; Jer 13.10-11; Ezk 2.3-7). Jonah delivers the message only when he is forced to—and the people repent en masse. And then, to our astonishment, Jonah is angry at their repentance, revealing himself to be an unreconstructed bigot.
Jonah is a foil for all the rest of the prophetic writings. He is the unprophet.
Have you ever heard it said that God can’t use a dirty vessel? Oh, yes he can. And with such a small and weak messenger, he can bring a great city, filled with great men, to great repentance, and he can show them great mercy.
He’s that great.