Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, "Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me." But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD. —Jonah 1: 1-3
Jonah was the quintessential spoilsport. He may have been a prophet, but he didn't want to see just anybody saved. Give him a hint that the wrong people might be on the verge of repentance, and he would head the other way. Such was the case in this story.
Instructed by God to go to Nineveh, which is now part of the city of Mosul in Iraq, Jonah instead boarded a ship bound for Tarshish, a port in southern Spain. Tarshish was as far as Jonah could go, both literally and figuratively the ends of the earth. If he wanted to avoid God, he figured that this was the place to go. Obviously, he had underestimated God.
Sometime after leaving the Mediterranean port city of Joppa, Jonah's ship encountered a terrible storm. Nothing the crew did seemed to help, and the men began to panic, fearing that the vessel would soon break up. Surely their plight had to be someone's fault, they reasoned, and so they cast lots to see whom to blame.
Jonah, who had been sleeping below and was oblivious to the danger they were in, was identified as the culprit. "What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?" they asked him, aware that his flight from God was the source of their trouble. "Pick me up and throw me into the sea," Jonah replied, "then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you." After trying less unconventional means to save the ship, the crew ultimately threw him in.
Whether Jonah was then rescued or merely consumed by a "large fish" depends on one's perspective, but in either case, scripture tells us that the prophet remained in the fish's belly for the next "three days and three nights" before being "spewed out" on dry land. Not surprisingly, after three days of prayer and self-examination, Jonah came back a changed man. He would go wherever God said, including Nineveh.
Had Jonah really changed? He went to Nineveh to preach, but he still wanted God to destroy the city for its practice of idol-worship. Regardless. God had other plans, however, and Nineveh was saved. Ironically, the prophet pouted even more.
Even though he ultimately came around, Jonah was like many people who believe that others should "get what's coming to them." At the heart of this attitude are several unspoken assumptions
- People don't really change (though Jonah himself appeared to do so);
- "Outsiders" have no place in our faith tradition;
- God is on our side.
Jonah couldn't have been more wrong, but this was a lesson he would have to learn and re-learn, beginning in the belly of a fish that took him where he didn't want to go.
O God, help me to see that your love and grace are meant for all your children, and that your power is sufficient to change the most hardened heart.