Smarter than the Average Bear

When you read the story of Jonah in the Bible, if all you do is focus on the whale and wonder whether that’s even possible, then you’re missing the whole point of the story.

The point? That you’re not going to outwit God.

During the prophet Jonah’s day, Assyria was on the rise as a world power. It was a cruel, oppressive, blood-thirsty and imperialist empire, bent on world conquest—an existential threat to Israel’s existence.

One day God asked Jonah to warn Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, that God planned to destroy it for its wickedness. To get a sense of how such an order would bother Jonah, imagine it is 1938 and God told him to go to Berlin. So Jonah refused. He feared that if he went and delivered a prophecy from God, then the Assyrians would repent and then God would forgive them. And Jonah most certainly did not want the enemies of Israel and all that was good to be forgiven. He wanted them to be destroyed. He wanted to see God obliterate them.

So Jonah ran away. He was convinced that God would kill him for his disobedience. And with Jonah dead, there would be no one to prophecy to the Ninevites. And thus, deprived of Jonah’s warning, Nineveh would suffer its just fate and be destroyed. Jonah would get his way.

But Jonah soon learned that there were worse things than dying, and that God’s will could not be so easily thwarted.

Boarding a ship at Jaffa (modern Tel Aviv) he sailed west. A storm blew up. Jonah told the sailors that the storm was doubtless on his account. To make it stop, all they needed to do was toss him overboard.

At first they refused, but the storm grew worse and so they finally tossed him into the water. Immediately the storm ceased and a great fish swallowed him up. For the next three days Jonah sat angrily inside the fish. Unable to take it any longer, he at last cried out to God for rescue.

The fish made its way back to Jaffa and spat him up on the shore. Once again, God asked Jonah to make the trip to Nineveh. Deciding that he didn’t want to be eaten again—or worse—he finally obeyed God, went to Nineveh, and told the Assyrians that they were doomed. He did not happily obey God; he was angry the whole time, and just went through the motions. He said the bare minimum.

And was incredibly successful, unlike most prophets in the Bible. The Ninevites believed him and repented.

And things turned out just as Jonah feared: God forgave them. God then criticized Jonah for his lack of love and compassion.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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