Why is the story and which means of Jonah and the whale usually incorrect?

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When atheists want to speak out against Christianity, they often look to Jonah. They say that a fish could not swallow or spit a man. Christians respond that the “fish” was likely a whale and that a whale is easily big enough to swallow a man.

We know that a whale's stomach can hold at least the equivalent of a man's in terms of weight and volume. Just think of the recent story of a dead sperm whale in Scotland whose stomach contained a 220 pound throw ball. However, once the fish whale issue is resolved, it turns out that believers and unbelievers make far more serious mistakes regarding the book of Jonah. Here's why.

We like heroes

Christians are just as frequently guilty as anyone who believes that Jonah represents a flawed hero – the good guys – while the Gentiles are simply the bad guys. A group of unbelievers throws Jonah into the sea. Another group of pagans are as hard and wicked as the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.

However, the case is not clear. When "the sea was getting stormier", the crew of the ship Jonah asked: "What should we do with you so that the sea calms down for us?" (Jonah 1:11). Jonah replied, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea” (Jonah 1:12).

Instead, the men tried to get ashore by rowing harder. They even cried, "O Lord, let us not perish for this man's life and do not put innocent blood on us, for you, O Lord, have done what you pleased" (Jonah 1:14). Then they threw Jonah overboard.

As Tim Keller writes, these bad men display "more moral virtue than the prophet". First, they tried not to throw it overboard. The men believed Jonah was going to die and preferred to save him. They also realized that Jonas God was responsible for the situation.

Meanwhile, Jonah put these men in the difficult position of risking God's displeasure. If the Lord was unhappy enough with his own prophet to put his life in danger, imagine what he would have done to these Gentiles if they had killed Jonah? He should have jumped. Instead, he forced the sailors to throw him into the water. In other words, Jonah wasn't a hero; The sailors weren't bad guys.

The epic proportions of God's power were famous; He didn't need Jonah to get the news out. Jonah recognized this: “You are a gracious God and merciful” (Jonah 4: 2). His friendliness was known. Meanwhile, Jonah refused to "treat the Gentiles as people in the image of God and therefore to be equal to him and his people," writes Keller.

Jonah did not care about the seafarers' welfare. In addition, he was so reluctant to share God's mercy with the "evil" Ninevites that he ran away from God's commission. He wasn't the "good guy" in this story, but a normal, flawed person who only did what he was told out of duty after being given a second chance. God was merciful and showed mercy both through his control over nature (the fish, the calming shade of a plant) and through the pagans whom he sought to reach through his merciful word.

We confuse detection with bulk conversion

Everyone got a second chance here: Jonah as a legalistic, judgmental Jew; the Gentiles as lost men and women. We want the story of Jonah to be one of the sailors and Ninevites who not only know God but also turn to Him as their Lord. Part of the language even suggests so much.

The king of Nineveh "rose from his throne, took off his robe, covered himself with burlap and sat in ashes." Next, the king demanded a quick and decreed "Let man and beast be covered with burlap and let them be mighty to God call. Let everyone turn away from their evil path and from the violence that is in their hands. "Then:" God can turn and give way and turn away from his violent anger lest we perish "(Jonah 3: 6-9).

The seafarers called to the Lord, they believed in him, but there is no evidence that they trust him as the one true God. In his statement on Jonah, Tim Keller says, "We tend to believe that the Nineivites' repentance was a mass conversion." However, Scripture only tells us: "They have stopped violating one another – they have stopped exploiting, abusing and killing one another."

This did not mean repentance and conversion, but “social reforms” that pleased God enough to “spare the city”. This confusion is understandable in light of the king's decree. But as Keller states, becoming a people of God would also have involved circumcision and the throwing away of idols.

In this case, it cannot be said with certainty that the Ninevites or the sailors were converted through their experience of a holy and mighty God. However, they undoubtedly recognized his power and the Ninevites were condemned for their sin.

At the end of this chapter, Jonah didn't regret it either. His heart had to spin. The Prophet did the right things, just like the sailors and Ninevites, but he didn't end up loving the Lord. His second chance to see his own depth of depravity, his deep need for mercy, may well have been missed.

We forget Israel's pride as a nation

"Jonah was greatly displeased" that Nineveh was spared; that his God was so "slow with anger and full of unshakable love, giving himself up to disaster" (Jonah 4: 1-3). One explanation is that Jonah rejected God's goodness towards depraved people whom he believed were unworthy of mercy. He acted like the Pharisees and was shocked that Jesus would hang out with sinners. Perhaps Jonah thought the wicked Ninevites would return to their wickedness and fool the Lord after Jonah left.

If so, Jonah forgot that God's message to these people had nothing to do with Jonah. He was the instrument of the glory, power and mercy of God. Jonah did his duty, but God wanted Jonah to have "unshakable love, not sacrifice" (Hosea 6: 6). He also wanted Jonah's humility: after all, there is “no one who does good, not even one” – Psalm 14: 3.

Jonah felt superior on a spiritual level – he looked down on the Gentiles from his high position, one of God's chosen people. The poor of the spirit urgently needed to hear God's word, but Jonah would “shame the plans of the poor,” for which “the Lord is their refuge” – Psalm 14: 6.

However, Keller suggests a different take on Jonah's resentment and a reason he fled God: Nineveh's second chance could have been a threat to Jonah and his nation. Jonah "put his national interests before the Ninevites' need to hear God's truth." Israel meant more to him than “love and service to God”.

He was well aware of what happened when God refused favor with a country, be it Israel or Israel's enemy. Showing grace to Nineveh might have given them an opportunity to earn God's favor with Israel. A jealous prophet was less interested in God's will than in his personal status, and may feel that only Israel was entitled to God's favor.

It is easier to say that Jonah anticipates Jesus

Jonah points to Jesus, but an argument that Jesus is a better Jonah would not stand up to intelligent discussion. Many men behaved more admirably than Jonah even in this short book, not to mention many more men (and women) in all of scripture. Jonah is not the namesake of impaired wisdom or imperfect courage, but of cowardice and resentment.

Jonas torture in the belly of the whale undoubtedly recalls the death and resurrection of Christ in the same period. However, Jesus experienced the full wrath of God which He willingly endured for us. Jonah would not weep over a people who were close to destruction, but "Jesus, the true prophet, did it".

While "Jonah was leaving the city in the hope of witnessing her condemnation, (…) Jesus Christ went outside the city to die on the cross in order to obtain his salvation," notes Keller. In every parallel, Jonah emerges as an example of how not to behave, and only the direction of your journey changes.

Jonah could be compared more profitably to Paul, who risked his life in loving service to God, believers and unbelievers. When a non-Jewish prison guard threatened to commit suicide because his Christian prisoners were about to flee, Paul shouted in a loud voice: “Don't harm yourself, for we are all here” (Acts 16:28).

He was brave, loving, and obedient to the Lord. God rebukes Jonah: "Should I not pity Nineveh?" (Jonah 4:11). Paul's heart, however, was moved with disbelief, as in Athens when he was "deeply saddened that the city was full of idols" (Acts 17:16).

Jonah felt entitled to see God doing justice to Gentiles, blind to the reality that the Ninevites were God's children, His created works more valuable than Jonah's pitied shadow plant, which “came into existence in one night and perished in one is night ”(Jonah 4:10).

Jonah felt more sorry for the plant than for the people. Paul wrote: “God is against the proud, but he gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5: 5). God wants our hearts to be moved for those who are lost. Paul is a better Jonah. Jesus is in a class of his own.

What does that mean?

We all desperately need the Lord. Jonah enjoyed the direct guidance from God that many of us long for, yet he refused. What we discover when we look closely at Jonah is that the book has very little to do with fish or whales; Jonah evokes issues of depravity, denial, doubt, and obedience both outside and inside the Church. It deserves a closer look.

Photo credit: © iStock / Getty Images Plus / kevron2001

Candice Lucey loves Christ and she enjoys writing about his promises. She lives with her family in the mountains of BC, Canada.

This article is part of our biblical resource for understanding the meaning and meaning of biblical phrases and ideas. Here are our favorite Bible articles to help you increase your knowledge of God's Word:

Promises of God in the Bible
Is "This Too Shall Pass" in the Bible?
What was the Ark of the Covenant?
Top 10 Bible Stories for Children

“Iron sharpens iron” at Proverbs 27:17
"Fearful and wonderfully made" in Psalm 139
“Be still and know that I am God” at Psalm 46:10
"No weapon formed against me will prosper" – Isaiah 54:17

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