If you’re familiar with the Bible, probably one of the first things that may come to mind when you think of the book of Jonah is a giant fish or whale. You also might think of a talking cucumber. Now the story of Jonah includes a great fish and makes for a wonderful children’s story, but to really understand what the author of Jonah is trying to communicate we have to realize that the fish isn’t the main thing of the story and it’s a story requires a careful reading and rereading to comprehend.
Often conversations about the book of Jonah lead us down a rabbit hole of whether or not it’s possible for a man to be kept alive in the stomach of a fish and how if you don’t believe a man can be kept alive in the belly of a fish you are not taking the Bible seriously and sliding into theological liberalism. This is an important dialogue to have, but can often distract us from what the author is really trying to communicate.
What the book of Jonah is trying to do is essentially expose some of the worst tendencies that form in God’s own people, yet at the same time instill in us an open-mindedness to the expansive grace and love that our God has towards his people and those outside his family.
What God is inviting Jonah to see is the expansive nature of his love. When you read the opening lines of Jonah 1, God commands Jonah to go to Nineveh, yet just a few lines later, Jonah is running away on a ship going in the exact opposite direction of Nineveh. God then has to send a violent storm to get Jonah’s attention. Now as a modern Western reader, many might think, “oh here’s God again commanding people what to do..he sure likes to do that doesn’t he.” Many people have a depiction of God that is distant, that is always commanding people what to do, and when you don’t do what this God says, he’s going to send lightning and come after you.
There are so many half-truths in that last paragraph. Of course, Jonah’s disobedience grieves and upsets God. Yes, the God and Creator of the universe commands our obedience. But stop and think about what is happening not only in the first lines of Jonah 1, but think about the way God has decided to work throughout human history.
From pages one and two of the Bible, God has bound himself with his image bearers to help spread more of God’s beauty and goodness throughout the world. As his image bearers, we partner with God in his mission and purpose. (As a side note, it’s important to realize that God had a mission before there was in on page three of the Bible. That’s another blog post though). For now, it’s important to realize that from the very beginning God has invited and partnered with humans to be a part of his wonderful story and plan.
God would do a much better job of ruling and having dominion of his good world apart from human beings. We, as human beings have made a mess of the place, yet still God invites and partners with us to seek redemption and the renewal of all things.
God would do a much better job at reaching Nineveh, yet in line with how God works, God is inviting Jonah to participate in God’s story. This invitation is an invitation to be more open-minded. An invitation to see that God’s love breaks our categories of who’s in and who's out and invites us to see that none are worthy, but all are invited to join in God’s grand story and plan.
This is why God is after Jonah. This is often why God is after us - to get us to be more open-minded to the expansive nature of who God is and what God’s love and mercy is all about. Jonah has too small a vision of life and of God’s love. God’s pursuing love invites us to see and participate in a story marked by category-breaking love.
The question becomes, will we submit ourselves to this God, or run away with a too narrow version of what life is all about?