I am doing a series on heroes and heroines from the Bible. This week’s character is the well-known Jonah who was swallowed up by a whale. I’m not sure I would call him a hero. Although he was a prophet, and a believer in God, he was a rather grumpy and self-seeking person.
He was living around the mid-eighth century B.C when the Israelite tribe split in the time of Rehoboam, son of Solomon. Rehoboam remained king of what was called the Southern Kingdom, or Judah, consisting of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, as well as the Levites. Jeroboam I became king of what was referred to as the Northern Kingdom, of Israel, consisting of the other ten tribes. Jonah lived among the people of the Northern Kingdom.
The Assyrian empire was a constant threat to both Jewish kingdoms. However, before and after Jonah’s time, they experienced a respite. Soon after Jonah’s demise, the Assyrians rose in strength again capturing 27,290 Israelites. The Assyrians were intentionally cruel to their captives as a political tactic to warn other countries not to take them on in warfare. They were not ashamed to boast that they ripped out tongues of blasphemers, smashed people under statues, or cut their bodies into chunks to feed their animals.
So you can imagine how incensed Jonah was when God told him to travel to Ninevah, the capital city of Assyria with 120,000 inhabitants, to warn them that they should repent. Otherwise, God was going to wipe them out. Jonah was a Jew, he thought his nation was exclusive and that God should show no mercy to any Gentile, never mind these brutes. Where is the justice? Are you supposed to show favor to those who are intentionally cruel and devote themselves to all sorts of other gods, not the one true God? He was terrified, why would they listen to him? What if they cut him up into pieces?
His response was to buy a ticket and jump aboard a ship sailing in the opposite direction to the wealthy portal town of Tarshis, which was the farthest distance known in the Hebrew world at that time. Ships of Tarshis made a deep impression upon the imagination of the Hebrew people. However, the journey from Joppa to Tarshis was notoriously hazardous, and during Jonah’s journey, the ship he was sailing in was endangered during a violent, tempestuous storm. The waves were washing overboard, and the sailors on board were terrified of sinking. First, they tried to solve the problem on their own and threw their heavy cargo overboard. That did not help. The ship was like a cork plummeting under the roaring seas and then bobbing up “for breath.” Can you believe during this time Jonah was in his cabin asleep! Possibly he deals with crises as I do, absolutely calm during the event, and then when it is all over, shouting, crying, and panicked? Maybe he was in denial, trying to shut out all he had been told to do by God. Often when you shut out the feelings about one aspect of your life, you tend to shut down emotionally altogether.
Jonah could not stay in that state of mind as the captain woke him up. The sailors realized there was nothing they could do to save themselves, and they were praying to any god they knew. The captain instructed Jonah to start praying too. The soldiers threw lots to find out if anyone on the ship was the cause of the storm. The lot rolled in Jonah’s direction. He realized God allowed the storm to happen to shake him up and get his attention. God was not going to allow Jonah to get away from his Godly commission. He confessed and told the sailors they should throw him overboard to save themselves and their ship. Initially, these pagan men were reluctant to do that but eventually obliged because they were desperate and Jonah insisted.
At that moment, the wayward Jonah had to be brave and care about others more than he cared about himself. Things were shifting in the way he was thinking. God sent a whale, probably a sperm whale, the only whale with a big enough mouth to swallow him up.
Jonah was in the whale for three days. In Biblical theology, this is significant, a warm-up to Jesus' death and resurrection when He did not spend three days in the belly of a giant fish; but in hell. By doing so, Jesus provided an eternal pathway forever for anyone who believes He is the one and only God who came to earth in human form. Throughout Biblical history, we see the redemptive heart of God.
I need to slightly deviate as we focus on God’s intention for all of us to join him in heaven and not hell. God wanted Jonah to send a message to the people of Nineveh, but why Nineveh?
Do you remember Rahab the woman I wrote about last week? She was a Canaanite and descendant of Canaan, born to Ham, whose father was Noah. Interestingly, Ham had another son Cush, who was the father of Nimrod, from whom the Ninevites descended.
I asked the same question last week – why did the Israelite spies go to Jericho and spy out the city, when God was going to bring down the walls of Jericho miraculously without their help. And now I am asking why Ninevah, why did God single out Ninevah as the place Jonah was to go to give an important redemptive message.
The answer to both questions is the same! The answer relates back to the time Ham, the son of Noah was cursed because of his disrespectful and sexually abhorrent behavior towards his father. The curse continued with both Canaan and Cush. However God has a redemptive heart. The Divine intention through Rahab and the Canaanites, and through Jonah sending a message to the Ninevites to repent is the same. He wanted to reintegrate the tribes split off by the cursed action of Ham and bring all the Israelites back into His fold.
God’s message then, and now, is that if we choose to know and believe in Him, by grace, not by our own personal efforts, we can know salvation and eternal life with Him in heaven. God oracles this message repeatedly throughout the old and new testaments in diverse ways through many Biblical heroes and heroines, no different to you or me.
Back to Jonah
He did much thinking inside the whale; there was nothing else to do! He decided no matter if it cost his life, he would give the messages to the Ninevites that they should repent or else God would destroy them. God now trusted that Jonah was in the right spiritual state of mind and whispered to the whale that he could spit Jonah out onto dry land, the beach just outside of Nineveh. Jonah emerged a little smelly, shook himself dry and walked into Nineveh, where he started telling everyone what God wanted them to hear. Naturally, the Ninevites wanted to know where this prophet, stinky-as-fish, had hailed from. When he told them about his journey over the sea and how he spent three days in the belly of a sea monster, they took him seriously! It was another sign the gods were not happy with them. Just before Jonah appeared, Assyria was experiencing a famine and a total solar eclipse in June 763 BC. They believed these signs told them they had offended a deity or two.
So they repented. You would think Jonah would be thrilled, but he reverted to his old ways. He stormed angrily out of Nineveh and was sulking on the side of a hill, looking over the city. God had a little fun with him to once again change the way he thought about his life and other people’s lives. God graciously grew a fig tree in a day, at fast-forward speed, which provided Jonah with shade. “Ah, Jonah thought, I’m in God’s good books.” He went to sleep, and when he woke up in the morning, a worm had eaten the roots of the tree and it had collapsed. Jonah was once again sitting with scorching hot sun shining on his shoulders and exposed knees where his tunic did not reach.
“Thanks a lot, God”, he said.
To which God responded, “You care more about your tree comforts than the lives of the people in this city. I created the tree and the people so I, and only I, have a right to say what happens to them or the tree”. Jonah felt scolded and shrunk a little inside with humiliation and guilt. He said sorry to God and agreed with His reasoning. At this point, God finally recognized that Jonah’s mindset had changed from a self-focus to a God and other focus, and it had finally changed from fear and disagreement to faith and considering the plight of others. Jonah finally had a mindset for success in the Godly kingdom as the prophetic oracle bringing God's message of grace and redemption.
I think God chooses people like Rahab, a harlot, and Jonah, a disagreeable grumbler, to become heroes and heroines because they are people with faults like you and me. If God could change them, he can change us too. Transformation and having a mindset for success is not a once-off practice. It is something we need to constantly pay attention to.
Brendon Burchard, well know lifestyle coach and author, says if we want to be high performers, we need to practice certain daily habits: Seek clarity of who we are and what we want to achieve, generate energy in how we take care of ourselves physically, raise necessity – be urgent, increase productivity by being accountable to yourself and others and have a plan and a strategy, develop influence with the right network of people, and always - demonstrate courage.
In the story of Jonah, the factors contributing toward a mindset of success were: admitting you are wrong and using the wisdom gained to change direction; choosing motivating goals because they are going to benefit you as well as others; paying attention to those like God, who have higher knowledge and futuristic intention; and be courageous and grateful without grumbling about setbacks.
Do you know what the name Jonah means? It means dove which in many cultural and religious traditions symbolizes peace, freedom, love, devotion, navigation, grace, gentleness, purity, the Holy Spirit, the human soul, hope, or a messenger. Doves are commonly considered a symbol of motherhood too because of their unique ability to produce their own milk and show attributes like self-sacrifice for the sake of their offspring. They will sometimes cease to forage for food just before their babies are born. This temporary starvation ensures a purer milk formulation for their offspring.
Jonah had to become many of the attributes his name symbolized. He was a messenger, but he did not want to deliver the message. He needed to become self-sacrificing in his “dovely” navigation for the sake of the peace, love, and freedom of the Ninevites.
On earth, doves are intimately aware of their environment showing a link between intuitive or spiritual thought and making practical decisions based on their daily reality. Jonah needed to move between two worlds as well, his Godly mission with higher knowledge so that the Ninevites would become aware of the consequences of their degrading and destructive actions.
Finally, doves teach us that, peace is always a touch a way because it comes from within us and is thus always available. Jonah’s namesake, the dove, reminded Jonah that when his inner conflicts were resolved and at peace, the goodness of God could be revealed. Symbolically, doves carry the energy of promise, which is Jonah’s message to the Ninevites was forgiveness and redemption so that they could restore their relationship with a loving God and gain their internal, eternal freedom.
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