Creation 43(1):48–49, January 2021
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Jonah’s witness to the Creator God
Jonah’s story is often reduced to the portion where he is in the belly of a ‘great fish’ for three days. However, this account (likely written down by Jonah himself) is far richer than just this one detail. Ironically, while Jonah fled in an attempt to avoid telling Gentiles about God’s impending judgment, he ended up witnessing not only to Nineveh, the city to which he was originally sent, but also to the sailors he encountered as he was fleeing.
Yahweh, the God of Heaven
Most deities in the ancient world were thought of as regional—they only had power within their prescribed territory. However, very early in the book we have indications that God is not limited to the borders of Israel. First, Jonah is sent to Nineveh to warn them about God’s judgment (Jonah 1:2), indicating that God is able to act outside of a particular territory. And when Jonah flees in the opposite direction (Jonah 1:3), God is able to act there as well.
When God sent a storm upon the sea where Jonah’s boat was, each of the sailors cried out to his god to no avail (Jonah 1:5). Jonah was so oblivious to their peril that he was actually asleep in the ship (Jonah 1:5). When they found out the storm had come on his account, they asked him to explain himself (Jonah 1:7–8).
Jonah explained that he was a Hebrew—this originally meant a descendant of Eber, but by this time would have long been used to identify the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Jonah 1:9). He elaborated that he feared Yahweh, the God of Heaven. However, his disobedience did not demonstrate the proper fear of the Lord commanded of Israel.
Jonah further identified Yahweh as the God who created the sea and the dry land. In the ancient world where there was a multiplicity of gods, God often differentiated Himself from the false gods by identifying Himself as the Creator in contrast to the gods who could create nothing.
The response of the sailors
While Jonah claimed to fear God, it was the sailors who reacted in terror when they realized that Jonah was rebelling against the Creator, who had sent the storm in response. Jonah told them that the storm would cease if the sailors threw him into the sea. The sailors tried to row back to dry land first, but to no avail. They likely knew that murder was against God’s law and wanted to spare Jonah’s life if possible. But when it was apparent that nothing else would calm the storm, they prayed for God not to judge them for Jonah’s (apparent) death, because it was effectively by Yahweh’s own hand.
When the sailors saw that the storm cleared immediately, it was a confirmation of the divine nature of the storm. As a result, they “feared the Lord exceedingly”, and offered a sacrifice and made vows to the Creator God of the Hebrews.
The response of Nineveh
When Jonah finally obeyed God and delivered His message to Nineveh, their response exceeded anything a modern evangelist would dare hope for. This notoriously immoral city, an enemy of ancient Israel, repented with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes, from the king to all the people, even including the livestock in this demonstration of repentance. In response, God forgave the city and did not overthrow it at that time.
We would like to think anyone would be happy that their preaching was received so seriously. But Jonah was furious. These were the enemies of Israel; they were immoral and cruel. How could God just forgive them? Jonah revealed that this was the reason for his disobedience in the first place—He knew that God was merciful and forgiving, and he did not want God to forgive Nineveh.
God’s response was an object lesson. He caused a plant to grow to give shade to Jonah as he sat hoping for Nineveh’s destruction to happen after all. Then he caused a worm to gnaw at it so it died. When Jonah was unreasonably angry about the plant withering away, God compared Jonah’s pity for the plant to His pity for the immeasurably greater loss Nineveh’s destruction would entail: “more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle” (Jonah 4:11).
Our response to the Creator God
The ending of Jonah feels unresolved: God’s question, “Should I not pity Nineveh?” is unanswered, confronting each of us. There are many people today who have yet to hear the Gospel, and as Jonah was commanded to go, we have also been commanded to carry the Gospel into the whole world. If we affirm that God was right to pity Nineveh, our compassion for the unsaved should prompt us to be obedient to the Great Commission!
Jesus the Creator
A number of Jesus’ miracles make it especially clear that He is more than a mere rabbi. The calming of a storm is recorded in three of the four Gospels (Matthew 8:23 –27; Mark 4:35–41; Luke 8:22–25). There are several notable details that evoke Jonah. First, while the disciples are fighting for their lives in the storm, Jesus, like Jonah, was asleep. The storm does not wake Him; the disciples have to rouse Him. When Jesus rebukes the storm, the calm is as immediate as when Jonah was hurled overboard, and the disciples’ reaction, like the sailors in Jonah’s day, was great fear and marvelling.
The same question concludes each Gospel account of the event: “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and water, and they obey him?” (Luke 8:25). The answer, of course, is that Jesus is the Son of God, through whom the Father created everything that was created (John 1:3).
The Son of God affirmed that Jonah really was in the belly of the huge sea creature, and that Nineveh repented (Matthew 12:39–41, Luke 11:29–32). Further, He used this true history as signs pointing to Himself.
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