Humor in the Bible-Story 3-Jonah
Jonah is a prophetic book with only five real words of preaching. Jonah is a story more about Jonah and God than it is the prophetic message. The humor found therein is tied a good deal to the original language.
When the story opens up with God commissioning Jonah to go preach to the Assyrian City of Nineveh and God doesn’t exactly disclose at this point what that message was supposed to be. What Jonah, the prophet decides to do is a little weird…he decides to go on the run, from God, huh? He should know better. The surprising thing is generally these messages have been bad news to the people who would receive these messages. Jonah gets the idea that he will try to run away from God. As if running away that God would let him go, or that he actually could escape. He was quite opposed to going. If it was a bad message you would think he might actually be excited to go, but to think there was some place he could go on earth to hide from its creator.
Then Jonah goes down to book a fair on a cargo ship, then goes down in the hull of the ship to go down to sleep, he gets hurled overboard to go down to the bottom of the ocean and then down into the big fish. It is interesting that to go away from God Jonah is also going down.
Jonah seems to suspect that God’s motives may not be the same as his own and has a temper tantrum to protest and then tries to run away. In Hebrew objects and animals are given personal pronouns. The ship is personified as she. So it reads something like, “the ship thought, I am about to be broken up.” The ship itself and the crew thought they were doomed. The sailors “hurled” stuff overboard just like God had “hurled” a storm at them. Hurling the cargo overboard might save the ship but would mean that they would lose money. What does a “profit” matter if you don’t survive?
All the while Jonah is in the bottom of the boat in a deep sleep. The word for sleep here is the same word in Hebrew as the sleep Adam was under when Eve was formed. The Captain wakes the prophet and suggests prayer. That is kind of funny too. The sailors are sure the gods or a god is upset at one of them, so they draw lots and it falls on Jonah and he admits to it.
Jonah tells them he is Hebrew and fears the Lord who created all, yet his actions seem to say just the opposite. He tells them it is his fault; he can’t outrun God, now the crew was really afraid. So they ask Jonah what they should do and rather than offering to repent to save himself and them, he suggests they “hurl” him overboard. Jonah would rather die than go to Nineveh.
The sea was walking and raging, they pray to Jonah’s God because they were worried about God’s wrath for killing him. Then after trying to row ashore, they “hurl” Jonah overboard and immediately everything stopped. They worshiped God, which Jonah was unwilling to do. Then God “ordained” a big fish to sallow Jonah. The big fish then is described in female personifications temporarily like a mother “carrying” Jonah in its belly. Jonah is cast into the sea as if he thinks he can be cast out of God’s presence, but still never repents.
Now maybe things will get moving. The big fish vomits or “hurls” Jonah onto the dry land. The word of the Lord comes to Jonah a second time. Now Jonah does go to Nineveh. Nineveh was a large Assyrian city. As soon as Jonah walks into the city he gives a super short sermon, only five words in Hebrew. Generally a sermon has much more detail like the problem, what will happen if the behavior continues, and what we can do (repent) to please God and right ourselves. He was begrudgingly obeying God. Jonah chooses the verb “to turn” like overturn or it could also mean repent. Pretty sure Jonah was thinking ill thoughts and thinking it would be the bad turning. He just says it will be forty days until they turn. Jonah did not supply many details hoping for the worst.
The reaction and response of the people of Nineveh is described in more detailed than the sermon Jonah preached. The people themselves start a grassroots revival not the leaders. The king joins in and for good measure thinks the cows should too. He does all this with the hope that God may spare them. God decides to accept the repentance of their enemies and not to destroy them. Now twice Jonah had evangelized people with the most basic effort and in spite of himself.
Jonah gets mad at God that Nineveh didn’t get “it.” Jonah angrily describes perfectly the grace of God for which he is indeed mad about. God shows patience with the people of Nineveh and Jonah too. Now Jonah stomps his foot on the ground and tells God he wants to die! God responds, “Does it do you any good that it burns you?” The sailors repented, Nineveh repented, even the cows repented, but not the prophet of God. God shows Jonah patience and mercy. God also uses an object lesson to demonstrate how foolish Jonah is actually being. God “ordained” a bush to grow up overnight for shade for Jonah. The next day God then “ordains” a worm to attack the bush and it dies. In the full sun of the day God then “ordains” a blistering wind to blow on Jonah. In another comical way, Jonah is burned up at God and God essentially just lets Jonah get burned up emotionally and physically. This reminds me a bit of the rain cloud that always seems to follow Eeyore.
Jonah again wants to die more than live. “Is being angry about the bush doing you any good”, God asks? Essentially Jonah’s response is something like, “why yes it is and I am so angry I could die!” God response in paraphrase is something like, “really?” You are mad about the plant that you had nothing to do with, and is just a plant? However, you don’t care about the 120,000 people living in Nineveh, what gives? God’s grace for Nineveh is the same grace that Jonah has received but he doesn’t seem to get it.
God in a way is telling Jonah even the cows are better than you are, they repented. Jonah wanted God to be more like him and if we are honest we all do from time to time. Sometimes we are like Jonah trying to avoid God; and think if God is for us then God must be against our enemies (who are not like us). We, like Jonah, want God to be predictable to our expectations. God spares the cows and gives rise to “Chick-fil-a” as those cows would say “Eat More Chicken.” Just kidding.