Jonah stands out amongst the minor prophetic books. Firstly, it is written primarily in narrative form. I had not previously comprehended the significance of this difference to the other minor prophets, but when viewed in its context as part of The Book of the Twelve, it appears that it was not intended to be read simply as a historical account. Instead, the book as a whole is a prophetic message and addresses the question of how the Israelites were to view the nations that opposed them.
Jonah could be best described as a parable. Viewing Jonah in this way causes the reader to move beyond reading about the characters from an outside point of view, to putting themselves into the story and reflecting on how they relate to the central characters. The suggestion that the character of Jonah may represent the people of Israel is a compelling one. Caroline Batchelder says that Jonah means ‘dove’, a symbol for Israel, which makes this view seem more likely. A parable has the power to bring home uncomfortable truths. An example of this is seen when the prophet Nathan’s story effectively convicted David of his sin with Bathsheba. Should we too practice asking, “who am I in this story,” when reading Biblical narratives?
Jonah makes his presence felt
I find this is more difficult than it sounds. I find it easier to see myself as the hero in biblical accounts- as the young David showing no fear against the Philistine or as Jeremiah being obedient to God’s call. On the other hand, I distance myself from characters like Judas Iscariot, Saul and Jonah. It is natural to view ourselves in a favourable way and it seems most Israelites would have thought in line with Nahum, whose focus was on calling for justice for Yahweh’s enemies. This makes Jonah’s presence in the minor prophets even more remarkable. It would not be easy for those who considered themselves a chosen people to be told they were deserving of Yahweh’s judgement too.
When Jonah is read, one is struck by Jonah’s deliberate disobedience to Yahweh. While the people of Nineveh and the foreign sailors respond with repentance and worship after their encounters with Yahweh, Jonah, by contrast, stubbornly refuses to obey and worship. Nineveh respond after a few reluctant words from Jonah while Jonah’s heart is not changed after Yahweh communicates intimately with him and even saves him from the sea. Caroline Batchelder points out that Nineveh sets an example of righteousness for the people of Israel. This would have been a shocking revelation for Jonah’s first readers!
A change of heart
This perspective on Jonah helps me understand that effective prophecy must not only deliver a message, but also communicate it in a way that convicts and creates a change of heart and action. Hebrews chapter 4, verse 12 says that the Word of God is living and active and that it drives deep into who we are, exposing what is hidden.
Normally, I close off when I am told I have done something wrong. I find it difficult to think about my sin. However, I also know how important it is to own up to my mistakes in order to receive God’s forgiveness and His help to change.
With the idea of putting myself into the story fresh in my mind, I had a convicting experience while reading Deuteronomy this week. I was seeking guidance about a difficult decision concerning my future career path and the passage about God telling the Israelites it was time to cross the Jordan River stood out to me. I found it encouraging to interpret this as God telling me to take a step of faith and make a change. I could overcome my uncertainty because God went before me (Deuteronomy chapter 9, verse 3). What I read immediately afterwards was not so comfortable however. I read that it was not because of the Israelites’ integrity that they were inheriting the land but because of the wickedness of those they were displacing. In fact, God called the Israelites a stubborn people (Deuteronomy chapter 9, verses 5-7). This second part I did not want to hear, but I felt it also applied to me.
My experience illustrates how easy it is to apply only the encouraging words of the Bible to ourselves and to dismiss the words of conviction. Just as Jonah ran from words of God he did not want to accept, we have a tendency to do the same. How can reading ourselves into biblical narratives and parables help us to confront our hidden sins?
Tom Anderson is pioneering www.haventogether.com, an online church plant supported by his in-person church, Catalyst, Ipswich. He has a young, growing family and enjoys playing backyard sport. Tom is a keen long-distance runner, averaging 21km each day last year. He has worked as a teacher for eleven years and enjoys perfecting a flat white on his home espresso machine. Tom would welcome a visit for a coffee some time… or an online catch-up via Zoom. See the Haven Together website to get in touch.