The fish is not the main character in the Book of Jonah!
Yet, almost everyone remembers the fish, which is only a convenient
seagoing vehicle to capture a runaway prophet and bring him
back home. Chapters One and Two of the Book of Jonah are,
as it were, replayed to a different tune in Chapters Three
The foreign sailors on board the sinking ship pray to the
Lord, the God of Jonah, who saves them from destruction once
Jonah is thrown overboard. The foreign Ninevitesfrom
king to beastdo penance (in sackcloth, yet!), appealing
to the God in whose name Jonah speaks, and they are spared.
Jonah Wants No Mercy
One would think that the prophet would welcome such tremendous
success. No one else in Israel, no Christian missionary ever
achieved the success that Jonah did. His reaction is typical
of the curmudgeonly character that he is. He is angry, angry
enough to die (4:9).
Why? Because he knew all the time that the Lord would go
soft and show mercy. In 4:2, he practically quotes the great
revelation of Exodus 34:6 about the Lord being merciful and
gracious, rich in clemency. He could not endure being an instrument
of mercy to a hated people. So the Lord teaches him a lesson
with the gourd plant and then draws his own conclusion in
the final verse.
A Whale of a Miracle
Isn't it better to have theology replace the "miracle" of
the fish? The true miracle is divine forgiveness, exemplified
in such a striking manner by this story of the narrow-minded
prophet. It is only too easy for those who are favored by
God to think they alone have a corner on that favor. By means
of this dramatic presentation, the Bible condemns any narrow
nationalism and argues for what we might today call ecumenism.
Yes, God had chosen Israel to be the people of his covenant,
but let them not think that they are the only object of the
Lord's concern. He is concerned with all his creatures, even
the 120,000 Ninevites, who don't know their right hand from
their leftnot to mention all the cattle! (A wonderful
The Gospels utilize the adventure of Jonah in two ways. First
is the sign of Jonah himself. The conversion of the Ninevites
is a condemnation of those who refuse to listen to one who
is greater than Jonah (Luke 11:29-32). Second, the allusion
to Jonah's entombment in the whale "three days and three nights"
is a symbol of Jesus' sojourn in the abode of the dead (Matthew