So there is Jonah–and all you can see of him is a bare rear end as three pagan sailors feed him to a big fish! I doubt that the artist at Rome who carved this into a fourth-century Christian sarcophagus thought the image was funny, but it makes me laugh. The fish, though, is a monster of the deep, not the friendly beluga of children’s books.
How did it happen that some Christians today read the book of Jonah and argue whether or not a fish could swallow a man and have him live three days in its belly? As if the point of the book is to test whether we can believe five impossible things before breakfast! No, the point of Jonah is that God cares about enemies, even enemies as nasty as the Assyrians!
Jonah’s birthplace near Nazareth
Recently I navigated a small rental car through labyrinthian streets to the crest of a hill in the Arab town of Mash’had, just north of Nazareth. Wanted to see Gath-Hepher, hometown of Jonah (2 Kings 14:25). Eventually given directions in English by a Palestinian man who once played football for the Nebraska Cornhuskers (!), I came to the spot:
Gath-Hepher today is a tel, a mound made from the ruins of towns destroyed and rebuilt at the same spot many times over centuries. This tel has not been excavated, so there is not a lot to see. But I was delighted to be at the hometown of a man called by God to speak grace to the enemy. Nineveh (in modern Iraq) was capital of the Assyrian empire, the superpower that destroyed Samaria and the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE.
Assyria was notorious across the ancient world for cruelty in war. No wonder Jonah got onto a ship in the opposite direction! Don’t I want to run from enemies personal or national? Or better yet, see their downfall? To be sure, God gave Jonah a message for Nineveh about impending doom (Jon. 3:4). But God’s purpose was to induce repentance and save the city. God was redeeming enemies, not blessing imperialism.
Laughing our way to serious insight
There are so many entertaining turns in the Jonah narrative that Hebrew storytellers must have had their listeners in stitches. The story ends with the absurd scene of Jonah wallowing in self-pity when Nineveh actually repents and is saved. Pouting because enemies of Israel had been spared, and because a worm “ordained” by God (Jon. 4:7, KJV) had destroyed his shade, Jonah wants to die! Here’s how the fourth-century artist portrayed Jonah: