Jonah as Literature

The Bible’s tiny book of Jonah, only four chapters long, exhibits all the elements of great literature.

God commands, Jonah says no, and we’re hooked.
Every great story has to capture our attention or we won’t stick with it. Jonah chapter 1 shows God speaking to his prophet Jonah, saying, “Go to Nineveh and preach against it.” But instead of leaving Israel and traveling east to what is now Iraq, Jonah goes west to Joppa and boards a ship sailing for Tarshish, which is even further west, further from Nineveh. We keep reading to find out what God will do next.

Fleeing to Tarshish
Fleeing to Tarshish

The violent storm keeps us on edge.
Every great plot takes us makes us face what we don’t want to face or makes us go where we don’t want to go. All in one chapter, the Lord sweeps the wind and waves over the ship, nearly capsizing it and causing the crew members to shout while Jonah sleeps. They cast lots to see who’s at fault, and it’s Jonah, who tells them everything. “What shall we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?” Jonah says to throw him overboard, but instead they jettison the cargo and keep rowing. Finally, they plead with God, “Please do not let us die for taking this man’s life.” They throw him overboard, and the raging sea grows calm. The Lord provides a great fish to swallow Jonah.

Storm at Sea
Storm at Sea

Jonah’s outlook changes.
All great characters in literature learn something and are changed by their experiences. Jonah does, too. He stays in the stomach of the fish for three days and three nights. Like all prisoners, he prays (Jonah chapter 2.) But unlike most of us who pray, Jonah stays in the moment, calls out to God with vivid images, and repents in humility and with eloquence.

“From the deaths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry. . . the currents swirled about me, all your waves and breakers swept over me. . . the deep surrounded me, seaweed was wrapped around my head. . . you brought my life up from the pit. . . what I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the LORD.”

A As Big as a Whale
As Big as a Whale

The LORD commands the fish, and it vomits up Jonah onto dry land.

Worm on Vine
Worm on Vine

Jonah is about more than a great fish.
Every great story has transcendent themes that mirror life. In Jonah chapter 3 God gives Jonah a second chance to go east and preach a warning to the wicked city of Nineveh, Jonah obeys, and we learn about God’s mercy, compassion, attention, patience, fairness.

Does Jonah praise God for sparing the people? No. He abhors his very life (Jonah chapter 4.) I won’t say anything about the tent, the vine, the worm, and the people who couldn’t tell their right hand from their left. Such unique details might spoil the ending.

May your life be enriched by the book of Jonah!

Posted on November 3, 2015

2 thoughts on “Jonah as Literature

  1. Want a poetic take on Jonah? You might enjoy this poem I wrote some time ago.


    Here’s a list of travel tips
    If Tarshish is your goal…
    If you’re running from the Lord
    With all your might and soul.

    Arrangements are made easily
    For all wrong destinations.
    We’ll help you plan a “get away”.
    You don’t need reservations!

    Your baggage may not follow you.
    We don’t know where it went.
    They’re throwing cargo overboard.
    Pack light in that event!

    Your rest will be disturbed a bit
    With storm and waves and wind.
    We don’t find that unusual
    When travelers have sinned!

    It costs you more for second class.
    You’ll pay the Jonah Fare.
    An ocean swim and whale ride
    Are options…if you dare!

    Your trip is unforgettable
    If Tarshish is your aim.
    Three days and nights will change your life.
    You’ll never be the same!

    © Carolyn Caines

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