The Story of Jonah

One of the most popular Old Testament reading in Lent is about Jonah. After all, there are a lot of parallels between Jonah and Christ, and in many ways Jonah even prefigured Christ! (We’ll go into that more tomorrow…)

Still, if you’re anything like me, your knowledge of Jonah’s story is probably based more in children’s books than in the actual scripture. After all, the Old Testament scripture can be a bit unwieldy to go through! So, I figured that I would go into the story for today and pair it up with some amazing artwork that sums up the story quite nicely.

…are you ready? Let’s go!

Jonah’s story first starts out with Him avoiding God command to go to Ninevah… which causes quite a storm!

NABRE

Jonah 1

1The word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai: 2Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and preach against it; for their wickedness has come before me. 3But Jonah made ready to flee to Tarshish, away from the Lord. He went down to Joppa, found a ship going to Tarshish, paid the fare, and went down in it to go with them to Tarshish, away from the Lord.4The Lord, however, hurled a great wind upon the sea, and the storm was so great that the ship was about to break up. 5Then the sailors were afraid and each one cried to his god. To lighten the ship for themselves, they threw its cargo into the sea. Meanwhile, Jonah had gone down into the hold of the ship, and lay there fast asleep. 6The captain approached him and said, “What are you doing asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps this god will be mindful of us so that we will not perish.”7Then they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots to discover on whose account this evil has come to us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. 8They said to him, “Tell us why this evil has come to us! What is your business? Where do you come from? What is your country, and to what people do you belong?” 9“I am a Hebrew,” he replied; “I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”10Now the men were seized with great fear and said to him, “How could you do such a thing!”—They knew that he was fleeing from the Lord, because he had told them. 11They asked, “What shall we do with you, that the sea may calm down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more stormy. 12Jonah responded, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea and then the sea will calm down for you. For I know that this great storm has come upon you because of me.”13Still the men rowed hard to return to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy. 14Then they cried to the Lord: “Please, O Lord, do not let us perish for taking this man’s life; do not charge us with shedding innocent blood, for you, Lord, have accomplished what you desired.” 15Then they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea stopped raging. 16Seized with great fear of the Lord, the men offered sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.

Honestly, Jonah seems a lot more calm than I would probably be. And for good reason… the reason why he wants to ignore God (which is dealt with in the fourth chapter of the book of Jonah) is because God is too kind and merciful and will probably end up forgiving Ninevah anyway, meaning that his whole visit there will end up being a waste. (Which, by the way, is exactly what happens… Ninevah ends up repenting en masse. Here’s an artwork that shows that event!) So, Jonah ignores God and goes another way because he doesn’t want God to waste his time.

Once he gets thrown overboard (and swallowed by a fish), Jonah takes on a different tactic. He prays and realigns himself with God. Here is his prayer:

NABRE

Jonah 2

1But the Lord sent a great fish to swallow Jonah, and he remained in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. 2Jonah prayed to the Lord, his God, from the belly of the fish:3Out of my distress I called to the Lord,and he answered me;From the womb of Sheol I cried for help,and you heard my voice.4You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the sea,and the flood enveloped me;All your breakers and your billowspassed over me.5Then I said, “I am banished from your sight!How will I again look upon your holy temple?”6The waters surged around me up to my neck;the deep enveloped me;seaweed wrapped around my head.7I went down to the roots of the mountains;to the land whose bars closed behind me forever,But you brought my life up from the pit,O Lord, my God.8When I became faint,I remembered the Lord;My prayer came to youin your holy temple.9Those who worship worthless idolsabandon their hope for mercy.10But I, with thankful voice,will sacrifice to you;What I have vowed I will pay:deliverance is from the Lord.11Then the Lord commanded the fish to vomit Jonah upon dry land.

And with that, he goes to Ninevah!

Anyway, the whale part of Jonah’s story is quite incredible. So, not surprisingly, there’s lots of incredible artwork trying to depict the epic scene. But, since there are so many parts of the scene that honestly would make a better movie, artists did their best to try to capture the story by breaking up the scene in several parts, even while putting them together on the same canvas.

Take this painting, made by a 17th century Italian master!

Jonah and the Whale, by Italian master, c. 17th century. Private collection. Via IllustratedPrayer.com
Jonah and the Whale, by Italian master, c. 17th century. Private collection.

At the very right, you can see a ship set out from a great port in calm water. Then, in the center, you can see a ship tossed around on choppy waters, lightning flashing all around, with a fish coming up near the side, ready to swallow up Jonah! (You might need to enlarge the picture in order to see the fish… just click on the picture and take a look!) Then, to the left, you can see the ship in calm water, sailing away without Jonah aboard — after all, he was tossed out . And to the right in the foreground, the fish vomits up Jonah, freeing up Jonah so that he can do God’s work.

…and all of this on one canvas!

While this is a pretty late picture that was made when literacy was becoming more widespread, there are many manuscript illuminations from earlier times that detail all these events in a single picture, which stress how important this scene was for Christians to depict.

And it was quite important! After all, this prophet prefigured Christ!

 

Questions to Ponder:
  • What is the first thing that captures your eye on this epic scene with many parts?
  • After reading the scripture, what do you think your reaction would be were you in the place of Jonah?
  • Does God ever call you to do things that you are reluctant to do because you think they’re a waste of time?

 

Dear Jesus,

Help us follow You, even when we’re reluctant to do so.

Amen.

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