A Fish Story: Revisiting the Book of Jonah

Jonah

Late in May this year, I was teaching Vacation Bible School at our congregation to fifth and sixth graders.  All 11 were typical squirmy, spontaneous, goofy, yet endearing students whose energy was ever present.

One of the week’s lessons was the book of Jonah where we correctly discerned there was no whale, just a “great fish”.  However, as I reflected after that week, I began to think of Jonah in a new way.

  1. Jonah was a prophet.  God asked Jonah to go to a city known to be violent and tell them to clean up their act (repent). It was a huge task and seemingly overwhelming even to a prophet.  Now, in modern days, people who have a sensitive conscience are often ones who see wrongs and want to make things better. They are “prophets” who point out things that are destroying lives but often these “prophets” get depressed and discouraged. There is so much to correct. There are so many problems. There doesn’t seem to be a path forward. Maybe they, like Jonah, want to run away, hide, and get far away from issues, difficult people, and their own inadequacies and perceived weaknesses. Deep depression is real.
  2. Jonah is tossed overboard during the windstorm that threatens to capsize and drown everyone on board. Jonah takes on the responsibility and prepares to die.  Jonah dies by suicide — almost. God sends a great fish who swallows Jonah and he languishes inside that stinky fish for three days. Again, modern-day folks try many ways to escape the path to healing, the way forward, the direction that might put them in a good place. People get swallowed up in shadowy and dark places — but places to survive. Sometimes a family member extends a helping hand; a business offers another job; a mental health center offers hospitalization; a church prays for healing; a doctor prescribes medicine —all  “fishy” things that provide a resting place for a distraught individual. All of us have been distressed and felt lost at one time in our lives. We were “rescued” by friends, family, caregivers, professionals, who did not let us go.
  3. Jonah prays. This remarkable small, four-chapter book in the Hebrew Bible, contains a prayer of confession, of distress, and of hope. Just like today, we must tell the truth about our lives. We need to speak clearly that we have lost our way and even done something wrong. However, prophet Jonah also recognizes that God does not abandon him. Jonah sets an example of setting on a new course, deciding to face issues, and remembering that there is a Higher Power.
  4. Jonah has anger issues. When Jonah does what God asked him to do, the people of “evil” Nineveh repent! They do the right thing! He should be happy but Jonah, this conflicted prophet, gets angry with God for giving those people a second chance. And, again, this sounds so modern. People are jealous, even envious, of others’ good luck. Jonah has little empathy and regard for others. In fact, he seems very self-possessed. He cares only for himself. We can learn from him. We must care for each other — whether they are rich or poor, healthy or ill, citizen or immigrant. God’s plan clearly is for goodness, healthy relationships, community support.

As you re-read this old, old story from the Bible, try to imagine yourself being called by God to deliver bad news — or is it really good news? May we all take comfort knowing that a forgiving God is close at hand in our time just as God was close to Jonah in his time.

Rev. Dorothy Nickel Friesen is a retired Mennonite pastor and denominational minister.  She lives in Newton, KS and served on the Prairie View Board of Directors.