Sunday, October 3, 2010

Jonah and Jesus

I thought I’d take a break from the Borg series and insert some thoughts that developed while reading the book of Jonah, Chapter 2.  Verses 2 through 9, per English bible versification (3 to 10 in Hebrew), are as follows:

2) I cried out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. 3) For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. 4) Then I said, “I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.” 5) The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head 6) at the roots of the mountains.  I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit. O LORD my God. 7) When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. 8) Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. 9) But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay.  Salvation belongs to the LORD! (ESV translation)

In Chapter 1 God calls Jonah to go to the pagan city of Nineveh, at that time a major city of the Assyrian Empire, and prophecy judgment on the city.  Shockingly, to the narrative, Jonah actually flees from God, which no prophet did.  This is the only recording in the OT canon of a prophet fleeing Yahweh.  God, being God, pursues Jonah in wrath so that he is eventually thrown off the boat into a watery grave.  Judgment is meted out to Jonah the rebel.  But then, in God graciously sends a “large fish” to swallow Jonah thereby saving him from death.  2:2 to 2:9 is Jonah’s prayer to Yahweh.

In sharp contrast to Jonah the rebel are all the pagans in the book.  To an unprecedented extent in narrative (that it is narrative is anomalous in the prophetic books) the pagans are portrayed as more righteous than (even) the Hebrew prophet.  In 1:6 the pagan sailors prompt Jonah to call to his god, in they call out to Yahweh in their distress, and in they fear Yahweh and offer a sacrifice and vows to Yahweh.  In 3:5-9 the wicked Ninevites immediately repent, from the least of them to the king, and call out to God in hopes of averting his wrath (already pre-displayed in dealings with Jonah).

In shocking display in , God actually “relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.”  When, in Chapter 4, Jonah became exceedingly angry at this, God gives Jonah a living parable and the whole narrative abruptly ends with Yahweh explaining,
You pity the plant, for which you did not labor nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night.  And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?

Now, I read Jonah 2 shortly after I had read the flood account in Genesis Chapters 6-8 in Hebrew.  There is a word that caught my memory in Jonah 2:5 translated “the deep” or “the depth” in many translations, tehom, which shows up in Genesis 7:11 and 8:2 where “the deep” is the source of “the flood”, mabulMabul is a rarer word than tehom, appearing only 13 times in the Hebrew OT compared to 36 times for tehom.  Moreover, 12 of the 13 appearances of mabul occur in Genesis 7 – 11 in direct reference to the flood of Noah.  The only other occurrence is in Psalm 29:10, which possibly refers to the same thing.  The mabul in Genesis is the instrument of God’s wrath and judgment on mankind (though, God provides a vessel of grace).  Where mabul leaves off in Genesis, tehom picks up later on at times.  I think an important link is made in Genesis where the tehom is opened thereby causing the mabul/flood of Noah. 

The next occurrence of God’s destructive action by water is in Exodus 14 and 15.  God has just led the Israelites out of Egypt.  With the Egyptians in hot pursuit, God “pushes back” or “piles up” the tehom of the Red Sea in a major action of the total saving event by God.  When the Egyptians pursue, God in judgment releases the tehom killing the Egyptians.  Moses sings of this great redemptive act in Exodus 15.  As tehom enjoys quite a spread across the OT, the word is picked up again and again in memory and celebration of God’s action with the tehom to save the Israelites and destroy the Egyptians – see Psalm 77:16, 106:9; Isaiah 51:10, 63:13.  This theme of judgment plays out in evocative imagery elsewhere like Psalm 36:6 and a connected association with distress/anguish in Psalm 42.7, 107:24, 26; Ezekiel 31:15.  Note especially Psalm 42:7 (and Psalm 88:6 -7) which is no doubt echoed in Jonah 2:3 in his distress and experience of God’s wrath/judgment.  This matrix can be expanded if the Greek words used in the Septuagint translation are explored. 

Thus, as those condemned during the days of Noah and during the Exodus experienced God’s wrath through waters of destruction, so Jonah in some significant sense experiences God’s wrath even, metaphorically, to the point of death (2:2, 5a, 6a).  Yet, by God’s grace, Jonah experiences life out of death (2:6b).  Jonah then goes on, despite his own will, to proclaim this same power of God’s judgment upon wicked pagans.  Yet they are not destroyed, but repent and are spared God’s wrath and become an amazing display of God’s mercy ().


Hundreds of years later, Jesus is prompted by some Jewish leaders for a sign (Matthew ), a sign to prove his authority ().  Jesus replies:
An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.  For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.  The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. (Matthew 12:39-41)
The “sign of Jonah” is repeated in 16:4.

There is sufficient reason to understand the “sign of Jonah” in Matthew as referring to more than just the period of time Jesus will be dead.  We first “meet” Jesus in chapter 3.  John has been proclaiming the coming wrath and judgment of God and baptizing for repentance in light of such wrath.  Jesus comes to be baptized with such a baptism but John protests, recognizing Jesus’ righteousness exceeds his own.  Yet Jesus insists that it is necessary to fulfill all righteousness, that is, to fulfill God’s will (-15).  In light of the end of the book, this is a subtle hint of his death to come.  This theme is hit again in : “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”  The immediate point is the extent to which loyalty to Jesus is required transcends our deepest and most cherished relationships.  That’s all well and good, but those who haven’t read the end of Matthew yet ask, “Huh? Isn’t that a little much? Sure we’re supposed to follow him to whatever end and cost but why would the Messiah go to the cross, the place of God’s condemnation?” (See Deut. 21:23, Gal. 3:13.)   This theme hits the ground running in right after the first time Jesus is explicitly acknowledged to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  is then repeated in .  This culminates in chapter 27 when, in verse 43 Jesus the Christ really is on a cross and mocked, in stark irony for Matthew, “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him.”  Soon after, the one who did trust in God from first to last cries out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  The ultimate curse; forsaken by God, his wrath poured out.

Yet on the third day, by Jewish reckoning, the Messiah finds life after death and one of the last things Matthew leaves us with, echoing with the end is “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.”  (28:18 – 19a)  The authority given Jesus in life after death leads to a repentance of the Gentiles far surpassing anytime before.  Two of the most major themes (if not the major) now merge as throughout the book Matthew has been preparing for this role of Jesus.  Note the centurion in 8:5-13 with faith far surpassing any in Israel, the faith of a Canaanite woman in -28 and Jesus’ activity in Gentile country right afterwards in -39 (immediately followed by the second “sign of Jonah text”).  Note the parable in -44 where the vineyard is taken from the Pharisees and given to a people (or “nation”, Greek: ethne, i.e. not the Jews). Lastly, note a passage right before the “sign of Jonah” text we started with (-41) where Matthew says:
This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom I am well pleased.  I will put my Spirit upon him and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.  He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope. (12:17-21)
In Matthew’s narrative, this is followed by the authority of Jesus in setting up God’s kingdom; the reality and coming of a just judgment in which every word, whether good or bad, will be accounted for; and the “sign of Jonah” to a wicked generation as proof of his authority.

As Matthew says Jesus says, one “greater than Jonah is here.”  As Jonah passed through “death” to life and brought grace and repentance to the Gentiles, so Jesus passed through death to life and didn’t just bring grace and repentance, but is the source of it by suffering God’s condemnation for many so that God could still be just while justifying the many (Rom. 3:26).  In God’s story, Jonah points beyond to Jesus.  Jesus is greater.


  1. Thank you for sharing this. The perfect devotional to start off my Monday morning. I will be meditating on the unfathomable mercy and grace of God, and how it plays out across history, culminating in Jesus Christ, for the rest of the day. Amen!

  2. I always focused on the whale in the Jonah story and never on God's mercy. I love this story, now.

  3. What a great post, Carl. Thanks for telling me about it. I've never noticed all of those parallels between Jonah's story and what happens in the Gospels.


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