The Book of Jonah is one of my favorite books in the Bible. For one, it’s short, to the point, and quite funny. It also contains one of the most concise expressions of God’s love for us coupled with His understandable frustration over the fact that we just don’t get it. After Jonah has declared to God his anger at the fact that the plant He sprang up to give him shade rotted overnight, God responds, “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?” (Jon. 4: 10-11).
The book ends there. I, for one, find this response quite beautiful. It reminds me a bit of the tone that my parents would take with me whenever I did something they told me not to do time and time again, but I did it anyway, usually getting myself hurt in the process. They, on the other hand, would drop everything and come to help me.
Another interesting aspect of Jonah’s story is that he is seemingly upset that God does not destroy Nineveh after its people repent, despite the fact that he himself has found God’s mercy after disobeying Him. We might perhaps be moved to scoff at Jonah for his clear inability to recognize this fact, but the truth is that we ourselves do this from time to time. Though we are sinners in need of God’s mercy, and we have received undeserved mercy from God time and time again, we often fall into judging others on account of their sins. Not only can the people of Nineveh not tell their left hand from their right, but it seems that even Jonah can’t do it and often, in fact, neither can we.
Up to this point, I think that a Jewish reader would not have many things to disagree with. Yet, for a Christian, the Book of Jonah makes a much more fundamental point than this. Following his rejection of God’s command to him, Jonah boards a ship for Tarshish, in order to flee from the Lord. The ship is hit by a storm and each person starts praying to their own god for deliverance. Eventually, Jonah tells them that storm is on his account and is thrown overboard. God then appoints a great fish to swallow Jonah, where he spends three days and three nights. After this, he prays to God from the belly of the fish. He identifies himself as being in “the depth of Sheol” (Jon. 2:1) and, in the culmination of the prayer, exclaims, “But You have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God. / While I was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, / And my prayer came to You, Into Your holy temple” (Jon. 2:6-7). The Church Fathers interpret this episode as a type for Christ’s Resurrection. In fact, the Lord Himself refers to the “sign of Jonah” (Mt. 12:39). That could only refer to Jonah’s three-day sojourn in the belly of the fish, after which he emerged alive. The reference, then, could only refer to the Resurrection.
Beyond this point, the interpretation of Jonah from the Christian perspective adds another layer to the book as a whole. A Jewish interpreter might see nothing beyond Jonah’s disobedience in the first half of the book, but the Christian must see a more profound point. Considering the importance of the prefiguration of Jonah in the belly of the fish, one would be compelled to conclude that Jonah’s detour was in God’s plan all along. In telling him to go to Nineveh the first time then, God was fully aware that Jonah would disobey and—in his disobedience—he would serve to create an image of the mystery of the Resurrection. God foreknew that His word would be disobeyed, but His plan would still be accomplished. Jonah tries to flee from the presence of God. Instead, he becomes the icon of the Son in His victory over sin and death. God writes straight with crooked lines, it seems, and everything works out according to His plan. For those who trust in the Lord, then, this is a source of great comfort. In our lives, all things, the good and the bad—the successes and the failures—come only under His permission and His plan cannot be overturned by external forces, not even by our own misgivings (cf. Rom. 8:28). So, as long as we place our hope in Him, we can rest easy knowing that He “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11).