Few people today misunderstand the nature of this story. The two questions often raised about it in the past are no longer heard: Did Jonah really exist? Did he really stay in the belly of a fish for three days?
The book of Jonah is a story, but the author deserves to be considered a prophet because he very clearly underscored some truths which his contemporaries had forgotten.
This delightful narrative criticizes, not the idolatrous or godless people, but the pious Jews themselves who, locked in their nationalism, easily forget that God is the God of all peoples.
God, the savior of all people
Jonah does not like pagans and if God saves them, Jonah does not feel like paying the price for it. This kind of pettiness, characteristic of an average believer, merely covers up another, much greater scandal for which God is responsible. How are we to understand that God saves everyone if, at the same time, he repeats throughout the bible that Israel alone was chosen, that it alone has the word of life, it alone has a Savior, that all that God demands (circumcision, or later, baptism, or the Eucharist, or sexual prohibitions) is absolutely necessary in order to be saved?
This scandal has always been at the heart of Christianity just as it was with the Jews. Does God speak two languages? Or should we believe that Christian salvation is only one among all those that are offered to peoples from different cultures and religions? This question was so formidable that Christians often tried to dismiss it without even naming it. Thus, following Saint Augustine, the Western Church locked itself in the doctrine of original sin as if in a fortress (see the commentaries on Gen 3 and Rom 5:12). We used to assert without batting an eye that after Adam’s sin, all people were condemned to hell, except for those who were baptized, or at least desired baptism. We have said and preached that until the middle of the twentieth century. This is the reason why still-born babies were not buried on Christian ground. It is also the reason why many missionaries would have given their lives just to baptize a single pagan child.
Saint Augustine kindly contended that hell would be considerably softened for unbaptized children. At the same time, he felt bound to show that all the “virtues of pagans,” all the good we see in them, was totally worthless before God: these virtues were a way of seeking their own perfection without God and therefore, were the product of pride. This denunciation by Augustine of many people (Christians or not) who act and live beyond reproach in the eyes of others or in their own, was certainly insightful; but he would not have gone to such extremes if it had not been necessary to exorcise the famous question: does not God save non-Christians just as he saves us? This would definitely have dampened the enthusiasm of Christians.
To those asking about the will of God that all people be saved the answer was: “God wants to save all human beings provided they believe and become Roman Catholic.” This wall officially began to crack only in the first half of the twentieth century. Throughout the three previous centuries, this concealed violence of the Christian doctrine (a condemnation without appeal of all religions and most of humanity that did not embrace Christianity) scandalized countless open-minded people, opening a path to Western atheism, yet the Church (we should say: the churches) did not budge. Therefore, we should not be surprised if as soon as God’s will to save everyone was acknowledged most Christians began to question their faith. They were not denying it and even conceded that it may have been the best, but thought that all religions were equally valid. Some went farther and thought that everything was optional in this matter and we all save ourselves as best as we can.
So, now we must rethink our Christian identity: what are we in the midst of humanity? What are we saying when we profess that we are only saved by Christ? What does this salvation brought by Christ have to do with the rest of humanity?
No wonder that today countless Christians are perplexed about the subject. They should not be condemned instantly if they feel such a need to be in solidarity with the rest of humanity that they sell off the treasures God entrusted to them: they did not see that the call they received to be the people of Christ entrusts them a unique mission which is necessary for the salvation of the world. It is impossible to overcome such a drastic change in a few years, or even in a hundred years, and perhaps for a long time to come we will be incapable of understanding how God loves and saves everyone and at the same time how the call to the faith that we have received is an exceptional grace.
At least let us recall what the whole Bible tells us, namely, that God is “predilection and fidelity.” It is by the path of fidelity, rather than by the path of reasoning or feelings, that we will enter into this God who is truth.
Yahweh sends Jonah to Nineveh
•1The word of Yahweh came to Jonah, son of Amittai, 2“Go to Nineveh, the great city, and preach against it, because I have known its wickedness.” 3But Jonah decided to flee from Yahweh and go to Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, found a ship bound for Tarshish, and paid the fare. Then he boarded it and went into the hold of the ship, journeying with them to Tarshish, far away from Yahweh.
4Yahweh stirred up a storm wind on the sea, so there was a sea tempest, which threatened to destroy the ship. 5The sailors took fright, and each cried out to his own god. To lighten the ship, they threw its cargo into the sea.
6Meanwhile Jonah had gone into the hold of the ship, where he lay fast asleep. The captain came upon him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god. Perhaps he will be mindful of us and will not allow us to die here.”
7The sailors said to each other, “Let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this disaster.” So they did, and the lot fell on Jonah.
8They questioned him, “So you are responsible for this evil that has come upon us? Tell us where you are from. What is your country, your nationality?” 9And Jonah told them his story, “I am a Hebrew and I worship Yahweh, God of heaven who made the sea and the land….”
10As they knew that he was fleeing from Yahweh, the sailors were seized with great fear and said to him, “What a terrible thing have you done!” 11“What shall we do with you now to make the sea calm down?” The sea was growing more and more agitated.
12He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea. It will quiet down, for I know it is because of me that this storm has come.”
13The sailors, however, still did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea had grown much rougher than before. 14Then they called on Yahweh, “O Yahweh, do not let us perish for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us guilty of shedding innocent blood. For you, Yahweh, have done this as you have thought right.” 15They took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm again. 16At this the men were seized with great fear of Yahweh. They offered a sacrifice to Yahweh and made vows to him.
Jonah in the belly of the fish
1Yahweh provided a large fish which swallowed Jonah. He remained in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.
2From the belly of the fish Jonah prayed to Yahweh, his God:
3“In my distress I cried to Yahweh,
and he answered me;
from the belly of the netherworld
you heard my voice when I called.
4You cast me into the abyss,
into the very heart of the sea,
and the currents swirled about me;
all your breakers and your billows
passed over engulfing me.
5Then I thought:
I have been cast out from your presence,
but I keep on looking to your holy Temple.
6The waters engulfed me up to my throat;
all around me was the abyss;
wrapped about my head were seaweeds.
7I went down to the roots of the mountains,
the bars of the netherworld closed upon me,
but you brought my life up from the pit,
Yahweh, my God.
8When my soul was fainting within me,
I remembered Yahweh,
and before you rose my prayer
up to your holy Temple.
9Those who worship worthless idols
lose your grace
10but I, with songs of praise,
will offer to you sacrifices.
What I have vowed, I will make good—
deliverance comes from Yahweh, my God.”
11Then Yahweh gave his command to the fish, and it belched out Jonah onto dry land.
The conversion of Nineveh
1The word of Yahweh came to Jonah a second time: 2“Go to Nineveh, the great city, and announce to them the message I give you.”
3In obedience to the word of Yahweh, Jonah went to Nineveh. It was a very large city, and it took three days just to cross it. 4So Jonah walked a single day’s journey and began proclaiming, “Forty days more and Nineveh will be destroyed.”
5The people of the city believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
6Upon hearing the news, the king of Nineveh got up from his throne, took off his royal robe, put on sackcloth and sat down in ashes. 7He issued a proclamation throughout Nineveh:
“By the decree of the king and his nobles, no people or beasts, herd or flock, will taste anything; neither will they eat nor drink. 8But let people and beasts be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call aloud to God, turn from his evil ways and violence. 9Who knows? God may yet relent, turn from his fierce anger and spare us.”
10When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not carry out the destruction he had threatened upon them.
God loves everyone
1But Jonah was greatly displeased at this, and he was indignant. 2He prayed to Yahweh and said, “O Yahweh, is this not what I said when I was yet in my own country? This is why I fled to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and full of love, and you relent from imposing terrible punishment. 3I beseech you now, Yahweh, to take my life, for now it is better for me to die than to live.” 4But Yahweh replied, “What right have you to be angry?”
5Jonah then left the city. He went to a place east of it, built himself a shelter and sat under its shade to wait and see what would happen to Nineveh. 6Then Yahweh God provided a castor-oil plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade over his head and to ease his discomfort. Jonah was very happy about the plant.
7But the next day, at dawn, God sent a worm which attacked the plant and made it wither. 8When the sun rose, God sent a scorching east wind; the sun blazed down upon Jonah’s head, and he grew faint. His death wish returned and he said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
9Then God asked Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the castor-oil plant?” Jonah answered, “I am right to be angry enough to wish to die.”
10Yahweh said, “You are concerned about a plant which cost you no labor to make it grow. Overnight it sprang up, and overnight it perished. 11But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot distinguish right from left and they have many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned for such a great city?”
• 1.1 Jonah refuses to obey the call from Yahweh: perhaps because he does not feel responsible for the salvation of the hated Ninevites. He is asleep while the sailors, good pagans, are trying to save the boat. (Though this is not a religious work, it does interest the pious Jonah too.) Jonah delights in thinking about the punishment that God is going to inflict on the pagans of Nineveh. He complains of God’s mercy toward the Ninevites, because his own reputation will suffer from this.
God guides the world according to a broad and generous vision. Because he created everyone, he feels responsible for everyone and wants to save humans and cattle (4:11) regardless of their race or religion. The story of Jonah soon became popular, and Jesus would mention it:
– The Ninevites’ conversion (Lk 11:30).
– The comparison with the three days that Jonah spent in the fish’s belly (Mt 12:40).