by Alyssa Robinson
Jonah Tries to Run Away from God
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.
Jonah is one of those stories in the Bible that I remember learning in childhood, but I can’t recall reading it a single time as an adult. I actually had to go into the Table of Contents in my Bible to find exactly where it's located. Here is the story as I remember it as a kid:
God asks Jonah to go one direction, but Jonah goes the opposite direction. God then uses a whale to swallow up Jonah as a punishment for disobeying God. Jonah asks for forgiveness and promises to follow God, so the whale spits Jonah up on land so he can do what God asked him to do in the first place. The end.
I was missing a lot of information in this childhood version. I always imagined the scene in Pinocchio when he and Gepetto are swallowed by the whale. It had a little bit of a Disney fantasy feel to it. But now that I’m rereading Jonah as an adult, there is so much more to the story. As a kid, I couldn’t comprehend all of the emotions Jonah was facing in this story. I had never really experienced fear, shame, humility, indignance, just to name a few. The feelings that Jonah experiences are so deeply relatable, and I can see myself in him.
The role of God in the story also feels completely different. As a child, maybe because my teacher focused on the wrong thing, I thought God was punishing Jonah because he disobeyed God. I’m sure there was a lesson about the importance of obedience. But as I read it today, God is not punishing Jonah. God is pursuing Jonah relentlessly. If you read Chapter 1, God doesn’t throw Jonah into the sea, the other sailors throw Jonah overboard in the hopes that God will stop battering their ship with the wind. You could even argue that God saves Jonah by swallowing him up in a whale rather than letting him drown.
I love how Chapter 1 begins, “Jonah tries to run away from God.” How many times have I tried to run away from God? How many times have I felt a nudge from God to give or serve, but resisted it? How many times have I chosen comfort over following Jesus? I can’t even begin to count. And yet, over and over again I feel God’s presence. God doesn’t give up on me, and God doesn’t give up on you either.
God is pursuing you, chasing you, with unconditional love and unrelenting grace. The book of Jonah is four short chapters. I hope you'll open it up and give it a read. Invite God into the reading, and ask God to reveal love and grace to you.