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By Roland E. Murphy, O.Carm.

The Bible: Light to My Path

Four persons who've studied the Bible in depth will contribute to this column in 2002. Each month, one author will choose a passage that comforts, challenges or seems neglected. He or she will explain how to apply this passage and connect it to everyday life. This month's guide:

Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm., is a priest of the Carmelite Order and a frequently published biblical scholar who is coeditor of the New Jerome Biblical Commentary. His most recent book is Experiencing Our Biblical Heritage, published by Hendrickson Publishers in 2001.

Our panel also includes:

Barbara Leonhard, O.S.F.
Virginia Smith



Jonah Wants No Mercy
A Whale of a Miracle
Biblical Background

And should I not be concerned over Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who cannot distinguish their right hand from their left, not to mention the many cattle?

—Jonah 4:11


The fish is not the main character in the Book of Jonah! Yet, almost everyone remembers the fish, which is only a convenient seagoing vehicle to capture a runaway prophet and bring him back home. Chapters One and Two of the Book of Jonah are, as it were, replayed to a different tune in Chapters Three and Four.

The foreign sailors on board the sinking ship pray to the Lord, the God of Jonah, who saves them from destruction once Jonah is thrown overboard. The foreign Ninevites—from king to beast—do penance (in sackcloth, yet!), appealing to the God in whose name Jonah speaks, and they are spared.

Jonah Wants No Mercy

One would think that the prophet would welcome such tremendous success. No one else in Israel, no Christian missionary ever achieved the success that Jonah did. His reaction is typical of the curmudgeonly character that he is. He is angry, angry enough to die (4:9).

Why? Because he knew all the time that the Lord would go soft and show mercy. In 4:2, he practically quotes the great revelation of Exodus 34:6 about the Lord being merciful and gracious, rich in clemency. He could not endure being an instrument of mercy to a hated people. So the Lord teaches him a lesson with the gourd plant and then draws his own conclusion in the final verse.

A Whale of a Miracle

Isn't it better to have theology replace the "miracle" of the fish? The true miracle is divine forgiveness, exemplified in such a striking manner by this story of the narrow-minded prophet. It is only too easy for those who are favored by God to think they alone have a corner on that favor. By means of this dramatic presentation, the Bible condemns any narrow nationalism and argues for what we might today call ecumenism.

Yes, God had chosen Israel to be the people of his covenant, but let them not think that they are the only object of the Lord's concern. He is concerned with all his creatures, even the 120,000 Ninevites, who don't know their right hand from their left—not to mention all the cattle! (A wonderful twist, that!)

The Gospels utilize the adventure of Jonah in two ways. First is the sign of Jonah himself. The conversion of the Ninevites is a condemnation of those who refuse to listen to one who is greater than Jonah (Luke 11:29-32). Second, the allusion to Jonah's entombment in the whale "three days and three nights" is a symbol of Jesus' sojourn in the abode of the dead (Matthew 12:39-41).


Biblical Background

Jonah is the story of a disobedient and bigoted prophet who attempts to run away from the Lord, and finally but reluctantly obeys, perhaps learning the great lesson of 4:11 (above). Jonah flees because he wants nothing to do with the hated Ninevites who destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C. But he can't escape the Lord, for a fish swallows him and deposits him back home.

Now he obeys the Lord, but is displeased by the results: The Ninevites do penance and the Lord changes his mind about punishing them. Jonah is angry, so the Lord teaches Jonah a lesson with the death of the gourd plant that protected him from the death-dealing rays of the sun. The very last verse opens up to Jonah the concern of the Lord for all those who are outside the Lord's covenant with Israel.

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