My name is Jonah. You may not know this, but I am the rightful king of Judah. I am descended from a royal great-grandfather. I can prove it! But nobody believes a thing I say.
It was a gloomy winter afternoon in Jerusalem, and my friends and I were sitting around bemoaning our nations current shameful status. You probably do know this: Judah is a mere vassal of Nineveh, 500 miles to the northeast, the capital city of the mighty Assyrian Empire. Every year we have to pay tribute to Nineveh. Their king will send his army to devastate us unless we send enough riches to satisfy him. We all hate the evil Assyrians.
Never mind them! I told my friends. We need not fear their threats nor their gods. Our god is Yahweh, the god of Judah. And is not Yahweh powerful above all other gods? My friends nodded dutifully, and I continued.
Did not the Canaanites once dwell here before us, farming and herding and worshipping their Baals and their Asherahs? Had not this land been promised to us instead? And did not Joshua, with Yahweh's help, take rightful possession of the land by killing all those Canaanites?
Yahweh is forever! Now, in our time, he will again rise up. He will destroy our oppressors. The children of Israel will once again rule this promised land, free of any hindrance from foreigners who know not our god.
Yahweh has spoken! I tell you, this very year Nineveh will be overthrown! The Assyrians will be slain, all the men and all the women and all the children murdered, and their blood will run deep in the streets of that evil city.
Because Im descended from royalty, I can be a very inspiring orator. I do like to talk. However, I'm not really a prophet, and my friends laughed at my bold prediction. Nobody believes a thing I say.
I went to bed that night still grumbling. I repeated the blessing that we recite at the New Year, May God bring an end to our enemies. Then, much to my surprise, Yahweh appeared to me in the night! I could hear his voice as plainly as I can hear yours now in the daytime. Go to the great city of Nineveh, he ordered me. Go and denounce it, for I am confronted by its wickedness.
When the sun arose, I pondered the mission I have been given. I realized it would be foolhardy to proclaim Yahweh's word in the enemys capital. I wasnt about to scold the enemy face to face; that would be dangerous. And if I did preach to the Assyrians, they wouldnt believe me anyway, because nobody believes a thing I say.
I decided to flee. I would get as far away from Judah as I could, all the way to Spain on the other end of the Mediterranean Sea. Out there, Yahweh couldnt bother me.
Making My Escape
I went down to Joppa, where I found a ship bound for Tarshish, paid the fare, and got on board. I didnt tell anybody where I was going or why. After all, nobody believes a thing I say.
A big storm hit us on our second day out of Joppa. I was taking a nap, sleeping peacefully below deck. But up above, the sailors were in a panic. The winds and waves were so bad that they were afraid the ship would break up. Everyone cried out to his own god for help, and they started to jettison cargo to lighten the vessel.
The captain found me in my bunk. Wake up, he said. We need all hands to help! Get up and call to your god. Perhaps he will spare a thought for us and we'll survive. I protested that my gods jurisdiction covered only the land of Judah. But the captain dragged me up on deck anyway.
The storm was getting worse. The sailors had decided that someone on board must be causing this misfortune, so they were casting lots, and I drew the short straw. You! Sleepyhead! they shouted, poking at my chest. You are to blame for this terrible storm! Who are you? Where do you come from? What is your business?
Usually nobody believes a thing I say, but these seamen were starting to get rough with me. I had to confess. I am Jonah, a Hebrew from the land of Judah. There I worship Yahweh the god of heaven, who made both sea and dry land. But he's trying to order me around, so Im escaping from him by sailing west.
Thats despicable, you coward! Your god Yahweh must have caused this storm because hes angry with you. How can we fix this?
I am indeed at fault for running away, I admitted piously. Now, alas, you must kill me. Cast me into the raging sea to meet my fate. It is Yahwehs will. Id rather be dead than alive.
Fortunately, nobody believes a thing I say. The crewmen didnt want to sacrifice a passenger to ensure their own safety. They rowed hard to get to the nearest land, but it was no use; the sea was running higher and higher.
Finally the captain cried out, O Yahweh, you yourself have brought this about. Dont hold us responsible for the death of an innocent man. And he gave the order, and the sailors actually picked me up and threw me overboard!
Immediately the raging of the sea subsided. I bobbed to the surface and gasped for air. Could I get back to the ship? If I tried to climb back aboard, would Yahweh start up the storm again? I disentangled myself from a clump of seaweed and started to swim, but before I could reach the ship, a huge fish swallowed me!
I know Ive told fish stories before, but this fish was big. Really big. As big as a whale. I speak the truth, but nobody believes a thing I say.
I must have been inside the belly of that fish for at least two days, maybe three. I couldnt move a muscle, but at least I could compose poetry. I remembered the psalm De Profundis. Out of the depths I have called to you.
Could Yahweh inside his temple hear me calling him from inside a fish? On the chance that he could, I offered up this hopeful prayer.
And somehow that prayer must have reached headquarters back in Jerusalem, because the fish spit me out onto dry land! I speak the truth. Nobody believes a thing I say.
Gasping there on the seashore, I crawled to an abandoned hut, found some parchment, scrounged up some ink, and wrote down the prayer that had saved my life. For posterity, you know. But I was afraid to go to sleep that night, for fear that I would have nightmares.
And sure enough, I did. Yahweh spoke to me again, saying, Go to the great city of Nineveh. He commanded, Go and denounce it in the words I give you.
I couldnt very well disobey him a second time. In writing I had promised, what I have vowed, I shall fulfill. So as soon as I had recovered from my ordeal by relaxing on the seashore for a few weeks, I set out for the enemy capital.
The Big City
Nineveh is huge. It takes three days to walk from one side of the city to the other! I dont know the total population, but its supposed to be twice as big as Babylon. I heard that there are 120,000 children so young that they cant yet tell their right hand from their left, as well as so many cattle that they cant be counted. I speak the truth, but nobody believes a thing I say.
I began by entering the western gate and walking one days journey into town. There I found an empty wagon parked at a street corner. It could serve as my pulpit. I climbed up onto the wagon and looked around.
I gazed upon the vast metropolis with all its riches. In the distance was Sennacheribs famous palace without a rival, which must be half a mile long. Next to me hordes of people, the hated Assyrians, bustled about doing their business. They looked like ordinary people with lives and loves just like my friends back in Jerusalem, but I knew the truth.
With glee, I imagined how Yahweh was going to punish them for their wickedness. As in the days of old, he would suddenly rain fire down upon them from heaven. Then our soldiers would march in with their swords, and they would hack and hew and chop and slice all the inhabitants to death. Men, women, children, cattle, everything that breathed would die under Yahweh's wrath. I smiled at the thought of the bloodbath. There would be much weeping, much wailing, much gnashing of teeth. The Assyrians would get what they deserved, and my people back home would once again be free of foreign domination!
From the cart, I lifted up my voice and shouted, Hear the word of Yahweh. In forty days, Nineveh shall be overthrown!
The people in the streets looked up at me dumbfounded. Who was this lone Hebrew warning of impending disaster? Of course, nobody believes a thing I say.
But to my astonishment, they did believe what I said! I told you I was a great orator. Something in my confident tone, my authoritative way of predicting the future, must have convinced them. I stood there beaming with pride over my amazing accomplishment.
Some of the people ran to the palace to take the news to the king on his throne. And even he believed it! The king stood up, laid aside his robes of state, put on sackcloth instead, and went over to the fireplace and sat down in the ashes. It was I who made him do that. I did it. I did. I speak the truth.
A public fast was proclaimed to the people of Nineveh: By decree of the king and his nobles, neither man nor beast is to touch any food. Neither herd nor flock may eat or drink. Every person and every animal is to be covered with sackcloth. Let all pray with fervor to God, and let all abandon their wicked ways and the injustices that they practice. It may be that God will relent and turn from his fierce anger, and we shall not perish.
Then once again Yahweh spoke to me, to let me know my speech had had such a profound effect that he was indeed going to relent. Because the king and all the people had humbly confessed their sins, Yahweh would not inflict upon them the punishment he had threatened. He told me to send word to the palace that the people could discontinue their fast.
A Big Letdown
Of course, I was extremely disappointed to learn that the Assyrians actually had some virtue within them. I was going to be denied the spectacle of seeing them slaughtered.
I complained to Yahweh. This is what I was afraid of! This is why I tried to flee to Tarshish, to keep this from happening, I lied.
I was perfectly willing, I explained, to obey your command to come to Nineveh and warn the people. But on the other hand, I know you. I know you are a gracious and compassionate god, long-suffering, always ready to relent and not to inflict punishment. I knew what would happen: I would come here and proclaim the overthrow of the city, and then you would get all merciful and change your mind, and youd make me look like a fool.
Why cant you destroy Nineveh as you promised? Im very angry. Destroy me now. Id rather be dead than alive.
Yahweh asked, Are you angry that the Ninevehites were spared? Are you right to be angry?
I stomped out of the city on the other side and built myself a little shelter on one of the eastern hills. I sat down and waited to see what would happen. Maybe somehow Yahweh would change his mind again, and mighty Nineveh would be overthrown after all.
It was hot on my hillside, facing the afternoon sun, but fortunately one morning I noticed that a castor-oil plant had sprung up beside my shelter. I was very glad to have the shade. But the next morning, I discovered that a worm had attacked the plant, and it withered and died. And then a hot wind came blowing in from the desert behind me. The sun beat down on my head until I grew faint, almost as faint as that time when the fish swallowed me.
Why did the plant have to die? I moaned. Once again I muttered, Id rather be dead than alive.
Again Yahweh spoke to me. Are you angry that the plant died? Are you right to be angry? Yes, I replied, mortally angry!
But Yahweh replied, Youre grieving for that plant, are you? A mere plant. You didnt create it. You didnt sow the seed or water it. It came up one night and died the next.
Should I not care much more for the great city of Nineveh? I created its men and its women and its children. They have as much right to live in peace as do the people of Jerusalem. I will not destroy them without cause. I will not murder them merely to satisfy your bloodthirsty fantasies.
And because I always obey all of Yahweh's commands, I immediately departed.
So thats where Ive been lately. I've been busy saving Nineveh. I convinced all our enemies to change their evil ways, and I convinced Yahweh to change his mind about killing them. Now all is well.
Also, Im the rightful king of Judah.
I speak the truth, but nobody believes a thing I say.
(a retelling of the book of Jonah)
Click here for other Bible stories I've retold in the first person.