The Story of Jonah – Literal or Figurative?

wal-600387_1280Most people are familiar with the story of Jonah and the big fish, but is this story to be taken literally or figuratively?  It would be very easy to take the beginning of the story literally because almost everyone has had a time when they felt God leading them to do something they didn’t want to do, and they kept finding reasons to avoid following God’s leading (or ran away from God’s leading).  However, once we get past the beginning of the story there are many reasons why we should then take this story figuratively.

Will God Condemn Many for the Actions of One?

 Once Jonah had booked passage on a ship and the ship had set sail, the story says the Lord sent such a great wind and violent storm that the ship would be broken up.  This storm was so violent that the seasoned sailors were afraid, and they were willing to throw cargo overboard to keep them from sinking.  So, the story would have us believe that God would destroy people who had nothing to do with the issue between God and Jonah?  That would be inconsistent with a loving and compassionate God.  It would also be inconsistent with the following scripture, which tells us that the Lord deals with each of us individually.

Jeremiah 17:10 – “I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve.”

In addition to this, we are led to believe that a storm that threatened to break up the ship, caused seasoned sailors to be afraid and had them throwing their cargo overboard, would allow for Jonah to sleep.  The ships of that day would not have the modern-day advancements that help soften the waves of the sea.  The violent storm that is described would have been tossing anyone around below deck to the point they would not have been able to sleep.

Then the story tells us the sailors cast lots to see why the force of nature was bringing calamity on them.  Even though we are not certain what casting lots was, it was something similar to modern day rolling dice or flipping a coin.  This makes the story gets a little screwy.  By the random act of “flipping a coin” they determined Jonah was responsible for the storm and they proceeded to ask him many questions.  However, the story also tells us that Jonah had already told them that he was running away from the Lord, so they would have already known the answers to their questions.

Love God or Fear God?

 Jonah tells them to throw him into the sea and it will become calm.  He tells them the sea will become calm because he is the reason the storm is happening to them.  Again, the Lord who rewards each person according to their own conduct, is getting ready to take the lives of people who had nothing to do with Jonah’s issue.  At any rate, the sailors threw Jonah overboard because they thought God wanted them to kill an innocent man, as far as their dealing with him, and at once the sea became calm.  The story then says they offered sacrifices and made vows to the Lord because they greatly feared him.  I mean who wouldn’t fear someone who had just brought the storm of death on you, only to take it away for throwing a man to his death?  You would fear God because you would be worried God would be waiting to zap you if you got out of line.  Is this what God wants from us?  Would God rather have our fear or our love?

That is an easy answer for us to see in the way God has created the example for our own lives.  We usually have very little respect for people that we fear.  We do things for these people for fear of the punishment we will receive if we don’t please them.  It’s not that we want to do things for them, we make ourselves do things for them.  This is not what God wants from us.  On the other hand, we usually have great respect for the people we love.  We do things for these people because we want to, not because we have to, and not because of what we will receive in return.  This is exactly what God wants from us.  This thought goes hand in hand with the following scripture.

1 John 4:18 – There is no fear in love.  But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.  The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

The story then shifts to the Lord providing a big fish to swallow Jonah and he was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.  Then, of course, and who wouldn’t be this way, after three days in the belly of the fish, Jonah came to his senses and decided running away from God was not the best thing he could do, so the Lord caused the fish to vomit Jonah out onto dry land.  Not that God couldn’t cause this to happen if God wanted to, but when taken in context of this entire story, it is much more likely to be taken figuratively.

A Figurative Story for All Time

 With many stories like this in the bible, no wonder so many people think God is just waiting for them to do something wrong, so God can just zap them.  What a terrible way to depict God.  God created us only to want to zap us for what we do wrong?  I don’t think so.  When we look at this story figuratively, it takes on so much more of a deeper, positive meaning.  If we believe in a God who created the entire universe, then there is no depth in believing God “could” do the things depicted in this story, we would already clearly understand that.  The real depth comes when we examine what God is teaching and wants us to do with the story.

When it comes to the story of Jonah, most of us have felt that leading from God to do something, or to stop doing something.  Way too often, we avoid this leading and put off doing what we’re being led to do or continue doing what we are led to stop doing.  When we do this, it usually causes an internal storm in our life.  We are not settled, or at peace, and it is like something is building inside of us.  As we continue on, it becomes more and more prevalent in our thought process, and what was once building is now raging.  It’s almost like something is chasing us and we can’t get away from it.  In fact, it’s almost like a big fish is chasing us, and we can’t get away from it, and if it catches us it’s going to swallow us up.  The reality is, when we do this, whatever is chasing us usually does catch up with us and swallow us up.  It is only when we stop avoiding what we are being led to do, and actually do it, will the big fish vomit us up so that we can get back to our settled, peaceful life.  Where are you in this story and what is God trying to teach you?

We are our own worst enemy.  Thank goodness we have a God who loves us and leads us to do good.  Let’s commit to stop avoiding and start following God’s leading so we can do the good God intended us to do.

James 4:17 – If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.


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