Jonah / chapter 3 (read the chapter)
And the plot thickens. Once he was finished with his whale of a ride, God sent Jonah to Nineveh a second time. (By the way, Bible commentators note that the Hebrew wording in God’s second command to go to Nineveh is exactly the same as in His first command. How wonderful it is that God is not unwilling to give us a brand-new beginning whenever we need it! Most of us need more than one!)
This time, Jonah does as he’s told and goes to Nineveh. He walks about halfway into the city (probably near where the palace would have been located) and preaches God’s warning message: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” (vs 4) And lo and behold, everybody listened: “The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.” (vs 5)
I bet the prophets would have done anything to have had such great success in Israel! I mean, this rapid repentance is almost comical, especially when you have just trudged through the Old Testament, featuring prophet after prophet after prophet begging the Israelites to repent . . . and having no luck.
But, according to many Bible commentators, the rapid repentance shouldn’t come as a big surprise. You see, one of the most prominent gods of Nineveh at the time was Dagon, the fish god. When Nineveh was rediscovered and excavated in the mid-1800s, images of Dagon were found all over the place, in palaces and temples. In fact, the symbol of the city of Nineveh meant “house or place of fish.”
In light of that, it seems like Jonah—who “magically” appeared from the gullet of a big fish—had the deck stacked in his favor. Scholar Clay Trumbull wrote, “What better heralding, as a divinely sent messenger to Nineveh, could Jonah have had, than to be thrown up out of the mouth of a great fish, in the presence of witnesses, say on the coast of Phoenicia, where the fish-god was a favorite object of worship? Such an incident would have inevitably aroused the mercurial nature of Oriental observers, so that a multitude would be ready to follow the seemingly new avatar of the fish-god, proclaiming the story of his uprising from the sea, as he went on his mission to the city where the fish-god had its very center of worship.”
Other scholars speculate that Jonah’s three days in the belly of the fish (with all those digestive acids) would likely have bleached his skin, hair, and clothes a ghostly white and that this would have been a great help to his cause. If so, are you getting the picture? A ghostly-looking man comes straight out of a fish, claiming to be a messenger from god sent to the people who live in the “house of fish” and worship Dagon.
God sent Jonah to the people of Nineveh in the very way He knew they would accept him. And what’s even more astounding about this is that He took their heathen misunderstanding and worked with it. He didn’t send someone in there to proclaim that Dagon didn’t exist. They thought Dagon was real, so God sent them someone from “Dagon.”
To me, this is incredible. God is not so pretentiously self-important that He can’t stoop to meet us where we are. He not only allows our misconceptions and misunderstandings, He uses them for our benefit! He starts where we are—even if that means letting some other, non-existent god “call” the people He loves to repentance. He doesn’t want the credit; He just wants us.
Once again, I am in awe of God. The way He is able to reach us—no matter how far we are from Him—leaves me speechless. The more I study the story of Jonah, the more I think God had the whale planned all along. He was just itching to talk to the people of Nineveh, and if the only way they would “hear” Him would be because the words came from the lips of a guy who had been vomited out of a fish—yeah, God could make that happen.
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THE GREAT INTRUDER
It is exasperating
to be called
when the last thing
we want to do
is get up and go
to keep on
Abraham interceded for Sodom
but Jonah couldn’t have cared less
if Nineveh had harbored one
relatively innocent inhabitant
or even one hundred and twenty.
They all looked alike to him—
seeing he hadn’t tried to see them.
But God’s vision is better than twenty-twenty.
God changed His mind
because they had changed
because they repented.
That is the way
we word it
He is limited
His limitless love.