Get your copy of “Messiah: Biblical Retellings” here, or download a free chapter here. (Published under my pen name, C.A. Gray)
Today’s podcast is a meditation on and retelling of the book of Jonah.
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This is the transcript of my retelling, though the podcast also includes a discussion.
I sometimes think I got a raw deal, being chosen as a prophet of the Lord. Why me? What did I do to deserve this?
And why now—this moment in history, I mean? I love my nation, and I love the Lord. But King Jeroboam is wicked, and yet I have to serve him anyway. When the Lord gives me a word for him, I faithfully deliver it, even though the truth is, I’ve secretly resented the fact that I feel like God has just been using me for a long time now.
Or I guess maybe not so secretly, since the Lord knows my every thought.
Still, I do what He tells me to do, partly because I don’t think I could do otherwise. God’s words, when they come, burn inside me until I utter them.
But enough is enough. This time, God’s word was, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.”
No. I am not doing that.
Because Nineveh is a threat to Israel, and they’re horrible people. Horrible! And I know why God said it, too: He’d have no reason to send me to proclaim against them unless He intended to give them the opportunity to repent. He wouldn’t bother sending me if He didn’t think they would repent, either. If He wanted me to go call down fire from heaven to consume them all, that I would happily do. But no—He wanted to use me as an instrument of their redemption, the redemption of my Gentile enemies!
Forget it. He could call someone else if He wanted to spare those wretches. I was tired of being mistreated and used as God’s mouthpiece against my will. He loved all those abominations in Nineveh, but what about me? Did he care what I thought or how I felt?
So, for the first time since the Word of the Lord came to me, I went in the opposite direction. Instead of heading for Nineveh, I went to Joppa. Truthfully I didn’t really expect to get that far—I thought God’s rebuke would burn inside me so painfully that it would force me to turn around, or else that he would send another prophet across my path. But I heard nothing, and saw no one, and thought—maybe He’s going to let me run! Maybe?
So I boarded a merchant ship for Tarshish, and climbed below deck. I felt emotionally spent—though the Lord had not barred my flight, I’d expected Him to at every moment, and I’d been on edge all day. All I wanted to do was sleep; unconsciousness seemed like a blessed release.
The next thing I knew, the captain of the ship, to whom I’d paid the fare, was shaking me awake. “What do you mean, you sleeper!” he shouted. “Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish!”
As he spoke and I regained consciousness, I saw what he meant: the boat had sailed into a tempest, and we pitched so violently that it threw me from one side of the cabin to the other, now that I stood. Cargo that shared my lodging slid and hurtled across the room, and from the dim light that filtered from the upper decks, I could see that the captain was soaked through with sea spray.
A sinking dread filled my heart. As I followed the captain back to the upper decks with the rest of the crew, I said to the Lord, Was all this really necessary? Couldn’t you just have sent another prophet to rebuke me instead?
The mariners hurled cargo into the sea to try to lighten the load, but it was no use of course—our problem had nothing to do with the weight we carried. The mariners seemed to realize this and huddled together, keeping their stance as best they could in the turbulence. I approached them, and heard one shout over the spray, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us!” I hesitated just a bit when I heard this, and tried to hang back, but the sailor urged me to join them. I drew my lot, knowing very well what it would reveal. Of course, the lot fell to me. All the mariners regarded me with wide, suspicious eyes, and the one who had urged me to join yelled, “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?”
Well, it was all over now. I heaved a sigh, looked up to heaven and shook my head at the Lord. Then I told them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”
Now they seemed afraid. Though they were Gentiles, and served other gods, they had all heard of the great and mighty deeds of the Lord. “What is this that you have done!” several shouted. I opened my mouth to reply, but the ship bucked so hard that all of us flew into the air and then back down onto the deck again, along with the crash of a wave. Forgetting their first question, the mariners moved right on to the more pressing issue—for them, anyway. “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?”
The answer came to me, just like every other word the Lord had ever given me, though I liked it even less than the last one He had spoken. Still, I knew better than not to give it.
“Pick me up and hurl me into the sea,” I shouted, “then the sea will quiet down for you. For I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.”
The mariners stared at me in shock. They had not expected me to say such a thing. No ordinary man would have recommended his own execution to save strangers. But they didn’t know what it was to be a prophet of the Lord… I had to do and say what He gave me to do and say. Clearly.
The captain did not comment on my recommendation at all, but commanded the men, “To the oars! Let us see if we can row to dry land until the storm passes.”
I shook my head and shouted, “It won’t work!”
They ignored me, though, and the men obeyed the orders of the captain, each man to his station. They rowed as hard as they could, but the harder they rowed, the harder the sea bucked against them. Cargo flew around like projectiles. More than once the ship came down half inverted, and I had no idea how it did not capsize altogether. In a moment of brief reprieve, I called out to the captain, “I told you so! Hurl me in! You must!”
The captain and several of his mates exchanged a look of horror and resolution combined. Then he called out to the heavens, “O Lord, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you!”
I wondered what drowning was like. It seemed an unpleasant way to die. As I allowed the captain and three mariners to hoist me onto their shoulders and hurl me into the tempestuous sea, I prayed I’d strike my head against the ship as it bucked and it would all be over quickly. Instinctively I raised my arms above my head so that I might dive rather than splash, but a wave caught me broadside while I was yet in the air, thrusting me down, down, down.
Somehow, I opened my eyes below the water, and though they burned with salt, I was able to see to the surface. Already the sun had come out, and the waves calmed. I swam for the surface, for air—but before I could breach, I sensed a very large presence behind me. I turned to see an enormous mouth perhaps twice the size of my body, wide open and filled with blunt teeth.
I hadn’t even time for horror before the thing swallowed me whole, and the world went black.
When I awoke, the world was still black. It also smelled of like rotting flesh. I wasn’t sure the flesh wasn’t my own. My skin felt like it was burning off, and my eyes were on fire. Also, had I ever been this nauseous in my life? I didn’t typically get seasick, but then, ships didn’t typically dive down and resurface again like this creature was doing, either. I vomited countless times, mingling my own sick with the unknown liquid contents surrounding me until my own stomach was empty and all I could do was dry heave. I blessedly lost consciousness then, but awoke again some time later.
Eventually, the fish who carried me leveled out long enough for me to think about something other than my nausea. I recognized the situation then for what it was: the Lord giving me a second chance. I should be dead right now, but I wasn’t.
I wished I was.
No, I didn’t. What I wished was to be back on solid ground, back in the sunshine, and out of this pit of Sheol. And I would be; that much was suddenly quite obvious. I still despised the Ninevites and wished them a fiery death, but the Lord was the Lord, and He would have His way. I would go to Nineveh, and I would say what He gave me to say.
“I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me,” I whispered. For He had answered me in my spirit. “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight, yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’” I pronounced this with emphasis—I knew it to be true, and yet I said it to remind myself. Deliverance was even yet coming. “The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God.” He had not done so yet, but it was as good as done, and so I spoke it as done, my voice growing louder. “When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love!”
I cried this last line as a shout, muted though the sound was in this dark pit. I felt the forward momentum of my host halt, and then turn. A rumble began from deep within, and the burning liquid around me began to churn. It was as if my words themselves disagreed with the creature. Encouraged, I cried out, “But I with the voice of thanksgiving WILL sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I WILL pay. SALVATION BELONGS TO THE LORD!”
The churning and rumbling around me grew. Then all at once I was tumbling head over feet, expelled with a mighty heave.
I lay facedown on dry sand, covered in slime. I gingerly pressed my hands against the sand, testing it to make sure it was real before at last opening my burning eyes, squinting against the rays of sunshine. It took a moment for my vision to adjust. The sick all around me was green and mingled with bones, large and small. That was when I got a good look at my hands and arms. I was naked; apparently my clothing had burned off in the acid from the creature’s stomach. All pigment from my skin had also bleached white. I started to tremble uncontrollably.
Then the word of the Lord came to me a second time. “Arise,” He said, “go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.”
“Yes, Lord,” I whispered.
I had no money for passage or clothing, but if the Lord provided a great fish to swallow me and then vomit me up, He could provide that too—and He did. Several mariners had evidently witnessed the whole event, and took pity on me. I croaked out my destination, and with little effort on my part, was on my way.
I arrived in Nineveh, and briefly forgot my aversion to the people in my awe of its greatness. I had never seen a place so vast. I went on foot one day’s journey into the heart of the city, drawing stares due to my strange, ghostly appearance. Then on the second day, I found a discarded crate in the bustling marketplace. I inverted it and stood on top of it like a platform. The people nearby, who had kept a wary eye on me already, quieted and gathered around.
“I am a Hebrew and a prophet of the Lord, the God of heaven!” I cried. “This is the word of the Lord to you: yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
Initially my proclamation met with silence; then horror swept through the crowd in whispers. This was all the Lord had said to me, so I said no more. I’d done my part. I stepped down from the crate, and left the people of Nineveh in angst as they parted to make way for me. I heard wailing begin around me, and the sound of clothing ripping. I ignored it all, stalking right through the crowd and out of the city.
It was a three day journey from one end of Nineveh to the other, and I’d already traveled one day, entering from the west. I had yet two days more. I did not proclaim the Lord’s warning again, but I did not need to. Apparently my words had spread like fire among the citizens, from the least of them to the greatest. I heard on my second day that the word had reached the king, who had covered himself in sackcloth and sat in ashes. He had then issued a proclamation, stating, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”
No one approached me as I stalked through their land, but they all clearly knew who I was by the description of me that had no doubt circulated. Who could miss the terrifyingly pale prophet of doom? Nor did my manner invite approach. I was furious. Because I knew exactly what the Lord would do—or rather, what He would not do.
At last I exited the east side of the city, and climbed to a vantage point where I could see the whole of Nineveh laid out before me. I sat down to glare at it. Then I realized, I had yet thirty-eight days to wait. So from the nearby trees, I constructed a booth for myself, like a makeshift tent. I hadn’t spoken to the Lord in days. I was too angry.
But as the days stretched on, at last my bitterness gave way to words. “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than live!”
The Lord did not reply immediately. But at last He said in that infuriatingly probing way of His that contained the answer embedded in the question, “Do you do well to be angry?”
I did not reply. I refused. I stared at Nineveh. The booth I had constructed was poor shade from the scalding sun—all the more scalding, probably, to my bleached and sensitive skin. But I wouldn’t move; not yet. I wanted a front row seat to the fireball from heaven when it came, or the destroying army, or however God would do it.
Presently, I noticed a plant beside my little booth growing exceedingly fast. In hours, it had become a tree, with a spreading canopy over my head. I closed my eyes in a silent prayer of thanks, and moved my booth beneath the tree. The Lord had not forgotten me, after all.
But the next day, the tree had withered as quickly as it had sprung up. It offered no more shade. If that weren’t bad enough, a scorching wind blasted me from the east, and the sun beat down on me so that I almost swooned from dehydration and heat.
He had forgotten me. The Lord could have spared the tree for my sake, but He didn’t. He just wanted to use me as His mouthpiece. He loved those miserable people down there in that wicked city, but He didn’t love me at all!
“Just let me die, Lord!” I moaned. “It is better for me to die than to live!”
The Lord replied, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?”
“Yes, I do well to be angry,” I retorted, “angry enough to die!”
The Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
I understood His point. I knew I was being childish, and I knew when I’d said to myself that the Lord didn’t care about me beyond what I could do for Him, that it was a lie. I didn’t care, though. At the moment, I took a perverse pleasure in clinging to it anyway, because it seemed to justify my bitterness.
God wasn’t going to destroy Nineveh. I knew that from the first moment He sent me to proclaim their destruction. What was I still doing here? The blistering sun hurt my acid-bleached skin, and I didn’t need to rely on a booth or a tree or anything else to protect me from it. I could just go home. I’d done what the Lord had commanded.
I rose reluctantly, but shook my fist at the vast city below.
“They deserve to be destroyed, Lord!” I cried out. “They’re not even Your people. They’re the enemies of Your people!”
Yet I had the premonition from the beginning, for as long as the word of the Lord had come to me, that the day would come when the distinction between the Lord’s people and the Gentiles would no longer be about bloodlines. The Lord loved all people, of every race, no matter how wicked. He wanted all to come to repentance, and He would equally extend the opportunity to all.
Man, I hated that.