One of the greatest stories ever told is the story of Jonah and the whale. Let’s explore the story and find out the full meaning:
God comes to the prophet Jonah, and he says: go to the city of Nineveh and prophesize. Tell them that if they don’t repent in 40 days, the city will be destroyed.
The next thing we know, Jonah is on a ship sailing off to Tarshish. A storm breaks out, and the ship is floundering. The people cry out to their gods, but it doesn’t help. They throw their equipment overboard to lighten the load, but that doesn’t help. And then they find Jonah sleeping below deck, and they say: why are you sleeping? call out to your God! Pray! But Jonah says to them: if you want to save yourselves, throw me overboard. And so, they asked God for forgiveness for what they were about to do, and they throw him overboard. Sure enough, the storm abates.
Then, God arranges for a large fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah is in the bowels of this fish for three days, until the fish spits Jonah out, and Jonah goes to Nineveh to deliver the prophecy. He comes there, and he says to the people: If you don’t repent within 40 days, Nineveh is finished. The King proclaimed a fast day for all, including even the animals, and commands everyone to change their ways and become good and do what’s right in the eyes of God, and the city was saved. Jonah was severely uncomfortable and very stressed about the whole thing. But God says to him: with the number of people, the population of Nineveh, and their cattle, people who don’t know right from left or up from down, should I not have compassion on them?
Now let’s figure out what was really going on.
God told Jonah to deliver this prophecy and demand that the people of Nineveh repent. But Jonah knew that when he would deliver the prophecy, the people will heed his call and indeed repent. That distressed him terribly because the Jews also had sinned, and they had prophets warning them and telling them to repent, but they didn’t listen. Now, if the non-Jewish city of Nineveh is going to repent after one prophecy from one prophet, how is that going to make the Jews look in their eyes? And so, Jonah decided that he could not do something that would make the Jews look bad. Jonah essentially resigned as a prophet. He got on a ship and left the land of Israel because outside of Israel prophecy would be impossible.
Jonah knew that a prophet who does not deliver God’s message is punishable by death, but decided it was worth giving up his life to protect his people. When the storm hits, Jonah is calm. He knows it is the hand of God punishing him for ignoring the prophecy and is ready to meet his fate. He is ready to die. But he didn’t want his fellow passengers to suffer for his sins, and so he tells them to kill him to satisfy God’s punishment.
But God appreciates Jonah’s devotion to his people. Jonah’s sacrifice makes him a real leader. So God does not kill him. God saves him. God says: come on, it’s not too late, you can still deliver the prophecy.
Jonah does go on to deliver the prophecy, but he is dismayed at what he had done. And so, God assures him that it will never be held against the Jewish people.
But God said to him – and this is the main punchline of the story: – how could I not have compassion for such a large number of people and their cattle, when they don’t even know up from down – they don’t know right from wrong? How can I not have compassion for them and guide them with a prophecy to a better way of life?
Here’s what God is saying: You don’t want to deliver the prophecy because it’ll reflect badly on the Jewish people. I appreciate that, and I promise you that it will not be held against the people. But in the name of justice, when people are innocent of their sins because of ignorance, and yet their sin will devastate them, we should not ask ourselves how this affects other people in the future. That’s not justice. Look at the people themselves and judge them for who they are. That’s called pursuing justice.