The book of Jonah

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The book of Jonah in the New American Bible.

A classical misreading of the book

Fr. Robert Barron discuss the book of Jonah in, "Following the Call of Christ: Biblical Stories of Conversion."[1]

In his first talk on Bartimaeus, Barron quotes Origen as saying, "We should reverence every word of the Scripture the same way we reverence every particle of the Sacred Host." As he begins to tell the story of how Jesus healed Bartimaeus, Barron says, "Every detail matters."

Barron forgets his own precepts in his third talk on "Jonah and the Great Fish."

Instead of attending to the words and details that are actually in the book, he distorts the narrative. The things he says are beautiful and true, worthy of prayer and meditation, but they are not in the book of Jonah itself.

Great and Beautiful Truths

"It is an archetype of the spiritual life. We also find in this story the basic steps of spiritual conversion."

"The basic truth of the Bible: we are a called people."

"The biblical heroes are placed in the passive voice--all of them. ... We are a summoned people."

"All of us are called. All of us have a mission."

John Henry Newman: "We've all been made for a definite purpose."

"The central drama of the spiritual life: What do we do with the call? The saint is the one who responds so fully to that call that she makes it the central organizing principle of her life. ... We sinners, to varying degrees, we're the ones who hop on boats to Tarshish. We know what God wants, and we move in the opposite direction."

Baron gets that part of the story straight. God commands Jonah to preach against Nineveh, but Jonah gets on a boat headed to Tarshish, which, in Biblical times, was as far away as Jonah could get from where God wanted him to be.

"The Jonah Temptation: to hop a boat to Timbuktu when God calls."

When we resist our call, storms kick up. Trouble ensues. We've been made for a definite purpose. When we resist it--trouble, storms, difficulty.

Not just for Jonah, but for all whose lives are intertwined with his.

It is at this point that Barron departs from the Biblical narrative, substituting a story of his own invention. See the next section for a diagram of how his story departs from the text.

What does that great symbol mean? Our wills, when they are resistant to God, need to be swallowed up by the divine will.

Jonah is caught, swallowed, enveloped by the divine will, and that is all to the good.

Dante: "In Your will is my peace."

Jonah's story resembles those of Joseph and Moses.

How do we read the times when we feel swallowed up by the whale? The times of darkness, of dryness, of despair. Times we feel we've lost our way, times we feel we're not getting what we want. Our plans are not being fulfilled. "My life's not going where I want it to go!"

We can read them as simply dumb suffering, or we can read them as the discipline of God, as the swallowing up of our wills so as to try us and test us and conform us unto the divine will.

A beautiful detail in this book is that Jonah prays from the belly of the whale. Good. God's everywhere.

There are excellent reasons to think that the Psalm of Thanksgiving does not belong in the book of Jonah. I agree with the moral Barron draws from the story, but I don't think his version of the story is accurate.

God can hear.

So it is sometimes that the darkest periods in our lives, the driest, most difficult periods, might be precisely the vehicle through which God is bringing us back to precisely where He wants us to be.

One of the funniest part of the story: Jonah preaches, and everybody repents. Every single person, from the king to the cattle--the cattle put on sackcloth and ashes. They repent, too!

This is indeed funny, but Barron overstates the case. The King orders that the cattle fast with the people. Extending the fast to animals is ridiculous, but not as ridiculous as the thought that the cattle needed to repent.
"By decree of the king and his nobles, no man or beast, no cattle or sheep, shall taste anything; they shall not eat, nor shall they drink water" (3:7).

When we start cooperating with God's will, miraculous things happen. That's when the grace of God flows through us, when we begin cooperating with His will. But Jonah needed the disicpline of the fish to bring him precisely there.

There is no evidence in the rest of the book that Jonah had become a faithful servant of God. I argue that the meaning of the book depends on Jonah's character remaining basically unchanged throughout. See below where I talk about the moral of the story.

Hans Urs von Balthasar: "In the biblical vision, mission and person are tightly linked." That means you know who you are when you find your mission and you do it.

You become a new person when you take on this mission from God.

When the call comes, listen to it. Don't run to Tarshish. And then you find out who you are.

Garbled Details

This is how Father Barron tells the story:

  1. Jonah goes to the bottom of the boat and falls asleep. Always a bad sign in the Bible.
  2. A great storm kicks up.
  3. What's caused it? Jonah's resistance. They determine Jonah is the problem.
  4. The sailors say, "Let's throw him overboard."
  5. And so, all the people, they wake up Jonah.
  6. And Jonah--I love how acquiescent he is--he says, "OK, you're right, I know that I'm the one."
  7. And so they pick him up and throw him overboard. And immediately the storm calms down; the sea is OK.
  8. Jonah prays.
  9. The whale has taken him all the way back to shore and spews him up right near Nineveh.
  10. One of the funniest parts of the story: Jonah preaches, and everybody repents. Every single person, from the king to the cattle--the cattle put on sackcloth and ashes. They repent, too!

The text itself

Chapter 1: The Fish Story

Here is the story of the great storm from Jonah 1:4-14:

4 The LORD, however, hurled a great wind upon the sea, and the storm was so great that the ship was about to break up

5 Then the sailors were afraid and each one cried to his god. To lighten the ship for themselves, they threw its cargo into the sea. Meanwhile, Jonah had gone down into the hold of the ship, and lay there fast asleep.

6 The captain approached him and said, “What are you doing asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps this god will be mindful of us so that we will not perish.”

7 Then they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots to discover on whose account this evil has come to us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah.

8 They said to him, “Tell us why this evil has come to us! What is your business? Where do you come from? What is your country, and to what people do you belong?”

9 “I am a Hebrew,” he replied; “I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”

10 Now the men were seized with great fear and said to him, “How could you do such a thing!”—They knew that he was fleeing from the LORD, because he had told them.

11 They asked, “What shall we do with you, that the sea may calm down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more stormy.

12 Jonah responded, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea and then the sea will calm down for you. For I know that this great storm has come upon you because of me.”

13 Still the men rowed hard to return to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy.

14 Then they cried to the LORD: “Please, O LORD, do not let us perish for taking this man’s life; do not charge us with shedding innocent blood, for you, LORD, have accomplished what you desired.”

15 Then they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea stopped raging.

16 Seized with great fear of the LORD, the men offered sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.

A proper plot summary for Chapter 1.
  1. A great storm arises.
  2. The pagan sailors pray, "and each one cried to his god."
  3. They threw their cargo overboard.
  4. Jonah had gone down into the hold and fallen asleep.
  5. The captain wakes Jonah.
  6. The captain asks Jonah to pray to his God.
  7. The sailors cast lots to find out who is at fault.
  8. The lots reveal that the storm is Jonah's fault.
  9. Jonah identifies himself as a Hebrew, and claims to fear "the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land." His actions, of course, betray his words.
  10. The sailors were seized with fear. They fear Jonah's God more than Jonah does--they understand Jonah's religion better than he does!
  11. Jonah recommends that he be thrown into the sea.
  12. The sailors try to save Jonah's life and theirs by rowing to shore.
  13. The sailors pray to Jonah's God for mercy, just in case they are taking the life of an innocent man.
  14. Then, and only then, do they throw him overboard.
  15. The sea became calm.
  16. The sailors were seized with fear.
  17. The sailors offered sacrifice to Jonah's God.
Grading Fr. Barron's narrative of Chapter 1.
1. Jonah goes to the bottom of the boat and falls asleep. Always a bad sign in the Bible.
The text suggests that the storm comes first, then Jonah goes below.
2. A great storm kicks up.
3. What's caused it? Jonah's resistance. They determine Jonah is the problem.
True, but Barron skims over some very telling details which show how good the pagan sailors are. They immediately pray for help. When they wake up Jonah, they ask him to pray. When they cast lots to find out who is responsible for bringing supernatural wrath down upon them, they are acting piously.
4. The sailors say, "Let's throw him overboard."
False. It was Jonah, not the sailors, who suggested that killing him would solve their problem. This is the first of three times that Jonah asks for death in the story.
5. And so, all the people, they wake up Jonah.
False. Jonah was awake when they cast lots.
6. And Jonah--I love how acquiescent he is--he says, "OK, you're right, I know that I'm the one."
Barron finds Jonah's acceptance of death praiseworthy. I do not. I think it is one of his character defects to react to difficulties by wishing for death. Jonah is not a magnanimous man, calmly and nobly accepting death for himself in order to save others; he is a coward who tries to run away from God, who hides in the hold while others face the storm, and who confesses his sin only after God has pointed him out as a wrongdoer. Jonah's preference for death rather than life is contemptible.
7. And so they pick him up and throw him overboard.
False. Before they throw Jonah overboard, they try one last time to row to shore. When that fails, they pray to Jonah's God. Then and only then do they throw him overboard.
Barron leaves out the sacrifices that the pagans offer to the Lord after the seas calm down. Jonah never offers a sacrifice of thanksgiving for his deliverance--but the pagans do.

Chapter 2: A Pious Insertion

Father Barron--and the sacred scripture, inspired by the Holy Spirit in all of its parts--says that Jonah prays. Barron calls this "a beautiful detail." I respectfully disagree. Barron's interpretation is beautiful, but the intrusion of the psalm of thanksgiving weakens the literary structure of the book.

There are good reasons to think that this psalm is not part of the original book and that it should be set aside when trying to interpret the original story, which also was inspired by the Holy Spirit.

1. If the psalm of thanksgiving (2:2-10) is left out, we have a perfectly coherent story: "But the Lord sent a great fish to swallow Jonah, and he remained in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. ... Then the Lord commanded the fish to vomit Jonah upon dry land."
2. The psalmist (poet, author, narrator of the psalm) is not being digested in the belly of a fish. He has been saved from drowning and is on his way to the Temple ("church") to make sacrifices to the Lord.
3 Out of my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me; From the womb of Sheol I cried for help, and you heard my voice. The event is over. The psalmist is not in distress. The one word in this verse that links the psalm with the story of Jonah is "belly," translated "womb" in the New American Bible. The story has Jonah being carried in the belly of the fish; the psalmist speaks of himself as entering the belly of Sheol, the wasteland of death.
4-7a You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the sea, and the flood enveloped me; All your breakers and your billows passed over me. Then I said, “I am banished from your sight! How will I again look upon your holy temple?” The waters surged around me up to my neck; the deep enveloped me; seaweed wrapped around my head. I went down to the roots of the mountains; to the land whose bars closed behind me forever, The psalmist was drowning. He was swallowed by the ocean, not by a big fish. He went all the way down to the bottom of the ocean and became entangled in seaweed. He was about to die. Jonah was, of course, "cast into the deep, into the heart of the sea," so this is the second element of the psalm that corresponds with the story of Jonah. But from this point on, there is a huge divergence between the two stories.
7b But you brought my life up from the pit, O Lord, my God. Now he is safe--God has rescued him. Jonah is still in the belly of the fish; he is no longer drowning, but he has only gone out of the frying pan and into the fire. For all he knows, God plans to let the fish digest him completely!
8 When I became faint, I remembered the Lord; My prayer came to you in your holy temple. When he was drowning, he prayed to be rescued.
9 Those who worship worthless idols abandon their hope for mercy. Pagans (polytheists) are bad. God does not show them mercy. The psalmist sees himself as privileged to know the Lord--there is even, perhaps, a tone of self-righteousness here. "I am not like them."
10 But I, with thankful voice, will sacrifice to you; What I have vowed I will pay: deliverance is from the Lord. The psalmist plans to kill and burn some animals to show gratitude for being rescued.

The problem with attributing this psalm of thanksgiving to Jonah is that it interferes with the moral of the story. It creates the false impression that Jonah is a pious person--someone who prays to God routinely and who loves religious rituals. This is contrary to everything else we know about Jonah from his words and deeds in the rest of the story.

There is no acknowledgement of sin in the psalm of thanksgiving. People interpret the psalm as if it were a psalm of repentance and forgiveness, but not one syllable of the psalm supports that interpretation! I'm sure this misinterpretation is acceptable from a spiritual standpoint. It is certainly what we know Jonah should have done and how he ought to have prayed. There is no doubt that it is how we ought to behave when we recognize that we have been disobedient to God.

There is nothing specific to the book of Jonah in this psalm. It does not describe being in the belly of a great fish. It does not express contrition for sin. In the context of the story, Jonah is in cold, pitch-black darkness and is being eaten alive by the digestive juices in the stomach of the fish. He does not know that God will cause the fish to bring him back to dry land. There is no reason for him to thank God for being saved from drowning by being turned into fish food!

The criticism of the pagans in the psalm (v. 9: "Those who worship worthless idols") is inconsistent with the heroic excellence of the pagan sailors in chapter 1 and the unstinting repentance of the Ninevites in chapter 3. The only bad person in the book is Jonah. Recognizing this fact is essential to hearing the original moral of the story: Don't be like Jonah!

Location of Nineveh
Nineveh is near present-day Mosul in Iraq.
Father Barron says, "The whale has taken him all the way back to shore and spews him up right near Nineveh." This is a geographic impossibility. There is no such verse in the text. There is no water route from the eastern Mediterranean across Syria to the Tigris River. Jonah had to walk overland.
The most likely reason for Barron concocting a non-Biblical version of the story is that it moves the story along, skipping over the drudgery of crossing the mountains and the arid land that stand between the shore and the sinful city. Since the author of the text mentions nothing at all of this long journey, no immediate harm is done by substituting a cartoon geography for that of the real world. It is just something that students of Scripture will have to unlearn when they try to grapple with other passages about Assyria and Nineveh.

Chapter 3: Nineveh repents

Barron summarizes Chapter 3 in a few words: "One of the funniest parts of the story: Jonah preaches, and everybody repents. Every single person, from the king to the cattle--the cattle put on sackcloth and ashes. They repent, too!"

This not a wholly unfair synopsis of the chapter. Barron only intended to give a twenty-minute talk on the theme of conversion, so the fact that he neglects the remainder of the material in the book is not surprising. But the remainder of the material contradicts his supposition that Jonah is a model for us to admire and follow.

Barron attributes repentance to the cattle while the text does not: ::: "By decree of the king and his nobles, no man or beast, no cattle or sheep, shall taste anything; they shall not eat, nor shall they drink water" (3:7). The imposition of the fast on their domestic animals is an indication of how thoroughly the king and his people have responded to God's judgment of their sinfulness. These pagans, like the pagan sailors in chapter 1, are the true models of conversion in the book. The author indicates that it should have taken Jonah three days to deliver his message, but the whole city was converted in a single day (3:3-4); the citizens of Nineveh must have helped Jonah spread the word.

For Barron, this is a sign of how miracles flow from conforming our wills to God: "When we start cooperating with God's will, miraculous things happen. That's when the grace of God flows through us." I love miracles, and I pray that I may obey God with alacrity and lasting zeal, but for me, the instantaneous conversion of a whole city of sinners is a sign that we are dealing with theological fiction, not a historical event. The most likely reaction of wicked people to a foreigner announcing that his God was unhappy with them would not be fear of the Lord, abandonment of sin, and intense reparation, but ridicule and rejection of the prophet.

Barron recognizes the comedy in causing the animals to imitate their masters' penitence, but he does not mention the absurdity of the fast that the Ninevites have undertaken. God's message, delivered by Jonah, was unconditional: "Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown" (3:4). No one could live forty days without food or water--if God did not destroy them, their fast from food and water would!

God repents in response to the repentance of the Ninevites: "When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out" (3:10). It is very important for interpreting other passages in the Scriptures to see that "repentance" does not necessarily imply "repentance for sin." God cannot sin, so He cannot repent of sin. The word means "to change one's mind completely" or "to head in the opposite direction."

Chapter 4: Jonah remains unrepentant

Jonah asks for death the second time.

1 But this greatly displeased Jonah, and he became angry.

2 He prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said while I was still in my own country? This is why I fled at first toward Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, repenting of punishment.

3 So now, LORD, please take my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.”

4 But the LORD asked, “Are you right to be angry?”

Jonah is upset that God changed his mind ("repented") about destroying Nineveh. Although he quotes one of the most beautiful verses about the mercy of God from Hebrew Scriptures, he is simply mouthing the words without absorbing their meaning. There is no evidence at all that Jonah said this--or even thought this--earlier in the book. The first chapter describes Jonah as "fleeing from the LORD" (1:10). It does not seem unreasonable to suppose that Jonah was afraid of what the wicked inhabitants of enemy territory would do to a solitary foreigner who came to town to preach that the stench of their wickedness had reached God's nostrils.
The fact that Jonah asks for death when God forgives the Ninevites shows how stupid and unconverted he is. Wanting to die is not a praiseworthy or admirable response to God showing mercy to wrongdoers!
St. Francis DeSales, Finding God's Will In Your Life (90-92)
Chapter 4 - Learn to Embrace Your Crosses
Jonah was greatly at fault in being downcast because God, as he thought, did not fulfill His prophecy for Nineveh. Jonah did God's will in proclaiming the destruction of Nineveh, but he mingled his own interests and will with those of God. Hence when he saw that God did not fulfill his prediction in the strict sense of the words used in announcing it, Jonah was offended and murmured with indignation. If the good pleasure of the divine will had been the sole motive of his actions, he would have been just as content in seeing it accomplished in the remission of the penalty Nineveh had merited as in seeing it satisfied by punishment of the fault Nineveh had committed. We desire that what we undertake or manage shall succeed, but it is unreasonable that God should do everything after our liking. If God wills that Nineveh be threatened but not destroyed, since the threat is sufficient to correct it, why should Jonah complain?
Jonah asks for death the third time.

5 Jonah then left the city for a place to the east of it, where he built himself a hut and waited under it in the shade, to see what would happen to the city.

6 Then the LORD God provided a gourd plant. And when it grew up over Jonah’s head, giving shade that relieved him of any discomfort, Jonah was greatly delighted with the plant.

7 But the next morning at dawn God provided a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered.

8 And when the sun arose, God provided a scorching east wind; and the sun beat upon Jonah’s head till he became faint. Then he wished for death, saying, “It is better for me to die than to live.”

9 But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry over the gourd plant?” Jonah answered, “I have a right to be angry--angry enough to die.”

The text does not say so explicitly, but I imagine that Jonah was hoping that God would change His mind again and return to His original plan of destroying Nineveh. That is a reasonable explanation for why Jonah built a hut for himself and waited under it "see what would happen to the city."
Jonah shows how stubborn and hard-hearted he is when he claims that he has a right to be angry with God for taking away what He had given to Jonah. Contrast this with Job's demeanor when he lost all of his wealth: "The LORD gives and the LORD takes away; blessed be the name of the LORD!" (1:21). Where Job is magnanimous, patient, and humble, Jonah is small-minded, discontented, and bitter.
The moral of the whole story.

10 Then the LORD said, “You are concerned over the gourd plant which cost you no effort and which you did not grow; it came up in one night and in one night it perished.

11 And should I not be concerned over the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot know their right hand from their left, not to mention all the animals?”

God contrasts Jonah's concern over the gourd plant with God's concern for the people--and animals!--in Nineveh. Jonah put no effort into growing the gourd plant, but is "angry enough to die" because the plant died. Unlike Jonah, God labored to create all of the living beings in the city. If, for the sake of argument, we accept Jonah's view that he has a right to be angry over the destruction of the plant, which he had received as a gift from the Creator, then God the Creator has an infinitely superior right to be concerned with the welfare of the living beings that cost Him effort to create.
Jonah is an unrepentant idiot. The moral of the whole book, as at the ending of the fish story, is: Don't be like Jonah! He does not understand his own religion:
  1. He tries to flee from "God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land" (1:8), as if there were some part the sea or dry land that was outside of God's presence.
  2. Instead of rejoicing that he serves "a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, repenting of punishment" (4:2), Jonah resents God's mercy toward his enemies. Jonah embodies hatred for one's enemies. When we see how stupid and foolish Jonah's resentments are, we take a step toward the New Testament law of love: "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust (Mt 5:43-44).
  3. Jonah values death over life: "It is better for me to die than to live" (4:2; 4:9). God prefers life: "I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live" (Dt 30:19).

I love Jonah

Jonah is an anti-prophet. He exhibits the opposite of just and pious behavior. We are supposed to see how ridiculous his reactions are to the storm, to the forgiveness of his enemies, and to the loss of the gourd plant. The consistent lesson of the book is "Don't be like Jonah."

I love Jonah more than any of the other prophets. He may be a moron, but he's my kind of moron. As with Simon Peter, I can identify with all of the mistakes that Jonah makes. Neither the author nor God condemns Jonah for his blindness, deafness, and stubborn self-centeredness. We don't know how Jonah's story ends. He is the only bad person in the book who does not repent of his wrongdoing, but God has not crushed him or given up on him. The Lord who made the heavens and the earth, the Creator who labors to give birth to every living thing, loves Jonah, his wayward son--and the cattle, too!

Father Mapple in Moby Dick

Fr. Barron says, "One of the best commentaries on Jonah can be found in Moby Dick. Read that to get a good commentary." As with Fr. Barron's presentation, the sermon treats only half the book and neglects the rest.

Moby Dick, Chapter 9, "The Sermon."
As sinful men, it is a lesson to us all, because it is a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah. As with all sinners among men, the sin of this son of Amittai was in his wilful disobedience of the command of God--never mind now what that command was, or how conveyed--which he found a hard command. But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do--remember that--and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.
God heard the engulphed, repenting prophet when he cried. Then God spake unto the fish; and from the shuddering cold and blackness of the sea, the whale came breeching up towards the warm and pleasant sun, and all the delights of air and earth; and 'vomited out Jonah upon the dry land;' when the word of the Lord came a second time; and Jonah, bruised and beaten--his ears, like two sea-shells, still multitudinously murmuring of the ocean--Jonah did the Almighty's bidding.


  1. Lighthouse Catholic Media, 2011; track 5.