Running away from one’s responsibilities is something that can happen even to great men and women of GOD. The story of Jonah, his escape and the three days he spent inside the fish, is one of the most intriguing and enigmatic of the Bible. The prophet Jonah was charged by GOD to admonish the people of the great and modern Assyrian city of his time, Nineveh, prophesying their impending misfortune if they did not repent of their wicked behaviour. The prophet receives the command to admonish the inhabitants, but instead of following the instructions of GOD, frightened Jonah tries to run away, and in his escape he board a ship to go as far away as possible. Once on the journey suddenly the boat is threatened by a great storms, and all the sailors start praying invoking each one his own God, hoping to be saved. While all this is happening, Jonah was sleeping deeply in the stowage, a water storm was surely more manageable than the storm that dwelt in his soul. But the shipmaster went to wake him up, urging him to join them in prayer. IBut Jonah is aware of the reason for that storm, and that the blame for that wrath of GOD is his alone. He believes that the only way to save the ship is to be thrown overboard, so the sailors listen to Jonah, and when the prophet falls into the sea, the storm subsides and miraculously. Jonah is swallowed up by a big fish in the water, and while he is in his belly for three days, he prays GOD and finally accepts to fulfill his mission. The fish liberates Jonah and he becomes the admonisher and prophet of Nineveh, and because to the great mercy of GOD they repents of their sins. But Jonah is not happy to have guided the people, GOD has not yet completed His work and still teaches one last lesson to the prophet, GOD’s mercy and compassion continue to work for Jonah teaching him and guiding him to the essence of GOD.
Bible – Book of Jonah
Why wouldn’t Jonah listen?
This story has clear messages about the power of repentance and the fact that we can never run away from the future that GOD has assigned to each of us in our lives. And that is why it is read as the haftarah of Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, when believers contemplate GOD’s judgment and repent.
Yet some parts of that story remain very enigmatic. Jonah was not an ordinary man who decided not to listen to his calling and proceed on his way. He was a righteous man and a prophet of the LORD who had received as a command to go and prophesy against the wrongdoing of the people, so why should he disobey?
The Jewish oral tradition (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, Chap. 10.) explains that what Jonah feared most was the success of his mission and the people of Nineveh would repent. He feared it for two reasons, the first being that Jonah knew that even the Jewish people of his time (referring to the time of 2 Kings, 9) were far from being perfect and had a great need to repent. Indeed, GOD had sent many prophets to instruct them. Yet they did not heed their warnings. If the people of Nineveh were to repent, how would the people of Israel appear in the end? The accuser angels could have said, “Look, the pagan inhabitants of Nineveh have repented. But your people do not listen to your words, even after being warned so many times”.
Jonah also feared that if he had warned Nineveh of their impending ruin and repented, and the decree would have been avoided, the people would have claimed that he was a false prophet. “Look” they could said “you told us that our city would be overthrown, but then nothing happened.” Surely Jonah knew that GOD has many messengers and that if he did not go, GOD would inspire someone else, but did he really think he could hide from the One who sees all and knows all? No, Jonah wanted to escape from himself, he did not feel ready but GOD led him to a mistake to guide him towards his own personal growth, to his own refinement.
Moreover, Jonah certainly also knew that a prophet who refrains from prophesying is responsible for death by the hand of heaven. Yet he tried to escape and even felt more comfortable with the idea of being thrown into the sea in the midst of a raging storm than to be the one to prophesy. Surely in the end the punishment would have come anyway, but at least he, Jonah, would not have been part of it. The lesson of this story is truly amazing, not only about the power of repentance or the fact that you can’t run away from GOD, but also that if you keep your faith (even while getting thrown into the sea in the storm) at the end GOD will always provides for believers so that everything will work out for their best.
In the Quran
Jonah (Arabic: يُونُس, romanized: Yūnus) is the title of the tenth chapter of the Quran. He is traditionally viewed as highly important in Islam as a prophet who was faithful to GOD and delivered His messages. Jonah is the only one of the Twelve Minor Prophets to be mentioned by name in the Quran. In the Chapters 21, 87 and 68, 48 Jonah is called Dhul-Nūn (Arabic: ذُو ٱلنُّوْن; meaning “The One of the Fish”). In 4, 163 and 6, 86 he is referred to as “an apostle of GOD”. Chapter 37, 139-148 retells the full story of Jonah:
So also was Jonah among those sent [by GOD].
When he ran away [like a slave from captivity] to the ship [fully] laden,
He [agreed to] cast lots, and he was condemned:
Then the big fish did swallow him, and he had done acts worthy of blame.
Had it not been that he [repented and] glorified GOD,
He would certainly have remained inside the fish till the Day of Resurrection.
But [GOD] cast him forth on the naked shore in a state of sickness,
And caused to grow, over him, a spreading plant of the gourd kind.
And [GOD] sent him [on a mission] to a hundred thousand [men] or more.
And they believed; so [GOD] permitted them to enjoy [their life] for a while.
(Quran chapter 37 – As-Saaffat verses 139–148)