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Posted November 5, 2003

Book: The Message of Jonah
Author: Rosemary Nixon
InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, pp.220

Excerpt from Jacket:

The book of Jonah is mostly remembered for its oddity — a runaway prophet swallowed by a whale!

But there must be more to the book than this. And indeed there is. For one thing, it is a book artfully constructed, with one chapter devoted to a psalm. It is a book that will reward careful reading and meditation.

But more than this, in the drama of Jonah we find charted the course not just of this angular prophet but of Israel’s attitude toward its most despised neighbor in the Mediterranean world. Jonah refuses to answer God’s call to go and proclaim judgement because he knows God is just the kind of God who will respond in mercy and grace should the Assyrians repent. Jonah will have no part of it — until he is compelled. And even then he pities himself.

The irony of this prophet’s story is amusing — but it reaches out and touches us where we are today.

Excerpt from the Book:

From the belly of Sheol (2:1-9)

Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying . . . out of the belly of Sheol I cried . . .

It was from ‘the belly of Sheol’, a unique phrase in the Bible, that Jonah prayed. The ‘belly’ of the great fish is paralleled with the ‘belly’ of Sheol. The word translated ‘belly’ could equally well be rendered ‘womb’, as in Gen. 25:23, or ‘entrails’, as in 2 Sam.20:10, or ‘heart’, as in Psalm 22:14, or ‘insides’. Here in Jonah 2:1 it is popularly assumed to mean ‘stomach’, since, Yahweh’s command (2:10), the fish vomits out the prophet. But the word is best taken to mean ‘insides’ or the ‘innermost part’. The writer is not specific. He is less interested in the fish’s anatomy than in the nature of Jonah’s flight and God’s deliverance. Clear resonances with the innermost, secret part of the ship where Jonah had found a place to sleep (1:5) are intended. Being in the ‘belly’ or innermost part of Sheol is the nemesis of Jonah’s longing to be in a secret hiding place. Here, at last, from the deepest, darkest place, the prophet prays.

Concerning this place, Erich Fromm has written,

We find a sequence of symbols which follow one another; going into the ship, going into the ship’s belly, falling asleep, being in the ocean, and being in the fish’s belly. All these symbols stand for the same inner experience: for a condition of being protected and isolated, of safe withdrawal from communication with other human beings. They represent what could be represented in another symbol, the foetus in the mother’s womb. Different as the ship’s belly, deep sleep, the ocean, and the fish’s belly are realistically, they are expressive of the same inner experience, of the blending between protection and isolation.

Table of Contents:

1. The literary genre of Jonah
2. A prophet protests
3. Storm at sea
4. The prophet speaks
5. Alive or dead?
6. Jonah calls upon the Lord
7. A persistent God
8. A prophet’s anger and the Lord’s pity
9. The repentance of Nineveh and the people of God