Forming Faith Blog

Salvation by Fish (November 8, 2020)

The Book of Jonah is more of a story about calling, obedience, and salvation than it ever is a story about a fish.

A close-up photo of a fish.

The Book of Jonah is a story. That’s an obvious statement. But it is important to remember that it was written as a story, with a plot, characters, a problem, a resolution, etc. And it is specifically an over-the-top story. Heck, even the animals fast while wearing sackcloth. Any conversation on the type of fish (or whale) in the story is an utterly useless pursuit that completely misses the point. That does not teach us about God or anything useful.

The Whole Story

The assigned passages here cover the main story. We skip chapter 2, but that’s basically a prayer/psalm of Jonah in the fish, so it doesn’t further the plot at all. Altogether, the basic structure of the plot is in three acts plus an epilogue.

Act I (Jonah’s Disobedience):

  1. God calls Jonah (1:1-2), but Jonah disobeys (1:3)
  2. God punishes Jonah (1:4-16) but then saves him (1:17)

Act II (A Turnabout):

  1. God relents from punishment and saves Jonah (2:10)
  2. God calls Jonah (3:1) and Jonah obeys (3:2-4)

Act III (Nineveh’s Repentance):

  1. God calls Nineveh (through Jonah, 3:4), and Nineveh obeys (3:5-9)
  2. God relents from punishment and saves Nineveh (3:10)

Do you see the pattern? A call leading to disobedience, a punishment leading to salvation (A, B). A punishment leading to salvation, a call leading to obedience (B, A). Then a call leading to obedience, a relenting of punishment leading to salvation (A, B).

The Epilogue

Chapter 4 (an optional text) gives us a fascinating epilogue to the main action of the story. After the glorious salvation of Jonah and of the city, the prophet acts like a sulky toddler. He apparently “knew” this was going to be the outcome at the beginning, which is why he ran away. Don’t try to find logic here because there is none, just self-justification. He then decides to camp out and hope there are still fireworks and the destruction of his enemies. Does he plan to sit there for 40 days?

But God doesn’t just ignore Jonah, though if God were human, I’m sure there would be a few sighs and perhaps counting to ten to remain calm. Instead of walking away or punishing the prophet’s childishness, God gently gives Jonah an object lesson. But we don’t even find out whether Jonah learns from this or not; the story just ends.  

Our God Saves

The whole point of this story is that our God is a God who saves. The primary story arc ends with a statement about God changing course (repenting?) and relenting from the scheduled wrath. But is that truly the point? If God’s plan all along was just to destroy Nineveh, why not just do it? Possibly so that they (and therefore others?) know why and who would do it. But I think it’s more than that. The storyteller knew (plotted) all along that the story would end in salvation. That was the point.

Saved by a Fish

The most surprising thing about this story, and therefore what is most memorable about it, is that God saves Jonah with a fish. A really big fish. A really big fish that swallows Jonah. Earlier in my life, I though of the fish as part of Jonah’s punishment. But now I realize that Jonah would have certainly died in the middle of the ocean, and God saved him. With a fish.

There are other stories in the Bible about God’s threat of wrath leading to repentance and salvation. If that was all that was in the Book of Jonah, I doubt many people would have even heard of it. But, because of a fish, they do, and through that they can see that the God of creation is a God who saves. So the fish does serve an important purpose.

Free Resource

Our home is, well, our home base. If we live with family, they are our primary relationships. Our time away from church is most of our lives. So, it is only logical that our homes, families, and “Mondays through Saturdays” are critical times for faith formation. Often, daily faith formation comes in the form of devotions, but it can be hard to figure out what to do on our own. This week, download an issue of our Living the Word: Sharing God’s Story @ Home (Narrative Lectionary) resource. This product—which we often refer to by its original method of transmission (bulletin insert)—provides prayers, practices, and daily Bible readings to help individuals and families organize their devotional times.

In the God’s saving love,

Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

Our Faith Formation Resources

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