A-Z: Famous stories from the Bible: Jonah


God said to his prophet, Jonah, ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh. Warn them that I know about their wickedness.’ But Jonah did not want to. Instead he set off in the opposite direction, boarding a ship bound for Joppa.

Jonah on the boat, picture by Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing, available through Creative CommonsSoon, a violent storm hit the ship. The sailors were terrified. Trying to stay afloat, they threw overboard anything they could, whilst praying to their own gods. Meanwhile Jonah was fast asleep. The captain woke him, asking him to pray also. The sailors cast lots, to find out who had caused this storm. The lot indicated Jonah. Confronted by them, he told the sailors about his disobedience to God’s message, saying that God would spare them if they threw him overboard. They tried once more to reach land, but, reluctantly and asking God to forgive them, had to throw Jonah into the sea. Immediately, the sea became calm and the sailors thanked God.

Jonah desperately asked God for help. A great fish, sent by God, swallowed him. Alive in the fish’s stomach, Jonah prayed: ‘When I was in trouble, you saved me, God. I now promise that I will obey you.’ After three Jonah back on land, picture by Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing, available through Creative Commonsdays, the fish vomited out Jonah safely on land, and God again gave Jonah his message. This time Jonah went to Nineveh.

As Jonah walked through the city, he told people, ‘Because of all the wrong you have done, God will destroy this great city in forty days.’ The citizens believed what God said. All of them, from the poorest to the King himself, stopped eating and drinking and wore rough cloth to show God that they were sorry. God saw all of this and knew they were genuinely repentant. He forgave them and the city was safe.

However, Jonah was furious. He told God, ‘I knew you would do this: this was why I didn’t want to come. I knew you are a caring and gracious God, slow to be angered but always ready to love: I knew you would forgive them if they said sorry – and they do not deserve forgiveness! I might as well be dead.’

Jonah angry about the dead vine, picture by Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing, available through Creative CommonsGod said, ‘Do you have any right to be angry about this?’ But Jonah would not listen. He made a rough shelter against the sun and waited to see what would happen, hoping that God would take notice of what he had said and of his anger. God made a vine grow quickly, to shelter Jonah. In the heat of the day, Jonah was grateful. But next morning, God made a grub eat through the vine’s stem and the plant died. Then Jonah was even hotter – and more furious. ‘I wish I was dead!’ he grumbled.

‘Do you think you are entitled to feel angry about the vine?’ God asked him. Jonah retorted that his feelings were perfectly justified. ‘You are upset about the vine,’ God said, ‘but you didn’t make it or even look after it! But there are thousands of people in Nineveh who need guidance in their lives. Shouldn’t I, then, be upset about all of them?’

The story illustrates:

  • God’s desire to forgive everyone who is sorry for their wrongdoing
  • The importance of obedience and faith in God
  • Christians understand that Jonah’s three days under water before returning to land prefigures the three days Jesus spent in a tomb before being raised to life again.

Related Topics

Big Ideas: Penitence, repentance, penance; Miracles

Bible References

Jonah 1:1-17, Jonah 2:1-10, Jonah 3:1-10, Jonah 4:1-11
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