Jonah and the big fish

This post began from my frustration at one of our favourite children’s bible’s handling of the book of Jonah. Usually it is very good, and specifically sets out in the introduction to make clear that the Bible is not a book about heroes, but one which points to The Hero.  This makes the way Jonah is done even more surprising. I have two main problems with its approach by comparison with the text:

1. The portrayal of the message Jonah was told to preach:
This comes across in a couple of places:
Chapter 1:
Children’s Bible “Go to Nineveh,” God said, and tell your worst enemies that I love them”
TNIV “Go to the great city Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”

Chapter 3:
Children’s Bible: He went straight to Nineveh and told them God’s wonderful message. “Even though you’ve run far from God, he can’t stop loving you,” Jonah told them. “Run to him! So he can forgive you”

TNIV: “Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it.  Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”

Here it doesn’t look like Jonah is told to say anything about God’s love.  Rather he is a faithful herald of a message of judgement. A message he wants to see enacted.

Usually I enjoy this Children’s Bible. But here I feel it has rather overdone the explanation. I think children, like adults, need to know that God’s message is sometimes one of judgement.  The reason Jonah is so opposed to going to Nineveh is that he knows that God does forgive when people repent on hearing a message of judgement (see Jeremiah 18).

2. The portrayal of Jonah
Essentially the problem is that the entirety of the 4th chapter is missing.  The children’s bible closes with Jonah’s obedience and the Ninevites repentance. This is the heart of the problem. In chapter 4 the repentance of Jonah in chapter 2 is seen to decidedly limited.  Jonah may be able to quote Psalms impressively, but his understanding of God’s heart is flawed.  At the culmination of the book of Jonah we are left with Jonah sulking in the desert, addressed by God, invited by God to join him at the celebration, but still, like the elder brother outside. Will he come round?

We simply do not know, but this (otherwise very good) children’s bible falls short and goes for the neat and tidy ending.  I have two main concerns about this sort of tidying up.

My first worry is that this sort of “adjustment” leads to a gap when the child graduates to an adult bible, and a sense that adults have censored and tidied up the Word of God.

My second worry is that it reflects a more general issue of not being willing to let stories end, or contain within them, elements or reasons that we cannot know. Very often biblical stories contain such elements, and rather than filling them, it might be better to pause to ask questions about what the reader thinks of the story so that they will engage and wrestle with the issues they raise, perhaps continuing to do so as they grow up.

In Jonah’s case we wonder at the nature of the Ninevites repentance – especially as there seems no suggestion anywhere else in scripture that it lasted for any significant period. We wonder at what Jonah comes to believe about God. Does he come to acknowledge and love the compassion and mercy of God, or does he continue in a sulk? What would we do? Where are we sometimes like Jonah? Do we really believe God is that compassionate and that gracious to forgive, longing for even the smallest sign of repentance.

I wondered what a children’s story of Nineveh might look like that didn’t try and expand on the bible text and here is my attempt:

GOD spoke to Jonah. He said:
“Get up! Go to the huge city of Nineveh
and tell them what I think of their actions”

Jonah got up. But he decided to run away from GOD.
He went down to the sea,
He went down on to a boat headed away from Nineveh.

Then GOD threw a huge storm on the sea
Everyone on the boat was very afraid
They threw all their belongings off the boat to try and stop it sinking.

But Jonah went down to the bottom of the boat to sleep.
The other people on the boat told him to get up and pray.
But Jonah knew that it was his fault

He said: “Throw me into the sea – this huge storm is against me”
They didn’t want to, but the storm carried on.
So they threw Jonah into the sea and it was still.

Then GOD sent a huge fish to swallow Jonah whole
Jonah was in the fish for 3 days and 3 nights
While he was in the fish he thanked GOD.

Then GOD made the fish spit Jonah out on to land
GOD spoke a second time to Jonah
“Get up! Go to the huge city of Nineveh and speak what I tell you”

This time Jonah got up and went to Nineveh – just as GOD told him
It was a huge city, but Jonah went in and spoke to the city:
“40 more days until the city is destroyed”

The people of the city all believed GOD
The King and everyone in the city turned from the bad things they had done
They hoped that GOD might change his mind and not destroy them.

And GOD did change his mind about destroying them
He saw that they had turned from their evil
And he let them live.

But Jonah was angry about this – he thought it was a huge mistake
He complained to GOD because GOD had decided not to punish Nineveh
He went off in a sulk and he wanted to die.

So Jonah went out from the city to watch in the hot sun.
GOD sent a plant to be a shade for Jonah and save him from the heat
Jonah was very pleased about this – it was cool under the plant.

But then God took the plant away.
Jonah was upset because the sun was very hot and he was ill.
He was extremely angry and wanted to die.

GOD said “Are you so upset about a little plant,
If you are upset about a small plant
Think how I feel about a huge city like Nineveh!”

If only I could draw I’d illustrate each group of lines too!  I would like to see more children’s bible stories that just give the story (which, as in my example doesn’t have to be all the text, but instead a simplified version) rather than the story plus lots of extra details.  They could provide explanatory notes to help parents fill in any background details needed (e.g. one on Jonah could explain how Nineveh and Israel related).  Anyone know of any children’s bible stories that do this well?





3 comments on “Jonah and the big fish

  1. Jema Ball says:

    Hey Roz,

    Keziah was given a little set of individual Bible stories (with each one being in a separate little book and the story being reasonably detailed) called ‘My Bible Story Library’. There’s one about Jonah and in it the theme of judgement, or at least God’s anger at the Ninevites comes through.

    For example, ‘Jonah’ said God, ‘The people of Ninevah are very wicked. You must go there to tell them to mend their ways, or I will destroy the city.’…..’Why should I warn the people of Ninevah?’ thought Jonah, as he packed for the journey. ‘They deserve to be punished for their wickedness.’

    It also has the bit at the end about the plant.

    Hope you’re doing OK? Good to hear about you having found a new home. Hope you settle in quickly. Is it Bishop’s Cleve that you’re going to be living? We know a curate in that neck of the woods called Dave Brae (his wife is called Emma and she’s expecting a baby fairly soon). Not sure what church he’s at though. He may remember us from Trinity, although we only spent a year together there.

    Love Jema xxxx

  2. Tanya Marlow says:

    Great analysis – and a great alternative telling! Perhaps you should find an illustrator…?

  3. petticoatexpress says:

    I’ll illustrate it for you! let’s make a proper children’s bible and quit this ‘always happy ending’ stuff! Your version was *just right.*

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