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A Big Fish Story

Photo: Wikipedia

Photo: Wikipedia

Today is Yom Kippur on the Jewish calendar. This no-work day of synagogue services, prayer, and fasting is the most solemn holy day in Judaism’s annual cycle of holy/holidays.

Today observant Jewish people will recite a long prayer of confession as they lightly tap their chest in a spiritual and physical act of contrition.

Toward the end of the day, something happens, according to Jewish custom, that might sound surprising. A big fish story is read in synagogues. After fasting, confessing their sins, and reflecting on the words of Moses and Isaiah, they listen once again to the account of a catch and release that is so amazing no one would believe it if it wasn’t in the Bible.

Of all the readings that could have been chosen for the highest holy day of the year, someone started the tradition of reading Jonah. But why? Why do Jewish people read about the reluctant prophet who ran from God, was caught by a big fish, and then was miraculously released to complete a dangerous mission of rescue?

Rabbis have different explanations for reading Jonah on the holiday commonly called the Day of Atonement. One teacher of Israel says the story of Jonah is more about repentance than it is about the fish. Some explain that Jonah is evidence that no one can escape the presence of God, even while trying to run from the Almighty. Others believe Jonah is read on Yom Kippur with the hope that listeners would learn from Jonah’s mistakes. One rabbi says, “God cares for everyone. Jonah cares only for himself. God wins.”

Each of these explanations makes a good point. But the last one intrigues me the most. The story of Jonah is, after all, about a stubbornly self-centered man who was glad to receive God’s mercy when he thought he was dying in the stomach of a great fish (2:9). But he wanted nothing to do with a God who could be “gracious and merciful” to the enemies of his nation (4:2).

Seems to me that his is a subject that we all have to deal with whether we are talking about those we regard as national or personal enemies.

God was not asking Jonah to “forgive” the people of Nineveh to get rid of Jonah’s feelings of hostility toward a people who had done so much harm to Israel. The LORD was asking Jonah to share heaven’s/His heart for a people who had no place in Jonah‘s heart.

Some might hear this and conclude, “Maybe, Jonah really does make a contribution not only to the traditional liturgy of Yom Kippur but to us as well. If God could forgive a repentant people as evil as the Ninevites, maybe he really could/or has already forgiven us for the sins we’ve confessed but haven’t been able to forget.

That would be true (and a wonderful source of reassurance– if our change of heart is real).

But it also might miss the bigger point of the story of Jonah— that God might really love the people we have no use for…

Don’t know about you. But I need to think about this a bit more… today… and maybe tomorrow too…

And isn’t it amazing that Nineveh was located across the river from what is now Mosul, Iraq…

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33 Responses to “A Big Fish Story”

  1. poohpity says:

    When I consider all that I have done and still do that brings sadness to our Lord and Savior I feel depressed. Then when I am feeling so down the Lord always brings to my attention just how very much He loves all the peoples of the world. He knew that those in Nineveh would repent and turn to Him after Jonah told them. It would brighten anyone’s day to know that the Lord who created this world and beyond wants us to know Him. We are sent into all the nations to do the same thing that Jonah was commanded to do. To tell people to repent and turn to the Lord because He loves them so much.

    There are those who like Jonah who feel superior or are angry and do not want someone to know the saving grace of Jesus Christ. I personally do not know how anyone could be that angry or heartless to not want someone to know that they too can be forgiven. I guess in essence when I sit in church and do not go out into the world to share what the Lord has done in my life, I am also a Jonah. To think of myself as superior to those around me, I am a Jonah. To not want the best for anyone, I am a Jonah. So in saying I do not understand how Jonah could be like that I better look a little harder at who I really am and there is a Jonah in me but it is so much easier to look outside of myself rather inside.

  2. marma says:

    After reading your blog, I find it awesome that Jonah is read on the day of atonement, and see the application it has for believers, for me!

    Makes me take a hard look at how I view my neighbors, my community, and the world. And, this really fits in with your blog about doing good over being right–another aspect of it.

    There is a saying, “I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand.” I find that I care for the lost, but there are certain classes of people that I don’t have a burden for, and some people I don’t even like!

    Horrible to admit, but true–even though I know that the heart of God wants all to be saved, and that He is not a respecter of persons, like I am.

    So, what I get out of this is that, even when the feelings aren’t there, the commission is; and, by his grace, the feelings will come as I am obedient and speak the truth in love; maybe at first not out of my love, but in the knowledge that God so loved the world, that He gave His dear son.

    I am so thankful, too, for the various jewish festivals and events (like the feast of booths, Yom Kippur, and others) that give us a deeper understanding, a picture of our relationship with God in Christ.

  3. poohpity says:

    I wanted to let you know my dad’s surgery went good today and they believe they got all of the cancer out. Thank you so much for your prayers.

    You are so right. The Lord has shown so much amazing GRACE through out time. Doesn’t it feel wonderful to be a recipient of it.

  4. pegramsdell says:

    I went to Kenya on a missions trip. To be honest, I really didn’t want to go. I don’t like flying (had to take 4 planes to get there and 3 to get back).
    But I prayed about and kind of laid down a fleece. I said that if God wanted me to go, He would provide the finances. Well….He provided all the finances, so I went. And I was SO blessed. God did mighty things through us for the children we visited. I am so glad that I went.

  5. dependent says:

    I remember when the trials and executions of the former Iraqi regime were in the news–and how challenging it was for me to acknowledge that God’s saving grace and mercy were still extended to tham, up until the last moment of their violent lives.

    Hard for me to come to grips with. But I can’t comprehend how difficult the same realization would be if I were an Iraqi believer, so much closer to the reality of the evil that was perpetrated.

    Just like Jonah, there are times when we must face just how deeply rooted is our prejudices, politics, and quest for vengeance. And it ain’t pretty…

  6. rokdude5 says:

    Praise God Pooh that your dad’s surgery went well. I will pray that his recovery be quick.

    A few things come to my mind about Jonah. I am not fully convince that God’s love is “unconditional”. Im looking at the 2nd Commandment where we are not allowed to make or bow down to idols. He talked about punishing those who hate Him and flatly refuse to follow His Commandments though perhaps, that in a sense, could be a loving gesture after all….but what about Judgment Day?

    Another thing about Jonah is when we know full well what God wants from us, we must fully heed that. Also like its mentioned before, God’s message must go to everyone even those we find repulsive. A few people I know like to listen to political radio which in turn makes them detest certain folks. For me, if I am to “love my neighbors” as Commanded, then I can’t listen to those programs.

    Lastly, in my reading, the “leviathan”, is an evil creature that was feared by fishermen of that time. I personally think it isnt a whale though I could be wrong. I think that the leviathan was a large swimming sea monster or serpent and it wanted to stop the message by swallowing Jonah. But God protected Jonah while Jonah was in the bowels of evil. The leviathan eventually could no longer hold Jonah in its belly and had to let him go. Perhaps Im really stretching here, but when Jesus died on the cross and split the tabernacle curtain in two, I think He also destroyed the leviathan. hmmm… Who knows?

    BTW, there are websites that have satellite pics of present day Mosul.

  7. bubbles says:

    Very interesting topic, again! Our God’s love is so great, it’s difficult for us as humans to comprehend.
    Just to think that He loves those who attacked us, and shook our country to its very core! He hates the sin, but loves the sinner.
    Jesus loves them and died for them just as much as He died for us. Ps. 37: “Fret not thyself because of evildoers, neither be envious against the workers of iniquity. . .” We can rest in knowing that He is in control and just.

    It reminds me of the hymn “The Love of God”. The last verse is reminicient of the last few verses in John. It says that if every man on earth were a scribe, the skies were parchment, and the oceans were filled with ink, we would drain the oceans dry writing of the love of God. Aren’t you all thankful that we have a loving Father whose love is beyond our mortal minds to comprehend? He is so good to us. Always.

  8. bubbles says:

    Thanks for sharing about your dad. Have been praying for you and for him. :) I’m so glad you received good news.

    Thank you for being so kind.

  9. BobbiLee says:

    This reminds me of an incident with a grandson years ago. I was driving the grandkids to and from VBS that year. The subject was Jonah and the big fish. On the way home I asked them all, (ages 5 -8), what they had learned. Well, there was dead silence. . . Then little Jake spoke up and said something like this: “Well, gramma, when Jonah went overboard God sent the big fish to save him.” Now that was an insight for sure. Because that is EXACTLY what the fish accomplished. If not for the fish, Jonah would have drowned. Most likely that fish was made specifically by God for the purpose.

    Think of this – Jonah went down to Joppa, down to the ship, down to the bowels of the ship, down into the sea and down into the belly of the fish. Now, I think Jonah had a turning point here. Instead of focusing on himself, he then focused on God. When vomited up on land, we find Jonah getting up, going up to Ninevah and obeying God’s command. Jonah still had an attitude though. His “preaching” in Ninevah involved all of about 8 or 9 words. Still, the entire city repented. God gave Jonah a second chance, and He does so with us.

    We can become so entangled in our circumstances that we can’t see God in them. Or remember to seek Him in them. We can think and learn even in the midst of wretched circumstances. Why can we be confident God will hear our prayers, even if we are suffering the consequences of disobedience? Because God promises to hear those who repent and turn their hearts toward Him.

  10. SFDBWV says:

    Big fish story….it is so like the scripture to present a “story” and have so many dofferent enlightenments come from it to so many different readers.

    The “Fish” that swallowed Jonah was prepared by God. A special creature for a special purpose. Not the leviathan mentioned in Job or in the Psalms and Isaiah.

    One of the many lessons the story of Jonah presents is that God is the Creator of all mankind, not just Israel. That upset Jonah as it upsets some in Israel today.

    Since God grew and developed nations and placed kings over them, to both punish wayward Israel as well as bring about God’s purposes and designs, in Biblical times. Why would God not still be at work doing the same today?

    Nineveh was spared for a time for it’s sins, but ultimitly punishment came. Because as a people they returned to the other gods of this world and reaped the results.

    The story of Jonah shows that even the worst of us find God to be merciful if we are truely repentent and ask forgiveness with a sincere heart.

    It also shows us that, we need not think that we are special or in any way different, then any being in need of mercy from God. God will take care of our needs as well as the needs of others,whether we like it or not.

  11. Dixie says:

    This is a tough one to work through. I find myself reading and seeing in our own country, our freedom of religion being undermined and yet, the religions of the other countries being accepted and applauded. How is it that our White House could not sponsor a service on the National Day of Prayer for Christians, but would allow 3,000 Muslims to pray on the lawn. This caused much bitterness in me. I find that my intolerance is being flamed by the injustice toward Christianity in our World. I find I am twittering comments against other religions in my distress for how uneven it all seems to be. I understand that God can reach any and all hearts that are open to Him, but when a religion is in complete defiance toward Him, Our Lord Jesus, and our Faith, I find it hard to not be like Jonah a bit.

  12. Dixie says:

    Gee, after saying that, I came across a blog that seemed to get me thinking again:

    In the word of the Apostle Paul : “For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes (Rom. 10:2-4). Although he is speaking of the Jewish people here, possibly these other religions have a zeal for God too, but are blind to the true God, and the only Way, Our Lord Jesus Christ. I should pray more for them.

  13. foreverblessed says:

    To go on with Romans 10, after I read this topic of Mart, I started to read Romans 9 up till the end of 11.
    Read and reread it. It says a lot, like:
    “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy
    and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion”
    So God was mercifull to the people of Nineveh.
    And God will be mercifull to people of other religions.
    Maybe we can have a part in that, if we are quiet and start to listen to His voice, maybe He is saying, pray for your enemies.

    I recently read a story of a Hindu boy, who was agressively persecuting christians in India.
    While they were trying to persecute a christian ministry, they were in the vicinity of the group, a boy came up to the christians and asked for a prayer for his sick mother. The hindu boy thought, I will give it a try, see if maybe this Jesus is real, and he went with the boy instead. He went into the house where the sick mother was, and started to pray: In Jesus name be healed.
    And to his great amazement this woman was healed.
    He immediately was called to another family where a crippled boy was, the Hindu boy prayed again, and the boy was instantly healed.
    Then the Hindu ran outside, bewildered, and said to Jesus: I do not even know you, and yet you hear my prayer.
    Jesus answered him directly, I do not remember what. But this Hindu boy from there on was a christian.
    He now has a great ministry in South America.
    Can you imagine this: Jesus answering a prayer from a man of a different religion?
    Yet, that is what He did. He has mercy on whom He has mercy.

  14. foreverblessed says:

    To go on with this Hindu boy, after Christ had found him, he had a hard time to connect with christians, they one after the other did not accept him. He looked like a hindu beggar, his family had thrown him out. Youth with a mission was lastly the organisation who took him in.

    Think of Saul, he was a real enemy of the christians.
    Imagine Ananias not being able to overcome his resentment, and not taking in Saul. Yet, Ananias did listen to God and did take him in, and prayed for him. Acts 9:10-19

  15. poohpity says:

    I guess that is why God tells us to never judge what we see on the outside because it is He, only God, that can see a man’s heart. One day EVERY knee will bow and heart confess that Jesus is Lord. With our prejudices we tend to push the very people away that the Lord has called which is ALL people. The disciples pushed away Saul/Paul. We are so quick to see the outside and slow to listen to the inside.

  16. jjhis says:

    Wonder what Meno Kalisher would say about the reading of Jonah on Yom Kippur? Wonder why on that day we learn of the test firing of an Iranian missle which could reach Israel? And finally do we really believe as those who are to proclaim the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ to all the nations, that the Iranian leadership will respond in the same way the Ninevites did at this time?

  17. pegramsdell says:

    Glad to hear about your dad deb. Praise God!
    You know I heard a long time ago that when we get to heaven, we will be surprised at who did not make it, and even more surprised at who did..hmmm. :)

  18. daisymarygoldr says:

    Great post! The day of Atonement marked with complete fasting and prayerful confessing is observed in order to “repent” from sins, “return” to God and be “reconciled” to Him through the “redemption” He provides in the atoning sacrifice (today it is a chicken) performed by the High Priest. Jonah’s story is reminder that an earnest heart-felt and sorrowful repentance spares us from God’s wrathful judgment.

    And yes! Jonah had knowledge of God’s judgment on Ninevah and he also had knowledge that if his archrivals repented, they will be spared. Clearly Jonah lacked compassion as he willfully chose to disobey God and instead ran away in the other direction to fulfill his fanciful desires of a vacation that included a cruise to the exotic land of Tarshish (1 Kings 10:22) and traditionally, Tarshish is identified with Spain…

    Not only did Jonah disobey God’s call but he even had the nerve to fall asleep… dead to the raging tempest that was literally rocking the world around him. So great was his apathy for God’s heart that even when godless fellow cruisers around him started crying out to their gods, Jonah was dreaming of fun-filled days to be spent far away from God.

    Jonah clearly needed a lesson of what it means: to worship false gods and to turn our backs on God’s mercies (Jon 2:8); to be trapped within the stench of death in the depths of the grave; and to cry out for God’s unfailing mercy in order to be snatched and rescued from the very jaws of death! (aside to BobbieLee: loved little Jake’s insight!:), God did provide the big fish to save Jonah so he could repent from his rebellion and return back to fulfill God’s great commission.

    And… what was the great commission which Jonah presented in the wrong way or was it the right way? “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Jonah did not pamper the people with words of peace and plans of God’s prosperity and protection. He even did not preach repentance but simply proclaimed God’s judgment.

    Those who had willing ears, listened and believed God starting from the king to the lowliest cattle… they fasted covered with sackcloth, sat on ashes and—repented to be spared from God’s judgment!

  19. daisymarygoldr says:

    Agree, though, Jonah was one successful prophet who was able to convict an entire city of 120,000 people with just 8-9 words, he was also one big sel-fish person unwilling to share his heart for his enemies.

    Today, a greater than Jonah is already come. Jesus Christ our Heavenly High Priest who so loved the world that He came to put away all our sins. By the atoning sacrifice of Himself, Jesus reconciled us—His enemies with God and commands each one of us to obey the mission/purpose of our salvation.

    Yom Kippur is causing me to think… and repent as we remind ourselves—the church of our true purpose… a mission that is greater than that of Jonah’s… a call to obey the Great Commission which according to Dr. Luke is not to educate the underprivileged and to care for the lepers and treat those dying with AIDS… is it?

    The physician with compassion for souls said it right in Luke 24:7- “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in His name to all nations”.

    What if we disobey and continue to proceed with our own fanciful programs about doing it the right holy way especially when we consider reaching out to our enemies like Sakoieta, who may be fearful and suspicious of the spiritual company we keep?

    Our disobedience will not disqualify us from the special purpose for which God has set us apart in Christ and though it will cause delays, the wrenching experience of the whale’s whopping gut will certainly cause us to repent and turn around to fulfill our mission.

    In ways beyond our imaginations, the unchanging love of God intervenes to prevent and save a wicked generation that is teetering over the edge of Hell’s destruction reeling from drunkenness, drugs, sex, divorce, debauchery, suicide, abortion and murder. If we repent, we are saved but if we rebel then the people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it. The Lord weeps over our cities amazed at the stubborn unbelief that will surely lead people to their eternal destruction.

    ‘Tis my prayer today that my heart be filled with God’s love, mercy and compassion to reach out to those who live as enemies of the Cross of Christ—souls living in spiritual darkness(Jonah 4:10 NLT)… and lost to eternal destruction.

    “It is because of the Lord’s mercy and loving-kindness that we are not consumed, because His [tender] compassions fail not.” Lam 3:22 and He is “a God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great steadfast love; and…Even when they had made for themselves a false god…God in His great mercy forsook them not” Nehe 9: 17-19

  20. poohpity says:

    I am not an enemy to Sakoieta and the bible does tell us to help the poor, to educate those who have no education, help those with diseases and those who have nothing. If we help those in need then we are helping the Lord Himself. One never knows if we are entertaining an angel of the Lord or the Lord Himself. Jesus never spent time with those who considered themselves friends of the Cross but with those who needed the forgiveness the Cross represents.

    Thank you for being the devils advocate, dmg.

  21. SFDBWV says:

    Glenna has family that has gone to an Islamic country as missionaries. They have found the people there to be very kind and helpful, generous and friendly. Of course like everywhere else there are some who are not.

    If I had to voice an enemy to Christianity, my first responce would be the spirit of the anti-christ. The scripture tells us he has always been in the world.

    I have learned that his spirit lives in every country, all over the world. The idea that our enemy is only the faces we see on the news as Islamic fundamental extreemists, is very inacurate.

    The battle is spiritual and our enemy is not our neighbors but the spirit that controls them.

    Only through changed hearts can our enemies become our friends.

    We can bring a message, we can live an example, but only the power of God through the live changing grace of Jesus Christ can change a heart.

    The people of Nineveh were the hated enemy of Israel, yet God showed mercy upon them because of their hearts. We all are enemies of God when we are in sin, only the power of Christ can renew our hearts and save us from judgement. In the same way.

    I cannot make atonement for my past sins in that I can make restitution to God. Jesus did that for me. A debt I could and can never repay.

    Jesus made restitution, Jesus paid the debt, I will forever owe my eternal destiny to Jesus of Nazareth.

  22. mstins says:

    Thank you for that insight on Yom Kippur. What a rich heritage we have and are blessed to pass on if we are obedient. What a contrast in an era when Americans are getting ready for Halloween a month in advance.

  23. wretch-like-me says:

    My take on Jonah is that we ‘chosen’, we christians, are sometimes so short-sighted when it comes to understanding the things of God. We forget all too quickly, “There, but for the Grace of God, go I!”

    We are, as Christ pointed out, like the self-serving servant, who was forgiven a ‘boat-load’ of debt yet, could not forgive the ‘smallest debt’ owed him by another. We want to reserve the ‘best’ for ourselves ALONE! (reminds me of two dogs at the same bowl)

    “My Grace is sufficient!” It is indeed limitless and mind-boggling. Forgive me, Father, for I know not what I do! I slip so easily down the slippery slope into the muck of the world from which YOU saved me.

    How could I deny to another the same salvation I could never have deserved on the grounds that ‘they dont deserve to be saved?’ (sounds like I want to be GOD?)


  24. poohpity says:

    I am so glad this is still up today because this morning I finally understood the Love of God. The love that is explained in 1 Cor. 13. God’s love for all mankind hopes for the best so to error with love a person may get hurt but to think the best does not lead to bitterness or envy which is what Jonah did.

    I have known this but it did not really sink in until this morning. The ugliness I have experienced from my family with the death of my mom I am having a hard time with but I have leaned on the side of love but my response slowly everyday has been one of bitterness and resentment which kept growing. With the indwelling of the Holy Spirit I came to the realization that I want to love no matter how hurt I feel.

    That is what our God feels for all mankind. He thinks the best for us and hardly notices the wrong we do. Just think that He went to the Cross on our behalf because He is able to show the love of 1 Cor. 13 to us and for us. Today I choose to respond in my imperfect way as our example (Jesus) did and does and not the way Jonah did.

  25. Marc says:

    What an amazing and interesting read this is ! The insights given are a rare study of human observation and let us praise the Lord Almighty for the chosen generation blessed with His wisdom and knowledge.

  26. Mart De Haan says:

    poohpity, thank you for your example!!

  27. Mart De Haan says:

    SFDBWV, I wish we could all share your perspective on who our real enemy is. There is so much wisdom in seeing that people are not are real enemy. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “Our struggle is not with flesh and blood” (Eph 6:12)

  28. foreverblessed says:

    Yes, that is what I am looking forward too:
    I ask God: Please give us a discernment of spirit.
    1 Korinthians 12:7-11
    the ability to distinguish between spirits.

    But that means we have to have less hard judgments about people, we are apt to say: That is easy, you blame satan for doing what you do, while you did it yourself.
    And others say: Satan gets too much attention this way.
    I pray that we as a church will have more insight in this matter.
    After all, Jesus drove out 7 demons from Magdalena, and she was a wonderful christian woman. (Mark 16:9) He appeared first to this woman.
    Isn’t that wonderfull? Jesus knew that we on this earth are being swayed by evil. (That is why I could not believe Sakoieta says that his people had no part in the sinfall. As if they as a people could have stand against the evil power.)

    But Jesus does not make a big thing out of it. When He comes across a demon possessed person he simply drives them out. No big fuss.
    And so Mary Magdalene became a very devouted follower of Jesus. Why, because she knew the battle was a spiritual one. She knew that very much.
    She was so happy with Jesus, who was able to relaese her. And gave her freedom. She was the first to go to the tomb when Jesus was buried there. And she stayed there too. She so loved Jesus.(John 20:1-18)
    (I guess this must have been an issue, a woman saw Jesus first, it was big news!)

  29. foreverblessed says:

    About Jonah, even in his disobedience God used that as foreshadow or type about Jesus’death and resurrection.
    Jesus said: I will give no sign but the sign of Jonah.
    Matthew 12:38-42
    How mercifull God was for Jonah!

  30. Marc Livingston says:

    What an amazing and interesting read this is (A BIG FISH STORY) ! The insights given are a rare study of human observation and let us praise the Lord Almighty for the chosen generation blessed with His wisdom and knowledge.

  31. Marc Livingston says:

    JESUS first appearing to a woman is really a news to me – a good news: but that’s definitely not an issue, though !

    The kind of faith Mary Magdalene has or displays is beyond my belief and imazination !!

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