How to read and break down a story in the bible
Before we get to the text of Jonah, I’d like to go over one way to read biblical narratives.
All stories contain a beginning, a middle and an end. It is helpful to go further and look for five parts to a story:
- the beginning
- the problem
- the quest
- the closing
- the end
This gives us a basic structure of the text to work with. By identifying the problem of the story we are able to uncover what the major theme of the book or section is. We can then look for ways this issue is explored in the story through different ‘eyes’ of the characters as well as the voice of the narrator.
The problem of a story can be anything from finding something that was lost, hoping the hero will make the right decision, will they learn the truth in time, will a disaster be avoided and so on. Once the problem of the story is identified, it enlightens the reader to see the major theme. We’ll step through Jonah chapter one to illustrate.
Nothing actually happens at the beginning of a story. The reader is simply given context. Jonah 1:1 is the beginning of the story. We are told some things about a man named Jonah and that he is a prophet whom God is speaking to. The fact that he is the son of Amittai is unimportant except that we know specificallly which Jonah he is (see 2 Kings 14:23-25).
Theological notes on the beginning:
The story opens with “The word of the LORD came…” Before anything else is mentioned, the word of God is there. We distort the focus of the story if we say it is all about Jonah and what he did. As we go through the story we’ll see that it is all about God’s word and what it is able to do.
The word of God CAME to Jonah. Without pressing this too far, grace is always God acting first. Our relationship with God is not about two persons flirting or beginning dialogue or sharing coffee and a laugh – it begins with God speaking to us – God approaching us – God taking the initiative to begin the relationship and continue pursuing it.
We can’t say how the word of the Lord came to Jonah – a voice? a visitor? a dream? a vision? More often than not, we are not told this details because the fascination is not in the method but in the fact that God speaks.
This is where an issue arises that needs to be resolved. Jonah 1:2-3 is the description of our problem. God told Jonah to do this but Jonah did that! Specifically, we are told that ‘Jonah ran away from the LORD.’ Can Jonah do that? The problem is not just that he disobeyed God but that he thinks he can actually get away from Him! Now, you could say that the problem is the storm which comes in verse 4. This may be your initial thought in reading the text and this certainly is a problem for the sailors which is resolved by the end of the chapter. But after reading the chapter a few times, it becomes clearer that a bigger problem surrounds this – who is God and how far does his power stretch?
See the map shared in the previous blog about the world of Jonah:
Theological notes on the problem:
We are told that Nineveh is a great city – this is for the reader’s benefit. The size of the city tells us that the size, success and wealth of something is not a sign of true greatness since God wants Jonah to take God’s word to speak against it. 3:1 gives us the same description of Nineveh and when Jonah gets there he sees that it takes 3 days to go through it (3:3).
“Preach against it.” God had a specific word for Jonah to give to Nineveh. I don’t take this as a command for us to go and preach against every evil that we see in the world. Christ instructed us to do two things: tell people the GOOD NEWS and be salt and light in the world.
“But Jonah…” These two words come up a few times in the book (verses 3, 5 and 4:1). It’s a little comical as it provides the wrong direction of the storyline. Try thinking of a narrative where you were the main character and it kept on repeating: “But Simon…” God sent his son to call people to repent and believe, But Roger…But Mary…But Alex….But Denise…
Notice all the detail given in verse 3: where he was headed, which port he went to, he had the funds to get there, he acted on his rebellion and his rebellion is plain: to flee from the Lord. Wow! Have you ever listened to your own thoughts as you plan to sin? Jonah had plenty of time to cool off and think about his rash idea. Joppa was at the southern border of Israel – just getting to there would have been an effort. Reflect on how long it takes us to realise our stubbornness and sin.
For what it’s worth, Joppa was the town where Peter raised a lady named Tabitha from the dead and took the gospel of Christ to that part of Israel (Acts 9:36-43). Peter (who was called Simon at one time) stayed in Joppa with a tanner named Simon – again, just pointing out interesting things that make me smile. I hope it made you smile too.
Not Neneveh but Tarshish. As mentioned in the last blog, Jonah was going as far as humanly possible from God. Little did Jonah know that God would send him even further away still when Jonah goes down to the depths of the earth in chapter 2! But even there, Jonah remembers that God is everywhere. Can you think how to apply this truth today? Do we go on holidays and leave God behind? Do we come to God on Sunday (so to speak) and keep distant from him for the rest of the week? Is there a room, a TV show, a hobby, a community, a sport, a conversation that you enjoy where you think that God is not welcome to come with you?
Finally, it seems to me that the book of Jonah is given us a universal view of God. The word of God is not going to a part of Israel but to a foreign country. Jonah thinks that he can leave God by leaving Israel. The book of Jonah will teach us that, even in the Old Testament, God has his sights on the whole world – because it’s the whole world that he loves (John 3:16). Jonah’s understanding of God which is limited to Israel, the promised land and the temple (2:4) will be stretched. I’m not sure that he fully matures by the end of the book. But he does grow a little.
This is the bulk of the story. Many things can take place inside the quest but, along the way, the problem finds a solution. In Jonah chapter one, a great description of the storm takes place but the detail of the story surrounds the panic of the sailors and what they are searching for. Verse 9 is the turning point in the story when Jonah speaks the truth which solves the problem: the God of the Hebrews is the God of all the earth. The quest lasts from verse 4 to verse 15 – from the beginning and end of the storm.
Theological notes on the quest:
The sailors: they saw the strength of the storm and were afraid. They cried out to their gods. Who knows how many they had, it doesn’t many. What matters is that they all remain silent and useless – as we’d expect. BUT, they cried out for help. I recall the cycle of the book of Judges where God sends judgement on Israel and they cry out for help and God hears. Well, God has sent judgement on Jonah, but the pagans cry out for help but don’t know where to find the help. Through their random method of casting lots, they are lead to think Jonah has something to do with this. They plead for Jonah to tell them, who he is, where he is from, what does he do for crust and what people is he from. In effect, they are asking all the right questions to get this prophet of God to speak the words that he is supposed to be doing. The pagans have found the one person who can give them the answers and that person has been reluctant to speak the answers to them. Eventually, the sailors ask Jonah, “what should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?” In effect they are asking the man of God, “What must we do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). They ask for forgiveness before they throw an innocent man overboard in what they hope is a way of pleasing the God of this storm: the God of heaven, earth and the sea.
Jonah: While the sailors are in fear of the storm and where it has come from, Jonah is in denial and separation from reality. Verse 5b tells us again how Jonah is going against what should be expected of him. “But Jonah…” He has continued his downward journey that began on a hilltop in Zebulun, went south to Joppa and now down below deck and then down into sleep. The narrative shows us how separate from reality Jonah wants to take himself. When the captain got Jonah’s attention and demanded to know who he was etc, Jonah says his first words in the story: I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” (Verse 9). His words totally disagree with what he has been doing. Is the application obvious enough? Christians will have a converted worldview long before their lifestyle is converted. Like Elijah said in 2 Kings 19: if the LORD is God then worship him – if someone else is God then worship them: but stop serving things that are not God (Simon Twist paraphrase). Jonah eventually comes out and offers himself as a sacrifice – his life for the life of the sailors. In God’s wisdom, the truth of God had come to the sailors. Even in rebellion, God was taking his word to the ends of the earth.
Better known as the ‘tying up of loose ends’ or the denouement (said with a French accent). This is verse 16. While Jonah had been called to go to Ninevah to take the word of God to them, the word of God was taken and received by the sailors on Jonah’s rebellious mission. Gentiles turned to God through the prophet of God. The storm had stopped and Jonah was stopped from running away from God.
Theological notes on the closing:
The issue was not that a storm had threatened life but that the nature and truth of God was being denied and hidden by Jonah. The word of God had come to Jonah but Jonah hid it.
Nothing happens during the ending but there is a clear mark that the story has closed. A ‘happily ever after’ kind of moment. This story ends with silence because it is more like a pause for the next episode to begin. The ending of this story marks the transition to the next where we wonder what happens to Jonah. An ending can be a whole paragraph, a sentence but in this case it is empty. It is similar to the ending of the whole book of Jonah – God asks a question and there is no answer.
Once the problem was identified as “can Jonah run away from God?” the solution points us to a great theological lesson: no you can’t and God is concerned for the whole world.
More observations of the passage
‘He went down to Joppa’. In the story, Jonah starts from the heights of Gath Hephor (a village on a rocky hill, see last blog) and descends to Joppa. Joppa is on the south-western border of Israel. Jonah went ‘below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep.’ v5. Notice the descent in this narrative. The sailors eventually ‘took Jonah and threw him overboard.’ v15. He went into the belly of a fish (v17) and into the depths and the heart of the sea (2:3), to ‘the roots of the mountains [Jonah] sank down’ (2:6) to the belly of the earth! 2:6 is the turning point of the descent imagery which is the very point that Jonah was saved by God.
The solution for the sailors was to execute one man to save the rest. Only those who have heard the story of Jesus’ sacrifice and burial for three days before raising to life again would appreciate the order here in the story. To save others, an ‘innocent man’ must be put to death. The man is ‘buried’ for three days and three nights before being brought back to life. Jesus embraced this story as pointing to his own death and resurrection (Matthew 12:39-41; 16:4).
What’s the message?
- The Word of God is for all nations – the Old Testament God is all about reaching beyond Israel
- Rebellion from God does not stop his reign and authority
- The God of the Hebrews is the God of all the earth – who made the sea and the dry land
- Jesus is the very Word of God who has come down into this world to offer himself for all nations. He fulfils willingly what Jonah illustrates reluctantly.
- God continues to use us even when we are reluctant to be used.
- What we believe in the gospel must play out in the rest of our lives – how are we being a light to the world, salt of the earth and like a city on a hill. Do people have to grill us deeply before they hear us speak of God’s love and compassion?
Prayer for the week
Father God, creator of heaven and earth and everything in it, thank you for sending your word to us in the Lord Jesus Christ and in the scriptures. Please help us to live out the gospel and be a beacon for all who desire to be saved. Thank you for the sacrifice of your Son, the innocent one who died so that we could live. Help us to take the message of Jesus everywhere we go in our daily lives. Showing people by our actions and our words that we worship the one true and eternal God. Amen.