Jonah was a prophet. In his own town and with his own people he was revered for his great life of prayer and dedication to God, who spoke to him with words of wisdom, reprimand, or encouragement for the people of Israel.
One day, as Jonah was going about his business, God spoke to him with a new sort of message.
“Go to Nineveh, and preach to the people there with words I will give you.”
Jonah replied, “Oh, Lord, you must be mistaken. I cannot go into Nineveh for the people are a violent sort who have stoned prophets in the past.”
But God did not yield, and continued to press Jonah to travel to the distant land.
Instead of listening to the Lord, Jonah purchased a pass onto a ship traveling to Tarshish, which was in the opposite direction and as far from Nineveh as the Old World’s standards could go. He felt that if he ran far enough, God would let him be, or refuse to chase him. Perhaps he could hide from God…
With these thoughts to comfort him, Jonah went to the bottom of the ship and fell into a deep sleep.
He had only been asleep for a few hours when one of the sailors woke him with a violent shake.
“Wake up and pray to your god; our ship is about to break apart in this storm!”
Jonah felt the boat rocking and heaving and heard the waves crashing fiercely against the sides. Nauseated, he stumbled up to the main deck.
“What’s happening!?” he shouted over the wind and rain.
The captain gawked at him as he attempted to secure the rigging, “Lend a hand and pray to your god or we’ll be lost!”
A few minutes later, Jonah overheard some of the sailors discussing who could have angered the gods and caused the terrible storm. He felt his heart lurch at their accusations of one another, knowing that it was he who had disobeyed the One True God and all of these innocent men were to be punished for his sin.
Finally, Jonah confessed that he had displeased God.
“What should we do?” The captain asked.
“Throw me overboard and the storm will cease.” Jonah said with a gulp.
The sailors at first refused to grant this request, but after they had thrown all of the cargo into the sea and the boat was still filling with water at an alarming rate, they prayed for forgiveness and tossed the prophet into the churning sea.
As Jonah touched the water, the storm stopped.
Perhaps, Jonah thought, I could swim back to the ship and continue now that I have obeyed the Lord and trusted enough to have the sailors sacrifice me to these waters…
The suction beneath Jonah’s legs began suddenly and quickly became unbearable. He waved and cried out to the sailors for help. They scrambled to find a rope to throw to the prophet, but it was too late, the jaws of a great fish closed around Jonah as he screamed into the breeze.
Jonah did not die, but remained inside the fish’s belly for three days. All the while, Jonah prayed that if God would only deliver him this one last time, he would surely preach His word in Nineveh.
On the morning of the third day, the fish spit him out onto the land.
Incredibly, when Jonah got his bearings, he realized that he was just outside the city gates of Nineveh.
True to his word, the prophet preached God’s message of repentance to the Ninevites, and when they heard that their behavior displeased God, they repented of their ways.