Playing Jonah

Last night I had one of those moments with my daughter that I hope I never forget.

Since the time we started home from school and her brother’s doctor appointment, 8-year-old Laura had been pleading with me to “Play Jonah” with her. When we got home, though, she wanted to play with our two neighbor children while there was still daylight. That was fine with me; she had finished her homework in the doctor’s waiting room.

But at bedtime, it was my night (Mom and I alternate with each child) to read with her and say our prayers together — and the subject of “Playing Jonah” came up again. I quickly discovered what it meant: after I had helped her clean her room Sunday afternoon, she had rediscovered a Jonah playset that I bought for her years before … on the clearance table of a Bible bookstore, for $5, as I recall.

Though the mast and sail had disappeared long ago, the boat and its crew and Jonah and the big fish (looking suspiciously like a whale) were intact. An orange monkey — who may have escaped his barrel — had joined the crew.

So I read the book of Jonah from her NIV Bible to Laura while she acted it out with her toys. God told Jonah in Joppa to go preach against Ninevah “for their wickedness has come before Me”, and Jonah ran the other way instead — catching a boat for Tarshish.

A storm rocked the boat convincingly. I paused in the narrative to ask: “Can you believe Jonah could fall asleep during a storm like that?” Laura looked up at me. “Why not? Jesus did!”

Jonah persuaded the crew to toss him overboard, and immediately the boat was becalmed. Right on cue, the big fish swallowed him whole. In the three days that followed, the fish either swam very fast through the Strait of Gibraltar, around the Cape of Good Hope, past Madagascar and the Sinai, through the Persian Gulf and up the Tigris River — or God helped that fish somehow! And during those three days, Jonah prayed his prayer of praise to God, thanking him for his deliverance. Thanking him? I thought to myself. In advance? Or did Jonah consider the fish deliverance from the storm? or from what God had told him to do?

If the latter, he was disappointed, because the big fish threw him up near Ninevah. So, probably hating every moment of it, Jonah went and preached against them. (Laura held up his arm and shook it at the former crew of the boat, now Ninevites. I don’t know where she got that. I don’t remember seeing our preacher do it.)

Well, those Ninevites repented — from the king down to the last cow — in sackcloth and ashes. I tried to picture what a cow must have looked like, wearing sackcloth. Their repentance really ticked off Jonah, because he knew God would forgive them if they did, and he didn’t think they deserved forgiveness.

So Jonah went and sat down where he could see what would happen to the city, hoping that God would destroy Ninevah (formerly the boat, as Laura arranged it), because that’s what they deserved. And a vine grew up over him to shade him from the hot sun. (Laura and I interlaced fingers in a viny shelter over the little figure.) Then it was eaten by a worm (our fingers parted and our hands melted from over him) and he was out in the hot sun again, and as mad as he was hot. “If that’s the way things should be, I’d rather just die!” he complained.

“Do you have any right to be angry about the vine?” God asked him. “You didn’t make it grow, but it grew. Do you have any right to be angry about it going away? There are more than 120,000 people in Ninevah. Shouldn’t I be concerned about that great city?”

Then the orange monkey danced around the gunwales of the boat, happy that everyone had been spared. That part wasn’t in the Bible, but it seemed a fitting conclusion to Laura.

We knelt by her bed and prayed that God would turn the hearts of bad people like he did in Ninevah, and especially the bad people in Iraq who make life miserable for the good people who live there.

I kissed Laura good-night, wondering how many Jonahs it would take for all of the Ninevahs in Iraq to be spared from further destruction.

The original one, of course, was destroyed by flood and flame and trampled underfoot until marching armies could not find its ruins — just as the prophet Nahum later predicted.

What was rebuilt nearby is now called Mosul, Iraq.

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