This section begins a multi-chapter saga implied but not explained in the Book of Jonah. In Jonah 3:2, the Lord tells the Dove – who had just been spat by His fish onto the Great Sea shore – to travel to Nineveh. Verse 3 concludes that by simply saying Jonah made the trip – no other details provided.
The Prophet and the Dove uses five chapters to depict that journey. Following precedents of history, the novel unveils the methods and settings such travel required, and outlines many of the challenges involved. Hopefully, this novel comes close to the mark in what Jonah and Benjamin would have faced in tackling this epic adventure.
How does this impact your reading of the biblical account? Do you have a greater appreciation of the feats involved?
All that said, this chapter starts not with the Nineveh mission, but a reflective look at dreams. As Benjamin tells us, when dreams “frighten you or distress you, confuse or confound you, when they muddle your prayers or distract your thoughts, when they take you places you would rather not go and show you things you wish you had not seen, when they occupy your nights again and again, all without enlightenment from God, then they are best set aside until discernment comes. Or so Jonah told me.”
Do you sometimes endure traumatic dreams? Does this tactic work for you?
As Benjamin travels from the Tyre docks to the mainland, the captain Hazorn shares a truism relevant then and today: “long ago we found it more profitable to pay off whoever holds the mainland rather than stay at war and risk our ports closed, even if by our own warships. Trade, after all, is more important than who rules these shores.”
In other words, profits often proved more important to Tyre’s leaders than differences in political ideologies. Do you see examples of this in today’s politics?
Not knowing what to do, Benjamin prays for guidance – and sees a bird disturbance across the beach. Investigating this, he discovers the Dove washed naked upon the shore.
This scene represents both a direct and indirect answer to prayer – direct in that the disturbance demands Benjamin’s attention, and indirect in that Benjamin must still choose to investigate it before he finds what he prayed for. God often follows this tactic to:
• Give people freedom of choice.
• Keep His followers active and involved in His plan.
Have you experienced similar answers to prayer?
Three days in the belly of the fish leave Jonah’s skin “chalk white.” This draws from admittedly rare whaling stories from the 1800s – often dismissed today as legends, but accepted by veterans of that sea-going era – where sailors fell overboard during the hunt, only to be found in the stomach of the slain whale. In only a handful of cases were these sailors found alive, and most then died within the day or week. In all such cases, their bodies reportedly emerged with pale white skin.
Many doubters or atheists cite such deadly results when attacking the Book of Jonah. “You can’t seriously believe that happened,” as one Facebook combatant put on one of my posts. Indeed, this is one reason why even believers prove likely to dismiss Jonah’s story or reduce his Old Testament message to a children’s tale. It goes without saying that a survival case like Jonah’s would rank as a miracle – i.e., an event that defies the laws of nature. This novel takes that a step further, with the Dove’s admission that he did indeed die during this trial. God then restored the prophet’s life when the fish spat him out.
The biblical account does not specifically say Jonah died. Chapter 1 ends with Jonah being swallowed by the fish, where we’re told he spent three days and nights. As today’s naysayers note, no human could survive in a living creature’s stomach for such a time, drenched in digestive acids, lacking clean air, water, sustenance. Even a liberal interpretation of this -- Jonah being stuck in the throat of an air-breathing whale -- would most likely tax people beyond their endurance.
The Bible text may indeed agree with this.
Chapter 2 shares the prayer Jonah made to God, calling out for help “in the realm of the dead,” as the New International Version translates it. Other translations may refer to the grave, or sheol, a Hebrew word that generally refers to the place of the dead. These references come up again when Jonah admits how God brought “my life” up from the pit, marking another frequent reference to the realm of the dead or death itself. Chapter 2 ends with the fish vomiting Jonah onto the shore. The first verse in Chapter 3 then picks up with God commanding Jonah to travel to Nineveh. Such an order could easily involve the Dove's resurrection.
Having Jonah die in the ocean’s depths or the belly of the fish (for he could have died before the fish swallowed him) also would heighten the second major reason why Christians should treat Jonah’s story as more than a children’s tale. For, as told in Matthew 12:38-41, Matthew 16:4, and Luke 11:29, Christ referred to Jonah’s tale as the one sign unbelievers had of His death and resurrection on the cross.
Would Christ have referred to such a sign if the Dove had not died? Would Jonah's passing change how you approached his Old Testament book?
Let’s look at another mystery tied to this passage. The Book of Jonah does not specify what shore the Dove ended upon. Some children’s books and lessons make this the shore of Nineveh, since the biblical text makes no reference to a journey. For children’s books, this no doubt helps tell the tale in a limited number of illustrated pages. But this would require a second, equally tremendous miracle that is not mentioned in the Bible. Our large fish would have to spit Jonah almost completely across the Middle East to Nineveh’s Tigris River beach, or swim around the continent of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, then up hundreds of miles in the Tigris River, all in three days. That swim takes on greater significance when we remember the Tigris is generally a very shallow river, even during its limited flood seasons. It is far too shallow for a whale-sized fish able to swallow a man.
Of course, God also could teleport Jonah to Nineveh’s shore when the fish spat him out. The New Testament shares a few such examples of amazing movements by Christ and Philip.
Such miracles fall oh-so easily within God’s capabilities. But this novel (and most analyses) records Jonah spat up along the Great Sea because that is where the storm happened. It makes sense – and follows God’s natural order.
That location also would require Jonah to make a dangerous and extensive journey of several hundred miles to reach Nineveh – the “edge of the known world,” as Han-Alphinami and Hazorn both put it. Such difficulties often mark God’s ministry callings, for they condition His ambassadors for the hardships ahead, keep their survival and provision dependent on the Lord, and spread His light and message to as many different people as possible.
All these thoughts justify a repeat question: How do these points impact how you view the biblical account? Do they change your approach to this novel?
Getting back to the narrative, the Dove leads Benjamin in prayers that generally follow those in Jonah 2. The two men then encounter a caravan forming just off the shore. While convenient, this follows historical patterns, as caravans frequently formed, paused, or disbanded at major commerce or transportation hubs – a role that shore provided for reaching the island city of Tyre. The fear and dread drawn by Jonah’s appearance also follow historical trends – frequent human reactions toward potential disease carriers.
As it turns out, this caravan represents something of a family endeavor, a trait somewhat common in that era.
Han-Alphinami expresses a bias similar to one voiced by the Dove: “If Israel has earned punishment, then Nineveh draws eternal damnation! Oh, this is worth the company of the dead!”
Would you agree with that?