In Removing the Fear from the Story of Jonah, Children’s Versions Remove the Gospel, Too
by Ronald F. Marshall
Jonah is a horrifying book, with its raging storm and fierce sea-monster, a suicide attempt and near drowning, and, at the end, a confrontation with a massive enemy city. But in American children’s literature it is largely a harmless adventure story, all about travel and intrigue, underwater hideouts, success and fame.
Jonah may not have been eaten alive in the Bible, but he has been in the children’s books. In the nineteen versions I examined for this essay, the horror of the story has been extracted and removed from sight, and with it an important theological and imaginative preparation for the gospel.
Let us begin with the evasion of Jonah’s disobedience. Why did Jonah not obey God when he was first asked to go to Nineveh? Only at the end of the biblical book does Jonah intimate that he did not obey because of God’s unbearable, excessive leniency with his enemies in Nineveh (4:2). But even with that sketchy explanation, his disobedience remains puzzling, for he is, as Old Testament scholar James Limburg notes, “the only one of the prophets to run away . . . before delivering his message.”
Jonah’s disobedience is mostly ignored in the children’s books (cited only by their authors’ names here; please see the Sources sidebar for complete citations). But some versions exonerate him (Brown, De Graaf, Osborne). Some say he did not go to Nineveh because the evil there was too scary (Bauman, David, Hoth, Karran Wright), others that the trip would have been too taxing (Kenney, Nystrom), and still another says that he simply wasn’t interested in Nineveh (Lanning).
All these books effectively justify Jonah’s disobedience. They present him as a celebrated rebel. He’s able to out-maneuver God and avoid obeying his command. So Jonah’s rebellion is not damning. Rather it authenticates him, marking him out as a free man choosing his own way in life.
But romanticizing Jonah in this way—thinking of him as some sort of glorious challenger of God—shears away the horror of his actual disobedience. The books forget how crucial God considers obedience to be, since, as Martin Luther noted in The Large Catechism, he is “so strict about punishing those who transgress it.”
The disobedient Jonah surely would appeal to children who do not like being told what to do, which may explain why the writers so radically change the biblical story. They describe a Jonah blithely sailing along, oblivious to the consequences of his deeds, which not only diminishes the deadly effects of disobeying God but also makes much of the story that follows incomprehensible. I am tempted to shake my finger and quote Galatians 6:7 at them, saying, “God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.”
On the ship to Tarshish, once the crew finds out that Jonah’s disobedience has jeopardized them, Jonah tells them to drown him in the sea in order to stop the threatening storm. Almost all the children’s versions I examined skip over this.
One book simply says, “Then Jonah was thrown overboard” (Davidson). Others say that after the sailors heard Jonah’s confession, they threw him overboard, but do not say that they did so at his request (Pingry, David). Another has the crew telling him to walk the plank into the sea on his own (Kenney).
Others mitigate the whole episode, saying that as soon as Jonah hit the water, he was swallowed up by the whale (Kenney, Egermeier). Such a quick deliverance clearly mitigates the trauma. Another trivializes it by saying, “Heave ho! into the water. Splash!”—with accompanying pleasing pictures (Harrast).
Still another says that Jonah’s request to die was only made “unhappily” and “mournfully” (Buck). So he only reluctantly offers up his life, without the despondent death-wish the biblical story conveys. This makes the scene look more like being splashed at a pool party than going down into the watery deeps of depression and suicide, which are the fruits of Jonah’s disobedience.
That depression, however, remains on the pages of the book of Jonah. And it will not go away simply by being ignored. One day these young readers of Jonah will see the actual biblical version and discover Jonah’s anxiety and sadness. This is a fear, they will surprisingly learn, born of those watery deeps of depression and suicide. It is a fear a reading of the biblical story of Jonah might have prepared them for.
The sailors find out about Jonah’s guilt by casting lots. Jonah does not dispute the drawing but comes out of hiding and says he is to blame. Only a few of the children’s versions mention this part of the story at all (Kenney, Osborne, Karran Wright). One actually transforms it into playing the card game “Go Fish” (Kenney). Another devotes over six pages to the episode but still leaves out the casting of lots (Nystrom).
This matter of casting lots raises the mysterious business of discerning what is hidden. While we would want our children to be honest and straightforward, the book of Jonah uses mysterious devices to pry open the truth by less than straightforward means. In this book we are told they are needed because Jonah is deceptive.
But the children’s versions seem to think that Jonah will entice young readers into a life of relying on luck and chance instead of trusting in God’s providential care. This concern for children’s character (if that is the reason for the avoidance) hides from children something that is part of the very life revealed in the Bible. Think of the disciples casting lots to find a replacement for Judas (Acts 1:21–26).
All the children’s versions mention, and then quickly pass over, the fact that God sends the storm in anger and then quells it when Jonah is thrown overboard (Jonah 1:4,11–12,15). Clearly his sacrifice calms the wrath of God manifest in the raging sea. (The fact that Jonah does not die does not thereby vacate this appeasement. All it does is shift it from ghastly dying to tormented living.)
Apparently, the children’s writers think that beholding such a vivid, destructive example of the divine wrath will upset children and perhaps scare them away from God. But this casts suspicion on Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
The New Testament itself presses this connection when it says that only the “sign of Jonah” will point to Christ (Matt. 12:39; Luke 11:29). Just as Jonah was thrown to his (expected) death in the sea to save the sailors from the storm, so are we, “the entire boat of humanity,” as the church father Jerome put it, saved from sin by Jesus when he is nailed to his death on the cross. So Jonah’s headlong leap into the deadly sea prefigures Jesus’ willing ascent to die on the cross.
“God’s vengeance did not fall on the sinners, but on the only sinless one, the Son of God, who stood in the place of sinners. Jesus Christ bore the vengeance of God,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer says in his last published book, The Prayerbook of the Church.
This is what children need to know about Jonah, to see that his sacrifice and its meaning prefigured Christ’s. Covering up why Jonah had to be thrown overboard hides from them an important truth of Christianity, one that will help them understand the gospel.
Even though the giant fish rescues Jonah from drowning, “the sea becomes Jonah’s deathbed. There he must die all alone, with no one about to comfort him,” Luther wrote in his Lectures on Jonah:
Jacques Ellul writes similarly in The Judgment of Jonah: The “fish was sent primarily to swallow up, to destroy, to put to death. It was not a means of saving. . . . The intervention of the fish, then, is not at all a sign of grace, of Jonah delivered from the waters. On the contrary . . . it is damnation. The fish is in fact hell.”
This terrifying but no less true picture is missing from all but a couple of the children’s books (Nystrom, Stattgart). The whale is usually rendered as a cute and cuddly playmate (even Marc Chagall’s famous drawing of Jonah in the whale has him safely at home inside its belly). No horrifying looks. No sharp teeth. This gigantic sea creature is turned into Jonah’s playful buddy.
No doubt they write and draw like this to get God off the hook, so that he cannot be accused of sending a terrifying sea monster to torment Jonah. In doing so, they deny God’s wrath and promote some “God of fluff and gentility,” in the words of Jim McGuiggan in Celebrating the Wrath of God.
But again, this is a lie we should quit telling our children. We do not bring them to God by pretending that he is cuddly and not terrible. For his wrath is real (John 3:36; Rom. 2:5–8).
Only a few versions (Brown, Buck, De Graaf, Egermeier, Kenney, Nystrom, Karran Wright) include the last scene, in which God sends the worm to eat the shade tree he had sent the day before. All give Jonah a happy ending, whether they include this last scene or not. None of them leaves Jonah pouting and sulking, as the Bible does.
And in this, too, they rob children of an important insight. In the killing of the plant we see, writes Old Testament scholar Bruce Vawter, that God “is not kind to his chosen emissaries, and anyone who does not understand this fact is incapable of understanding biblical history.”
Kierkegaard stunningly ties this story to Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 5:44 to love our enemies. When God destroys the tree, he is being “so terrible” to Jonah. If this is the way God loves his servants, there are no “syrupy sweets” in it at all. Rather, the “strenuous and sacrificial” marks this love.
God makes Jonah miserable, but for his own good. He breaks apart his worldly hopes and dreams and pushes him into a new life. He shows him that his own comfort does not matter. He calls Jonah to set his mind “on things that are above, not on things that are on earth”—things like some wilting shade tree (Col. 3:2). And for all this cruel treatment, Jonah is to love God anyway, simply because Matthew 5:44 says we are to love and not hate our enemies.
Thinking of God as our enemy never even remotely shows up in these children’s versions of Jonah. This is a huge loss, not only because it misrepresents the book of Jonah, but also because it waters down biblical faith and the new life it brings through the daily denial of ourselves (Luke 9:23).
The supposed rhetorical question at the end of the book of Jonah condemns Jonah for his cruelty. The prevailing understanding of the message of the book is that “deliverance belongs to the Lord” (Jonah 2:9). Therefore, if God wants to be merciful to sinful people and not give them what they deserve, but love them instead, so be it. And the rightness of this wild, risky, divine extension of love is the center of the argument between God and Jonah.
Why would Jonah oppose such a message? Why will he not change his mind about his enemies in Nineveh? Not because he is unwilling ever to forgive foreigners, but because he believes God has underestimated Nineveh’s recidivism. As a result of this divine oversight, Israel’s safety is thrown into jeopardy. To protect Israel, Jonah has to oppose God’s reckless love for Nineveh. Otherwise, Nineveh would remain free to attack Israel with its far superior force.
And, as one children’s version surprisingly points out (Hoth), the Book of Nahum shows that Nineveh finally had to be destroyed precisely because it failed to make good on the repentance championed after hearing Jonah preach (3:6–7,18–19). But apart from the mention in Hoth, nothing like this harsh reading of Nineveh and God finds its way into these children’s versions of Jonah. But if it did, they would offer children a salutary realism that would teach them an important lesson about the lacerating power of God’s Word (Jer. 23:29; Heb. 4:12).
In the children’s versions of Jonah, the story has been sentimentalized and its horror has been removed, and thereby its power as the word of God has been removed as well. But such children’s versions can become more realistic and biblically sound in the future. The key, I think, is in being as terrifying as the classic fairy tales.
These tales—themselves usually sentimentalized in modern retellings—teach children that “much of what goes wrong in life is due to our very own natures—the propensity of all men for acting aggressively, asocially, selfishly, out of anger and anxiety,” as Bruno Bettelheim puts it in The Uses of Enchantment. But “the dominant culture wishes to pretend, particularly where children are concerned, that the dark side of man does not exist.”
Children experience anxious and destructive feelings. They can, for example, love their parents dearly, “but at times also hate them.” These upsetting feelings must be explored rather than covered up. “By keeping this monster within the child unspoken of . . . the child fails to get to know his monster better” and so loses the chance to “gain mastery over it.”
Against these illusions, the fairy tales stand with all their frightfulness—insisting on telling the truth. And the truth is indeed scary. And it is a truth that children can handle, indeed need to face.
This insight must guide the telling of the story of Jonah to our children. Forget about cleaning up Jonah. Instead, tell the story the Bible tells. It is the story God wants your children to hear.
Bruce Vawter’s quote is taken from his Job & Jonah; Kierkegaard’s from his The Moment and Late Writings; and Jerome’s from The Twelve Prophets, edited by Alberto Ferreiro.
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“Eaten Alive” first appeared in the April 2008 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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