We have been very unkind to Jonah. No character of the Bible has suffered so badly at the hands of Bible interpreters and preachers like this man often pictured in a long robe and a long beard. Sometimes pcitured in the belly of a huge fish! Christians and Jews of all ages are equally guilty of this. They pick up a negative image of this poor prophet from early childhood as the Sunday School teachers use their flannel graphs and tell the children not to be so disobient as this disobedient prophet! And when these children mature to adulthood they become Sunday School teachers and preachers to continue the millennial old negative propaganda against this prophet of Israel.
Jonah was not that bad! He ran away from the presence of the Lord, I agree! Probably, he did not have read Psalm 139 especially verses 7 -10 of that psalm: "Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. (Psalms 139:7-10 ESV).
Not only him, even long after him, the people of Israel thought that the presence of God was limited to certain places. This is what the Samaritan woman quizzed Jesus: "The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” (John 4:19-20). So, he thought he can get rid of this nagging God if he left the country and sailed for a far away place, beyond the reach of the Hebrew God!
Now, running away from his country to avoid the presence of God, that is a serious charge! But tell me which prophet of Israel was not fed up with this God who always demanded too much from them. Moses, complained to God many times when he was under stress, Elijah wanted to die unable to carry on, Jeremiah wept, protested, argued with God, Isaiah was despondent, the list can go on! We all are tempted to do it. It is just human.
Sleeping at the bottom of the ship while a storm was raging and every sailor was praying to his god is quite an achievement! Who can sleep peacefully amidst such a turbulance? Remember what you did when when you are 40,000 ft above the Atlantic and the pilot turned the seat-belt light on with a warning that the plane is facing turbulent weather? You made a sign of the cross and closed your eyes but were not able to sleep until the plane got back to a smooth path? Jonah was not sleeping, I think, was pondering "O God, you are here too! You got me?"
The story portrays an ordinary human being. It tells us what any prophet would do if God asks him to do something that he has never done before. Not just prophets all devout persons have limits to their patience and endurance. Jonah had reached his. That explains his behaviour.
But what I like in the story of Jonah is that he did something that many godly people normally won’t do. First of all, he knew what is wrong! He was a good troubleshooter! He told his fellow sailors that it is the hand of his God who created heaven, earth and sea! Many of us are equally good trouble shooters as well. But the difference is that Jonah not only found out what is wrong but he admitted that he is responsible for it! That many of us don't do. We normally score very low as troubleshooters, but very high as trouble-makers. Even when we succeed in locating the reason for the problem we tend to park it at somebody else's door! Taking up responsibility for the mess we created is often not in our nature. Now, I want Jonah to be exonerated at least on this ground! Long live Jonah!