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I looked twice when I saw the headline describing a man as a “Real-life Jonah.”

The headline topped a story about a man who was almost swallowed by a whale.

In February, a 51-year-old photographer named Rainer Schimpf was snorkeling off the coast of South Africa when he was partially swallowed — headfirst — by a Bryde’s whale.

Schimpf told media outlets he knew enough to stay calm and hold his breath—figuring the whale would go down into the ocean.

A photograph shows Schimpf’s rear-end and legs sticking out of the whale’s mouth.

He didn’t stay there a long time. The whale spit him out.

Honestly, I wasn’t surprised that a man could have become a snack for a big fish.

But I was sad the headline seemed to imply Jonah — a man found in the Bible — wasn’t real.

Other stories even referred to the Jonah account as a legend or a myth.

I’m sorry.

I don’t see it that way. I believe Jonah was a real man, who was swallowed alive by a huge fish (the Bible never calls it a whale), and lived not only to tell about it — but was used by the Lord for an important mission.

Found in the Old Testament, the account begins when God tells the prophet Jonah to go to the great city of Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian empire.

Nineveh, according to the Fire Bible, is a place known for its corruption and cruelty.

God wants Jonah to warn the people of Nineveh that unless they repent they’ll face the Lord’s judgement.

But Jonah doesn’t want to do that.

Like other Israelites, he probably hates and fears the Ninevites.

So Jonah boards a ship bound for Tarshish in Spain. It’s as far away as he can go in the opposite direction of God’s plan.

Jonah will learn disobedience doesn’t pay after God hurls a great wind upon the sea.

The terrified sailors find themselves in a violent, windy storm that threatens to break apart the ship.

It’s so bad the captain goes to the inner part of the ship and wakes Jonah, who’s somehow sleeping through all of this. The captain tells Jonah to pray so they won’t perish.

Wow. How bad does it have to be for the captain to plead for prayer?

Next, the scared sailors cast lots to try and determine who’s brought God’s wrath on their vessel.

The lot falls to Jonah and the runaway prophet confesses he’s caused all the trouble.

Then he does something I’d be too scared to do.

He tells the other men to toss him overboard.

Funny thing, these sailors seem to have more compassion for Jonah than he ever did for the Ninevites.

So instead of tossing him overboard, they just try to row harder to get the boat back to land.

But the storm worsens.

So the sailors cry out to God, asking him not destroy them for what they’re about to do.

And they throw Jonah overboard.

The sea stops raging — leaving some really shaken sailors in the boat.

What happens to Jonah?

The waters close over him and seaweed wraps around his head.

God then sends a huge fish and Jonah becomes the catch of the day.

Jonah spends three days and three nights in the belly of that fish.

While there, he repents — realizing his greatest fear is to be rejected by God. Jonah praises God and then the fish vomits the prophet out on dry land.

Can you imagine how Jonah must have smelled?

No, I don’t want to know either.

Anyway, Jonah takes this second chance and goes to the city of Nineveh to warn the people.

Why would anybody listen to a guy who may not have looked so good after a ride aboard a fishy submarine?

The Fire Bible suggests two major plagues and an eclipse of the sun (which would have scared ancient-day people) may have prepared the Ninevites for Jonah’s message.

At any rate, the king and his people repent. God, who is merciful, sees this and relents from bringing disaster on them.

Sounds like a happy ending, right?

Not for Jonah. He’s really angry. He wanted God to punish the people of Nineveh.

Jonah goes outside the city to see what will happen.

A strange thing occurs. God has a plant grow really fast and provide shade for the prophet.

Jonah really likes the plant. But the next day, God sends a worm which attacks the plant and it withers.

The sun beats down on the former seafarer’s head and Jonah feels faint and asks to die.

Actually, it just sounds like he’s really crabby, because the plant died.

That’s when God makes a point, saying:

“You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night.”

It makes sense. This wasn’t some prized zinnia that Jonah planted and planned to take to the county fair.

Then God asks a question.

“Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 people, who don’t know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”

The story ends there.

We don’t learn if Jonah ever saw things God’s way or repented of his bad attitude.

Or if Jonah just went away in a bad mood.

Why did Jonah feel sorrier for a plant, than a city teaming with spiritually blind people, who needed to be set on the right course?

It’s a good question.

But aren’t we like that sometimes? We feel more sympathy for plants, pets, vehicles and inanimate objects — which haven’t hurt or threatened us — than lost people who need the love of God.

Hurting people hurt other people. And if they’ve hurt us, we usually don’t want much to do with them.

Forgiveness can be tough — especially depending on the depth and frequency of the pain people have caused us.

Yet, it’s what we’re called to do.

As he died on a cross, Jesus said these incredible words: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

How could Christ forgive those who had beaten, mocked and were killing him?

Could it be he saw how ignorant they were of their sin?

And could it be Jesus knew just how very horrible it would be for them to spend eternity in hell?

I think Jesus saw the big picture and the long-term consequences for the people he came to save, including those who’d reject him.

And he felt compassion for them — and us.

In the greatest act of mercy and selflessness ever, Jesus died to save us.

Our God is merciful — something we see in the account of Jonah.

Jonah is a story of God’s desire to bring wayward people back to himself—whether they’re a prophet on the run or a city of people who must turn their lives around.

Both Jonah and the folks in Nineveh needed go in a different direction.

And both realized it and turned around.

Maybe that’s a lesson for us. There are times when we must turn around, too, but we have our faithful God to help us in all sorts of situations.

I believe God helped that photographer. I’ve also read where these whales are gentle, non-man eaters and this was just an accident.

Even so, I think I’ll play it safe. If I want to see a fish, I’ll just go to an aquarium.

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Tammy Real-McKeighan is news editor of the Fremont Tribune. She writes a weekly spiritual column.

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