Jonah is associated with the giant fish, a reluctant prophet of hope to the enemies of his people.
In chapter 1, Jonah’s mission is outlined, and his response is duly noted.
Unlike other prophetic books in the Hebrew Bible, this one is told entirely in the third person, as a story. The narrator begins with God’s instruction.
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”God, to Jonah 1:1-2 (NRSV)
Prophets spoke only what they knew was God’s word because the penalty for prophesying falsely was death by stoning. Prophets knew how to discern without doubt the difference between God’s voice and word, and their own imaginings. Jonah was an honest-to-goodness prophet who had already become well-known through his prophesying in Israel. He knew without doubt the word of the Lord had come to him, and it was to go to Nineveh.
Yet, unlike any other recorded prophet who would have embraced the calling of God, the very next words wryly remark, “But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” Jonah knew he had received God’s word, but it was not at all to his liking.
And here we get to the nitty gritty of of what it means to understand God’s word.
Jonah hated the Assyrians.
During Jonah’s lifetime Israel was under regular threat of Assyria, an empire located to the north on the Tigris River. Hosea, Amos, and Elisha all prophesied that if Israel did not repent God would send Assyria as the Lord’s judgement to take them captive from the promised land.
Assyria was noted for ruthless battle tactics and horrifying treatment of their captives.
To avoid resistance, the Assyrian army intimidated their enemies by inflicting terrible suffering on the people they conquered. Only individuals with special skills and abilities were spared. The rest were put to death—often in unspeakably gruesome ways.
[The following is just a small portion of what the Assyrians did. If violence and cruelty are a trigger for you, please skip past this bracketed description until you see the legend “Safe to Read”]
Assyrian kings were proud of their cruelty and violence and had detailed pictorial accounts of their brutalities inscribed on clay tablets and their palace walls. After setting an entire city to blaze, all the grown men would have their hands, their feet, their ears, and noses severed, as well as their manhood. With their bare hands, Assyrian soldiers would tear out their victims’ tongues and gouge out their eyes. Then they would heap them in living piles and allow them to die from exposure to the sun, blood loss, and carrion eaters.
Babies and children would be burned alive.
For the king’s amusement, some captives—including the ruler of the conquered people—would be brought into Nineveh to chained, thrown to the ground and flayed, which is to say, having their skin cut skin into strips and pulled off of a living victim. Then the prisoners would be beheaded or impaled alive on a sharpened stake, allowing the victim to slowly slide down the stake and die.
A generation after Jonah, the prophet Nahum’s book was full of invective against the Assyrians,
Woe to Nineveh
Woe to the city of blood,Nahum 3:1-4 (NRSV)
full of lies,
full of plunder,
never without victims!
The crack of whips,
the clatter of wheels,
and jolting chariots!
and glittering spears!
piles of dead,
bodies without number,
people stumbling over the corpses—
all because of the wanton lust of a prostitute,
alluring, the mistress of sorceries,
who enslaved nations by her prostitution
and peoples by her witchcraft.
[“Safe to Read”]
Is it any wonder that Jonah wanted to go in the opposite direction?
So Jonah did two things: he rebelled and then he rationalized in order to make his rebellion sit a little easier in his conscience. We do not find it out until well into the narrative,
O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.Angry and displeased Jonah, to God in Jonah 4:2 (NRSV)
Jonah went “down” to Joppa.
Once at Joppa, a bustling international seaport in his day, perhaps in a gesture of great noblesse, Jonah purchased sea fare to Tarshish, the farthest point in the exact opposite direction of Nineveh.
And everything seemed to be going swimmingly!
It is possible Jonah began to interpret his plans going well as God’s tacit acceptance, if not approval, of Jonah’s plan to be a missionary, just to another foreign people.
Yet, the narrator portrayed Jonah as having gone “down” spiritually as well, not just away from the heart of God’s will, but “away from the presence of the Lord.”
How often do you and I do this?
We interpret favorable circumstances as God’s tacit approval for something our consciences have been bothering us about.
Notice how relieved Jonah was to get out of the conflict of God’s will—he promptly went below deck and fell asleep!
But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up.Jonah 1:4 (NRSV)
There are spiritual laws as unchangeable as physical laws.
Gravity always works: what goes up must come down. The same is true of spiritual laws. Here are two that hold true:
- No path of disobedience is ever blessed and
- God will intervene in special ways to insure the accomplishment of God’s will.
The captain roused Jonah from his slumbers, aghast that he would sleep instead of pray for his life. Every other person on board had run to their god to plead for mercy and protection. Then it was discovered, through a series of casting lots, that Jonah was the reason for the supernatural fierceness of the storm.
Who are you?! They asked him, in horrified fascination, as a tumble of questions came spilling out of the ship’s crew.
Tell us why this calamity has come upon us?
What is your occupation?
Where do you come from?
What is your country?
And of what people are you?
Jonah’s frank confession showed surprising transparency. “I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” It seems Jonah then grew ashamed, as he watched the seasoned sailors all around him draw back in even greater alarm.
What is it you have done? They cried out in dread.
For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so.Jonah 1:10 (NRSV)
In the narrative, the storm was raging all around them, their ship was heaving and yawing over every giant swell, the danger of cracking up and capsizing was very real. They would not survive, if that happened. Desperate to do anything necessary, the sailors begged the prophet to instruct them with whatever the God of heaven would have them do.
It must have cut Jonah to the quick, to see these rough sailors, completely ignorant of YHWH, yet utterly trusting in God’s sovereignty, power, and judgment. Their faith convicted him, making him painfully, acutely, conscious of his own rebellion.
The only thing to be done, he told them, is to pick me up and throw me into the sea.
It seems like true repentance, does it not?
But the truth is, Jonah apparently would rather have died than turn back and sail for Joppa to begin his journey to Nineveh.
He was a prophet. He knew the truth, God was not asking Jonah to give his life to the sea in death. God was asking him to give his compassion to the enemies of his people.
And Jonah would not have it.
Yet through all this turmoil and cosmic conflict, God inspired belief and worship in the hearts of the sailors! They pleaded with God for God’s protection, for forgiveness in throwing Jonah into the sea, they feared the Lord and made both sacrifices and vows to the God of heaven.
The same storm that brought such distress to everyone on board was the very vehicle to their salvation.
[Storm at Sea | Rembrandt / Public domain]