Commentary on Jonah 1:1-17; 3:1-10; [4:1-11]
God calls a man named Jonah. The man disobeys and flees, but God providentially brings Jonah back to the original call to which he finally obeys.1
The book of Jonah is one of those unique Old Testament stories that easily transfers to children’s Sunday School. This has resulted in a cottage industry of Jonah-themed Bible materials for children, whether flannel board materials, coloring books and, of course, the creation of the first VeggieTales movie, which grossed $25 million in box office sales. Well, Jonah’s about to get more of a PG-13/R story with five things you probably didn’t know about the book of Jonah.
- Nineveh was proud of killing Judeans (Jonah 1:2).
If you visit the British Museum, you can see spectacular wall reliefs depicting Assyrian sieges. The famous siege of Lachish shows multiple images of Judeans being impaled, and stacks of Judeans heads (yes, disembodied heads) that were counted by Assyrian scribes, presumably for a pay per head policy with the soldiers. Archaeologists discovered this relief in Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh (you can read about them more about Sennacherib in 2 Kings 18-21).
- Joppa = Jaffa = south side of Tel Aviv (Jonah 1:3)
Those beautiful beaches of Tel Aviv contain the site of Joppa/Jaffa. In light of the above point, Jonah’s decision to flee to Joppa was actually quite sound. The city lies in the port city of Tel Aviv and for the last decade the subject of archaeological excavations by University of California – Los Angeles and the Israel Antiquities Authority. Jonah went straight to Joppa because it was a gateway to the west — the natural way to get as far away from Nineveh as possible.
- Sailors were massively superstitious and with good reason (Jonah 1:6-16)
Sailing was a precarious profession. Before modern nautical science, sailors knew about waves, currents and severe weather, but attributed these forces to the deities. The reaction of the sailors to the storm was naturally attributed to the disfavor of the Lord, so they desperately tried to divine appeasement through the sacrifice of Jonah.
- “I am a Hebrew” (Jonah 1:9)
Jonah identifies himself with an ethnic marker. The use of designating an individual as a “Hebrew” is quite rare in the Old Testament, and first used with Abraham (Genesis 14:13) and then with Joseph (Genesis 39:14, 17; 41:12), both of whom were similarly called to a long journey. The designation is significant in considering God’s call to send a Hebrew to the Ninevites.
- Jonah is not about a fish/whale (Jonah 1:17; 2:10)
The book of Jonah mentions “fish” for a total of two times. “God” is used 14 times; “LORD” is used 21 times. Even “sackcloth” is mentioned three times. We may want to rethink all those fish-themed Jonah study guides!
The primary narrative arc, as interesting as it may be, often cloud our readings of the text. We tend to teach the book as putting ourselves in the position of Jonah. We reflect on how we respond to God’s calling. The opening challenges us to our own actions when God gives us specific commands. Similarly, the ending also prompts us to think through the rhetorical question about the love of God. This is certainly a valid reading.
But it is not the only reading. Preaching a text compels us to the personal application, but we I want to post a much more neglected question with Jonah. Specifically, what does the book of Jonah teach us about God?
First, God calls us to surprising, even ridiculous things. In viewing the Siege of Lachish for the first time, I thought, “I don’t blame Jonah.” In fact, I don’t think Jonah’s response to the call to Ninevah is surprising at all. Even without the reliefs, you can consider 2 Kings 18:26-27 as a clue over the nature of the people of Nineveh. Jonah certainly had a right to be confused over such a command.
Second, God journeys with us, even in our stubborn rebellion. Jonah 3 shows a second opportunity as “The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time” (Jonah 3:1). Upon hearing God’s command (Jonah 3:2), this time Jonah obeys with alacrity (Jonah 3:3). The difference between Jonah’s first and second responses is in stark contrast with the experience of Jonah 2 in between those episodes. If we see God’s compassion to Nineveh as surprising, perhaps we should view his second chance to Jonah as equally surprising.
Finally, God’s love is extraordinary. God proves to act in compassion and longsuffering to both the othered (Nineveh) and the Hebrew (Jonah). Stepping back, it is clear that Jonah 1 and 3 reverse the opposition between the Hebrew and the Assyrians. With both peoples, there is redemption. God’s offering to both Jonah and the Assyrians is eventually met with an appropriate response. With Jonah, he is decisively obedient to God and boldly obeys in the city of his enemy. With Nineveh, the people obey with deep repentance. The book of Jonah suggests that Hebrews and Assyrians might have more in common than perceived. More than the worldly antagonism, both are created in the image of God, and have a rightful longing of fellowship with the Creator.
Unquestionably, passages like the Psalms demonstrates that God welcomes our probing questions, problems, and cries. But alongside the Psalms, the book of Jonah reminds us that God’s knowledge is beyond us and his acts of love are extensive beyond our imaginations. Hopefully, the church can find a way to emulate such acts of love.
- Commentary first published on this site on Nov. 6, 2016.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of the seas, sky, and land,
When Jonah turned to run from you, you showed him that nothing and no one could hide from your presence. You are in all things, and you love all things. Show us the gift of your presence, and help us to carry your word of compassion and grace to all the world, in the name of the one who carried out your love flawlessly, Jesus Christ our redeemer. Amen.
Down in the river to pray, arr. J. David Moore