Jonah – the word came

This is the word of the LORD that came to Jonah, son of Amittai (Jonah 1:1)

Such is the traditional opening of God reaching out to communicate the divine will to a prophet. The 1st century hearers would have been attuned to the opening and then jolted by the verse’s end: Jonah son of Amittai. Nationalistic feelings ran deep in their memory. This name brought to mind the prophet of the Northern Kingdom, which had seceded from Judah and Davidic rule after the reign of Solomon. Unlike the prophets Amos and Hosea, Jonah did not rage against the sins and misdeed to tribes to the north and their rebel kings. Rather he prophesized the expansion of the rebel kingdom’s frontiers under King Jeroboam II, the thirteenth king of the north (mid-8th century BCE):

23 In the fifteenth year of Amaziah, son of Joash, king of Judah, Jeroboam, son of Joash, king of Israel, began his forty-one-year reign in Samaria. 24 He did evil in the sight of the LORD; he did not desist from any of the sins which Jeroboam, son of Nebat, had caused Israel to commit. 25 He restored the boundaries of Israel from Labo-of-Hamath to the sea of the Arabah, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had prophesied through his servant, the prophet Jonah, son of Amittai, from Gath-hepher. (2 Kings 14:23-25)

The northern tribes revolted against the Throne of David about 930 BCE. Initially their lands were expansive as shown. But under pressure from the Assyrian Empire their territory shrunk considerably – no doubt while the south silently smiled at their misfortunes. But under the reign of Jerobaom II, while Assyrian was weakened, the Northern Kingdom reacquired its former territory. It was this expansion to which Jonah prophesized.

The mention of the name “Jonah, son of Amittai” cast a tone of resentment over the story at its beginning. Perhaps an American equivalent would be the mention of the name “Benedict Arnold.”

That is how 1st century people would have heard the opening verse. But what about us? Likely we heard the classic phrasing for the beginning of the prophecy and the name of the prophet, but nothing like the reaction of the original hearers. But there are still gems of understanding awaiting us.

A literal translation of “Jonah, son of Amittai” could also be translated “dove, son of true” or “dove, son of faithfulness.” There are many places in the OT where “dove” symbolically stands for the people of the covenant, the sons and daughters of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the one brought out of slavery in Egypt by Moses to the promised land of Palestine. There in the opening verse, the author indicates that he is telling us an account of an individual, Jonah, who represents the people of Israel. With this the author has a literary means upon which to comment upon the spiritual condition of the covenant people.

Perhaps encouraging, yes? The people of the covenant are considered “true” and “faithful.” But that is put into immediate tension with the historical character who was not faithful to the throne of David. As well, when one has read the entire Book of Job, it will be very hard to see Jonah as faithful to anyone or anything but himself.

And that may well be the point of the story: commentary upon the spiritual condition of the covenant people, “dove,” represented by the main character: not faithful to the covenant, to God, or to their mission of being a light to the world:

It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)

Set out for the great city of Nineveh and preach against it; their wickedness has come up before me. (Jonah 1:2)

Simple and to the point. This is the prophetic commission, Jonah’s marching orders. Put on your walking shoes and go from your family home, Gath-hepher, to “the great city of Nineveh and preach against it.” Witness to the people by preaching against their well-known evil, malice and wickedness. Be like the prophet Zephaniah and proclaim: The Lord “will stretch out his hand against the north, to destroy Assyria; He will make Nineveh a waste, dry as the desert.” (Zeph 2:13)

There is an immediate tension established for the hearers. While not happy about to whom the prophetic mission came, at least it was to preach against Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire. As mentioned in an earlier post: “The Assyrians created the blueprint for no-compromise, take-no-prisoners empire building.” This was the nation whose military exploits included the effective elimination of the 10 northern tribes of the covenant people in 722 BCE – and then turned their attention to Judah and Jerusalem. While Jerusalem was spared, more than 46 towns and villages of Judah were destroyed. The Assyrian King Sennacherib declared that he was greater than the great “I am.”

The wickedness of Assyria and Nineveh was noted by the Greek writers Herodotus and Aristotle who cataloged their sinfulness, depravity and cruelty. Their source was not rumor, the Assyrians were quite proud of themselves and depicted it all in art. Writing about a 2018 exhibit at the British Museum, Jonathan Jones, describes the reliefs on display:

“Their artistic propaganda relishes every detail of torture, massacre, battlefield executions and human displacement that made Assyria the dominant power of the Middle East from about 900 to 612BC. Assyrian art contains some of the most appalling images ever created. In one scene, tongues are being ripped from the mouths of prisoners. That will mute their screams when, in the next stage of their torture, they are flayed alive. In another relief a surrendering general is about to be beheaded and in a third prisoners have to grind their fathers’ bones before being executed in the streets of Nineveh.”

As Jones notes: “the Holocaust was perpetrated by characterless paper-pushers, not flamboyant sadists, so we find here that Assyrian atrocities – including the forced resettlement of thousands of Israelites – were not the product of random mayhem but diligent organisation.”

Such was the wickedness of Nineveh, another Sodom, an unholy haunt of wickedness meriting destruction. Perhaps the hearers would be reminded of the Prophet Nahum’s last words about Nineveh’s downfall in 612 B.C.

There is no healing for your hurt, your wound is mortal. All who hear this news of you clap their hands over you; For who has not been overwhelmed, steadily, by your malice? steadily, by your malice? (Nahum 3:19)

While the hearers might not have been happy with the selection of Jonah, at least he would be the agent of Nineveh’s destruction just as the two angels who visited Sodom as agents of divine destruction (Gen. 19:1, 13). Nineveh would “get what’s coming to them.” The gā·ḏôl city (huge, vast, great city) home to the despoiler of nations, the murderers of innocents would be no more. If Jonah will carry out his mission, at least Nineveh, the city that connotes all that is an intolerable affront to God, will be no more.

This is all in accord with the best prophetic tradition. Yahweh is represented as the Lord of the nations, to whom the whole world is held morally accountable. If Nineveh is great, God is greater, for he speaks from heaven above. Their evil cannot stand.

God just needs Jonah to put on “his walking shoes” and preach against “the great city of Nineveh.” Surely, the son of faithfulness will do just that. “But Jonah made ready to flee to Tarshish, away from the LORD…” (Jonah 1:3)

Go figure.

The book of Jonah begins with a profound study of disobedience. It is a commentary on how Jonah as a person disobeys the call of God, while at the same time it is a commentary on how the covenant people are disobedient to their mission: “I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6). But what about us?

Pause at this point and ponder what’s your view about God and obedience. While it is easy to scoff at Jonah as he makes ready to run away, at one level the author is asking us to put ourselves in Jonah’s place. Maybe God never asks us to go to another Nineveh, but are there times in your life that God has called you to take up something you really do not want to do? Think about this: you are a busy person with responsibilities and an already over-committed calendar. You come to know about a food kitchen, a homeless shelter, a ministry at church – some volunteer program that strikes a chord in your heart. You think, I should help that program…I can volunteer time.”

This is a way in which God calls us; a simple way the “word of God came to…” To be fair, what I have described is better seen as a call to discernment, but I think you get the point.

But when you look throughout the Bible, this is how God works. The call to the prophet is not a scene where the actuals skies open up, lightning strikes all around (just to make sure God has your attention), and daylight around you turns to dusk and then the ominous voice from heaven speaks. The word of God comes to the prophet. The whisper of God speaks in your ear. It can be a quiet moment, a passing thought, a call to discernment – an invitation from God to be part of His plan. This is how God works in the Bible.

What if your discernment so touched your heart, you felt deeply called to commit to the program? But there is no room in your already overloaded calendar. To do this something is going to have to come off your calendar, your plan of life will have to change. You will have to step into this larger, riskier plan of life.

Jonah has a vision of what his life, his career is about. God calls and he is not interested. Jonah and God have competing visions of what life his is. You and God have different visions of what constitutes good and true life. Then Jesus enters the picture and says, “follow me into this competing vision of life.” You are at the point where, like Jonah, you are going to choose a next step.

And maybe our life is pretty good. We are part of a vibrant church community, our prayer life seems OK, and then comes that whisper, that call from God, a call to change and be part of His plan, even when and especially when, we really have no idea of what the plan entails. How do we respond? “Ahh… thanks, but I am in a good place, I have this all balanced and under control”

Jonah is a religious person. As you read the Book of Jonah it is clear that he is versed in Scripture and understands that he is being called. But his vision of his life is being challenged and he is running away. Sadly, he thinks he is running for his life and the tragedy is that he is running from Life. He has a chance to participate in the amazing movement of God’s grace in the world when there is the possibility of the world changing in the most dramatic way. But he wants his vision of life and not God’s.

God wants Jonah to participate in an amazing moment of life.  God only wants the good for Jonah and all Jonah has to do is “obey.” Not the blind robotic following of “obey” but the hopeful following of the One who only wants for us the good. Will our discernment lead to obedience? …or disobedience?

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