Jonah – heading westward

“But Jonah made ready to flee to Tarshish, away from the LORD. He went down to Joppa, found a ship going to Tarshish, paid the fare, and went down in it to go with them to Tarshish, away from the LORD.” (Jonah 1:3) So much for the son of faithfulness (Amittai).

Why run away? The wickedness of Nineveh. Would you want to go? Fear seems like a healthy reaction to avoid this mission. But there is more to it. For this we have to peek ahead to Chapter 4 (spoiler alert!). At the end of Chapter 3 the king and the entire city of Nineveh has heard Jonah preach against it and repented. “When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out.” (Jonah 3:10)

Turn the page to Jonah 4:1, he is angry: “But this greatly displeased Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said while I was still in my own country? This is why I fled at first toward Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, repenting of punishment.”

Jonah might be scared, who wouldn’t be, but he knows God. He knows there is the possibility that the God of all nations might relent. And Jonah doesn’t want Nineveh to experience God’s grace and mercy. He wants them to experience His wrath, fire and brimstone so that like Sodom, they are no more.

This thought did not occur after the fact: “is this not what I said while I was still in my own country” – his attitude was there from the beginning. And Jonah made a choice to “flee to Tarshish, away from the Lord”, away from his mission.

Why Tarshish? Take a look at the map. A picture is worth a thousand words.

As mentioned in a previous post, Tarshish was the end of the known world. It was as far as away as he could get from his mission, from God, from the call to faithfulness. But recall, that the author has cast Jonah to represent the covenant people. In the construct of this account, the author is holding up a mirror to the people of Israel saying, “this is you!”

It is too little, [the Lord] 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)

It is as though God is saying to the covenant people: “And you have run away from your mission. You are not the light to the nations. You are inhibiting salvation reaching all people; you are sabotaging the divine plan. And it all started with you thinking that you know better than God. That thought became a choice, a decision to turn away from the mission. To turn away from your God.”

And we should all recall that we too are the covenant people. The same mirror is held up for us to see. Jonah’s choice is epic for all to see, but it was not the first choice he likely made that set him on this path. There were likely lots of small decisions. This was just the most notable and visible. It raises the question of what concatenation of choices is already in play in our lives? In what direction are we headed? Maybe we are not running; perhaps it is just a slow walk, but nonetheless away from God.

The author places this chain of events before us, this descent into the consequences of our choices. “He went down to Joppa, found a ship going to Tarshish, paid the fare, and went down in it to go with them to Tarshish, away from the LORD.” And this will not be the only time that Jonah is depicted going “down.” Each step, each choice along the way adds to the slow descent into darkness, away from the mission to be a light to the nations.

There are children’s books that show Jonah hiding, stowing away in a basket on board the ship. It seems to be a way to show fear as a primary motivator for Jonah’s action, but that’s not the biblical account. Jonah paid the fare, boarded, and set out the other direction.

I wonder if he considers the moral consequences of what he likely believes is just a personal choice. His personal choice leaves in place the wrecking ball of evil that is Assyria and Nineveh. He could choose to fulfill his mission and either (a) they are destroyed or (b) they repent. Either way the “wrecking ball” is out of action. But he is too self-centered, selfish to potentially sacrifice himself for the others, for the mission. It is when people say Jonah represents a type of Christ as he is waits in the belly of the whale, I have to just shake my head. Jonah is, in a way, an anti-Christ; not the One who willingly gave up his life, that we all might live. Just the opposite. He chooses his life.

Jonah choice is personal, but the consequences are communal. There is no morally wrong choice that has no other victims. What happens in Vegas never stays in Vegas, it always eventually makes it way home.

Jonah’s choice will have dire consequences for others. Our choices have consequences for others. This is also part of the amazing narrative of Jonah that the author wants us to understand.

Jonah chooses to do the exact opposite of what he is told; it is a defiant “no.” Tarshish it is at the other end of the world from Nineveh. It was beyond the borders of the known lands; one of those far-off places where Yahweh had not revealed himself, “which have not heard my fame or seen my glory” (Isa. 66:19). As such, it is an ideal destination in the escape plan Jonah devises. He wants to put as much distance as possible between himself and God.

Jonah and his kinsmen were not seafarers. They traditionally left that to the Phoenicians. Jonah and his people were landsmen with little experience of the sea. That Jonah was prepared to entrust himself to an ocean-going boat rather than face up to God’s call must have struck the hearers as proof positive of his mad determination and defiance. But in his planning, he has forgotten the word of the psalm:

Where can I go from your spirit? From your presence, where can I flee? If I ascend to the heavens, you are there; if I lie down in Sheol, there you are. If I take the wings of dawn and dwell beyond the sea, even there your hand guides me, your right hand holds me fast. (Psalm 139:7-10)

There is no running away from God or God’s Word:

Yet just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats,

so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth. It shall not return to me empty, but shall do what pleases me, achieving the end for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10-11)

So, good luck to Jonah and his plan.

1 thought on “Jonah – heading westward

  1. “I wonder if he considers the moral consequences of what he likely believes is just a personal choice.” This is a powerful point to consider.

    There are no victimless crimes; as Jesus said, “Everything that is hidden will be shown, and everything that is secret will be made known.”

    We belong to each other and to God, not just ourselves. As John Donne said,
    “Every man is a piece of the continent,
    A part of the main.”

    There is no “choice” that affects only the self. Our choices echo through lives and generations we cannot imagine.

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