Jonah: on the beach

The American poet and Presbyterian minister, Thomas John Carlisle, wrote a short collection of poems in a volume, “You, Jonah” – a poetic commentary on each chapter of the Book of Jonah. Here is one of his poems, rather summarizing the book to this point:

“I know a better way to circumvent your silly streak of mixing love with righteous judgment,
All I need to do is take the next flight west beyond Your jurisdiction.
This will give you time for sober, second thoughts to swear off this kick of simpleminded kindness. Inside the monster I was as low as I could get when I remembered God,
odd, that my distress impressed me with His apparent absence
when his premised daily presence hadn’t meant a blessed thing.
Finding myself in that hole with my soul fainting and rolling with the swell of my swollen ego.
It was a good enough to kill me.
Good.
Instead, I saw stars in the dark and started home on a welcome water spout.”

When last seen, Jonah had finished his “exile” in the belly of the great fish. The majority of the previous chapter is Jonah’s psalm of thanksgiving of being rescued from the depths of his choices, hovering at the gates of the netherworld. His plea for mercy and forgiveness is heard and “Then the LORD commanded the fish to spew Jonah upon the shore.” (Jonah 2:11) On a linguistic note, “spew” could have been translated as “vomit,” a rather more graphic description of Jonah’s deposit on the beach.

Pause for a moment and consider the arc of the story: Jonah has been brought back to his point of origin—in place but not in experience. He is now a new man, a new creature like the one who has passed through water of baptism. Jonah had run away from God, met God at the depths of his life, turned to Him in obedience (What I have vowed I will pay – 2:10) and is now well described by St. Paul “as men once dead and now alive” (Rom. 6:13). Jonah has been given a second chance. In its own way it parallels the life of St. Peter whose forgiveness for denying Jesus was sealed by the repetition of his initial summons “Follow me,” (John 21:19) Jonah is called again to be the divine messenger to Nineveh.

The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: ‘Set out for the great city of Nineveh and announce to it the message that I will tell you.’” (Jonah 3:1-2)

The third chapter of Jonah is quite short – only 10 verses. Here are the highlights: Jonah goes to Nineveh, he announced their destruction, the people believed and repented, and God relented of the punishment due the city and its king. But there is a lot going on in 10 verses.

Johan sets out to Nineveh, a journey of as much as 900 miles assuming he was ‘beached’ near Joppa. Walk or ride, Jonah has lots of time to think about everything. In the last post I mused about the nature of Jonah’s commitment to God’s plan. Sure, he has been rescued, but it is not clear, one way or the other, if his attitude towards Nineveh has changed. It is still to be seen how prodigal is this child of God is. As I mentioned previously, there is an old expression, “your attitude determines your altitude.” It is one thing to accept the gift of rescue and salvation, but will there be a significant change in attitude that will allow the full height of altitude to be reached?

3 So Jonah made ready and went to Nineveh, according to the LORD’S bidding. Now Nineveh was an enormously large city; it took three days to go through it.

900 miles in half a verse…moving the story along. The phrase “according to the LORD’S bidding” traces an arc between the original proclamation of the word and its positive implementation. It stresses that the divine will finds fulfillment. Jonah is now as compliant as those other servants of this narrative: the wind, the sea, and the great fish.

The number “3” reappears as we learn, “Now Nineveh was an enormously large city; it took three days to go through it.” (3:3b) Is it meant to be a parallel to three days in the belly of the great fish? Perhaps it is simply a reflection of the way 1st century folks counted days: day 1 = arrival, 2=mission, 3=departure? Or maybe just a way to say the city was really big?

The description of Nineveh as an “enormously large city” again exemplifies a key technique in the book: exaggeration. “Great” or “large” is one of this author’s favorite words; it occurs fourteen times in the book. Nineveh is a “great” city (1:2; 3:2; 3:3; 4:11). Yahweh sends a “great” wind upon the sea, and the tempest that results is “great” (1:4, 12). The sailors fear with a “great” fear (1:10, 16). After the sailors throw Jonah into the sea, Yahweh sends a “great” fish to swallow him (2:1). The repentance of the people of Nineveh extends from the “great” to the small (3:5), and it is proclaimed throughout Nineveh by decree of the king and his nobles (his “great” ones, 3:7). When God shows mercy toward Nineveh, Jonah’s displeasure is “great” (4:1), but his delight in the gourd plant is also “great” (4:6).

The expression for “enormously large city” is gā·ḏôlah lō·hîm.  One might notice that the second word shares the same root that gives us Elohim, one of the names for God. While the first word means “great” the word that follows lets us know it was “enormous, huge, massive” – and some scholars opine, the meaning of the expression is that Nineveh is “great to God.” Given that we are but grasshoppers in God’s majestic view (Is 40:22), the author is making the point that this is a really large city – not “super-sized” but “God-sized.” So, how big was Nineveh?

In the first century BCE Diodorus Siculus relates with awe the information received from the fourth-century Ctesias that Nineveh’s longer pair of walls were 150 stades (~600 feet per stade) and the shorter two were 90, a total perimeter of 480 stades, about 55 miles. Of course, by then Nineveh had been abandoned and destroyed for 4 centuries. How big was Nineveh in reality? Archeological studies have uncovered an urban footprint of 1,730 acres (75,358,800 sq.ft.). The perimeter’s length depends on the shape of the wall, but if the footprint was in a square shape, then we have 8,680 ft. on a side which means a 34,720-foot perimeter or about 6.6 miles – a number easily within a day’s casual hike if circumnavigating the city. But imagine going through the 1,730-acre city!

But, as fate would have it, “Jonah began his journey through the city, and had gone but a single day’s walk announcing, ‘Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed.’” (Jonah 3:4) In following verses we will come to learn that his minimalist proclamation was received and spread through the city like wildfire. Scripture itself simply states the fact of it all and offers no clearly stated, specific causality. But folks like to speculate. Several of the more interesting thoughts are:

  • According to many Bible commentators, one of the most prominent gods of Nineveh at the time was Dagon, the fish god. When Nineveh was rediscovered and excavated in the mid-1800s, images of Dagon were found in palaces and temples. If anyone asked Jonah how he came to be in Nineveh, the story of being vomited by the great fish, would have likely fueled speculation that Jonah was sent from Dagon.
  • An associated idea is that Jonah appeared, strangely bleached by the great fish’s stomach acid. Imagine the ghostly figure walking through the streets proclaiming destruction is at hand. Beyond the inevitable, “what happened to you?” the prophet suddenly appearing in the middle of town giving testimony was terrible and terribly effective.
  • If Jonah answered the “what happened to you” query and relayed being swallowed alive by a great fish and then commissioned to preach to Nineveh – again, rather compelling testimony. The parallel would be (a) I, Jonah sinned, (b) faced imminent judgment and death at the hand of the God of Israel, (c) but called out in repentance and was saved – (a1) I, the prophet, am here because you’ve sinned, (b1) you face imminent judgment and death, and so (c1) the recommended choice is repentance so that you are saved.

Interesting possibilities but consider the proclamation: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed.”  Eight words in English; only five in Hebrew. Short sweet and to the point. Delivered with passion? With a 21st-century teenager “whatever” attitude? Intended to change hearts and minds? Intended to be so unenthusiastic that destruction of Nineveh is inevitable? Did he say more?

I think it is important to return to the idea of Jonah as the run-away prophet, now saved, but is he committed to the mission? At the beginning of the story, Jonah may want no part of Nineveh or its king, but more than that, he does not want God to forgive. He wants diving retribution upon them for all the evil they had done. I would suggest that he accepts rescue from God, but in no way wants that same grace extended to the Ninevites. I think it possible, perhaps likely, that Jonah is engaging in a little prophetic sabotage. He does the minimum, hoping they will ignore him, not repent, and thus not find forgiveness or grace. Besides the world would be a better place without the Ninevites. This hypothesis is consistent with the trajectory of Jonah’s behavior before the great fish, and, as we will see in Jonah 4, consistent with the behavior there.

Abraham interceded for Sodom
but Jonah couldn’t have cared less
if Nineveh had harbored one
relatively innocent inhabitant
or even one hundred and twenty.
They all looked alike to him—
seeing he hadn’t tried to see them.
But God’s vision is better than twenty-twenty. (Thomas John Carlisle)

But then, the vision and the power of the words of the prophet were never about the prophet.

Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed.” 

The word “destroyed” hā·p̄ǎḵ means to overthrow (most often), change, turn, or disturb. It is the word used to describe the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:25; Lam. 4:6; Amos 4:11). But one wonders if there is an intentional word play at hand. Sometimes the verb hā·p̄ǎḵ means to “overturn.” (2 Kgs 21:13, ‘to overturn a plate’). However, it can also mean ‘to turn around’, ‘transform’ (1 Kgs 22:34, ‘to turn around a chariot’; Jer. 13:23, ‘to transform one’s appearance’). With these different connotations the use of the word here is hardly accidental. Although Nineveh was not overturned, it did experience a turn around. Perhaps overthinking the use of the word, but it is interesting that the very proclamation offers the two choices: “destruction” or “turn around, transform” and repent.

What was the reaction of the Ninevites to Jonah’s proclamation? Next time.

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