Jonah: The Survivor Series. Presented by Reed Lessing M.Div., S.T.M., Ph.D. firstname.lastname@example.org Associate Professor of Exegetical Theology Director of the Graduate School Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO. Goals. Refuel Renewal Resources Adult Bible Study
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Jonah: The Survivor Series
Reed Lessing M.Div., S.T.M., Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Exegetical Theology
Director of the Graduate School
Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO
Jonah doesn’t seem to have a lot in common with any book in the Old Testament. Fretheim writes of Jonah: “It has no exact counterpart in the Old Testament or in known literature from the ancient Near East.” The book is as elusive as it is deceptive. Augustine’s response to an inquiry made by a potential Christian convert perhaps gets at this best. “What he asks about the resurrection of the dead could be settled. But if he thinks to solve all such questions as those about Jonah he little knows the limitations of human life or of his own.”
Father Mapple in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick states: “Even though Jonah is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures, the book is one of the most puzzling and intriguing of the entire Old Testament.” Though there are only 689 words in the Hebrew text of Jonah, numerous complexities abound. Did the sailors really convert? And speaking of conversion, did the Ninevites really convert? And speaking of the Ninevites did their animals really repent? And speaking of animals, what’s this deal about a fish – could such an animal really swallow Jonah? And speaking about Jonah well, you get the idea! In this puzzling and intriguing book we will journey with Jonah and meet a huge storm on the Mediterranean Sea, a hot east wind over distant lands, take a tour of Sheol, discover the insides of a great fish and watch a plant come and go in a day. Most surprising we will meet a God who has more love and grace and patience than we could ever imagine in his pursuit of reluctant and stubborn people like us.
Although on the surface the book of Jonah appears to be simple and straightforward, underlying it is a complex use of language. Brichto comments on the literary genius of the book: “The Book of Jonah is from beginning to end, in form and content, in diction, phraseology and style a masterpiece of rhetoric. It is the work of a single artist, free from editorial comment or gloss; every word is in place, and every sentence.”
The book of Jonah is a model of literary artistry, marked by symmetry and balance. It is an ornate tapestry of rhetorical beauty. The symmetry of the book produces rhythm, contrast, emphasis and continuity. It is an exquisitely designed story that discloses a profound theology, but it communicates in very subtle ways.
Old Testament narratives are generally reticent to make their points directly, preferring to do so more subtly. To this end, they employ a wide array of more indirect means in developing the narrative’s characterizations and in focusing reader attention on those aspects of the narrative that contain its persuasive power. Mention of physical details, for instance, is seldom if ever random. If we read that Esau is hairy (Gen. 25:25), Ehud left-handed (Jud. 3:15), Eglon fat (Jud. 3:17) and Eli portly and dim-sighted (1 Sam. 3:18), we should anticipate that such details in some way serve the characterization or the action of the narrative.
This involves, then, close attention to the subtle details and one detail that we dare not miss in Jonah is the use of repetitions. Words and word stems (i.e. Leitworte), motifs, similar situations (sometimes called “type-scenes” or “stock situations”), and the like are used by the author of Jonah in a masterful way and “for those who have eyes to see” the book maximizes all of these classical features of Hebrew narrative.
Commenting on Jonah’s popularity in early Christian art Graydon Snyder observes, “There can be no doubt that the primary artistic representation of early Christianity was the Jonah cycle.” Of all known pre-Constantinian Christian frescoes, mosaics, sarcophagi and sarcophagi fragments, Jonah at rest appears 42 times, Jonah cast into the sea 38 times and Jonah vomited from the fish 28 times. By way of contrast, the next most frequent figure is that of Noah, who appears in eight instances. The most frequent New Testament scene is the baptism of Jesus with six occurrences. Jonah is far and away the most popular biblical narrative before and even some years after Constantine. For example, when Jerome changed the Latin translation of Jonah 4:6 from the traditional “gourd plant” (curcurbita) to “ivy plant” (hedera), near riots broke out in North Africa. Jerome complained that he was accused of sacrilege in Rome.
Main Themes in Jonah
Satire focuses attention on abuses and deformities in society of which, blunted by habit, we are no longer aware; it makes us suddenly discover the absurdity of the familiar. The principle means of being satirical is irony. By using irony, which is the most sophisticated linguistic device for imparting double entendre and even paradoxical meaning to ordinary words, the satirist stimulates the audience to share his or her sharp criticism.
It is easy to call a rogue a villain, but it is difficult to make a person appear a fool, a blockhead, or a knave without using any of these negative terms. Though subtle, satire is pointed and powerful. It has the following general characteristics:
1. It has a definite target
2. It is characterized by indirect attack. The charge comes from
the flanks rather than head-on
3. It attacks inferior excesses; hypocrisy is one classic and
4. It is usually external in viewpoint. That is, the actions of the
character being satirized are emphasized rather than his or
her inner thoughts
Irony is the chief means by which satire is communicated. In the most basic sense, irony is a figure of speech in which (1) the intended meaning is the opposite of that which is stated, e.g., referring to a jalopy as a priceless car, or (2) an event or statement occurs or is used in a way that is just the opposite of what would be expected, e.g. a pastor has nothing to say in a sermon. The basis of irony is a perception of incongruity and it is normally used in literature as a vehicle for criticism.
Most commentators on Jonah either ignore the irony of the book or mention it in a tone of apology, apparently assuming that anything in the Bible must have been meant to be read with earnest solemnity. But this kind of irony is even evident in some of the teachings of Jesus; e.g., when he spoke of covering a lamp after lighting it (Matt. 5:15), or carefully straining a gnat out of one’s beverage and calmly swallowing a whole camel (Matt. 23:24), or of a camel vainly trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle (Matt. 19:24). The book of Jonah is full of exactly this kind of irony. There is a name for this type of literature – satire. Luther comments on the use of satire and irony in Jonah when he reflects on the faith of the Ninevites in comparison the faith of Jonah and writes, “God’s Word bears fruit mainly where this is least expected and, conversely, produces least where most is expected.”
The first group of ironies relates to what one would expect of an Israelite prophet.
Another set of ironic points relates to the incongruities in Jonah’s actions in their relationship to each other, as well as in relationship to the results we would expect from his actions.
Garry Wills’ Pulitzer-Prize winning study on Abraham Lincoln’s most famous speech indicates the power of 272 words to bring about change; it is entitled Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America. Wills’ thesis is that Lincoln reframed how Americans ever since 1863 have construed their nation’s history and that he did this through a brilliant and polished speech that successfully and irrevocably reframed our history. Wills writes: “Both North and South strove to win the battle for interpreting Gettysburg as soon as the physical battle had ended. Lincoln is after even larger game—he means to “win” the whole Civil War in ideological terms as well as military ones. And he will succeed: the Civil War is, to most Americans, what Lincoln wanted it to mean. Words had to complete the work of the guns.”
Lincoln begins reframing American history at the very start of his speech when he declares, “Four score and seven years ago.” By using this seemingly benign, biblical-sounding way of naming a date for America’s beginnings—instead of more baldly stating, “In 1776...” —Lincoln creates a sense that they are looking backward into America’s hallowed origins. By inviting those present to consider their “hallowed past,” Lincoln makes it possible for them to transcend the actual events that have brought them to this cemetery, to step outside of the tragic moment long enough to consider the conception and birth of the United States of America.
So what has been reframed? After all, the United States celebrates the Fourth of July as a national holiday, annually marking its country’s birthday. So, other than being an interesting turn-of-phrase, what is the significance of Lincoln’s opening words? The importance of “Four score and seven” is that Lincoln sneaks in a different date for the origin of the American nation than the one in use by the people of his day, which was that of the Ratification of the Constitution. It is not so much that the country had ever been in the habit of celebrating “Constitution-Signing Day”, but that many if not most Americans in the mid-nineteenth century regarded the Constitution as the founding covenant of the United States, and as a result regarded the nation as being bound together by a signed compact between sovereign states.
The difference between, on the one hand, seeing the origins of the United States as issuing from a contractual agreement among separate parties—an agreement that presumably can be renegotiated and/or dissolved—and, on the other hand, regarding the origin as the creation of “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”—this difference is, so to speak, all the difference in the world. In the latter case, the United States begins its existence as an organic unity—a nation that undergoes a birth—springing from the transcendent state of liberty and christened by the likewise transcendent principle of equality. In this framework, the idea of individual states trying to secede from this one nation becomes akin to the idea of a hand, an ear, or an eye seeking to secede from its body.
Wills goes on: “But that was just the beginning of this complex transformation. Lincoln has prescinded from messy squabbles over constitutionality, sectionalism, property and states. Slavery is not mentioned, any more than Gettysburg is. The discussion is driven back and back, beyond the historical particulars, to great ideals that are made to grapple naked in an airy battle of the mind. Lincoln derives a new, a transcendental, significance from this bloody episode.”
It is astounding how this short speech, lasting perhaps three minutes, could so dramatically, so thoroughly reframe how Americans from that point forward have come to think about their history. Truly, as Wills concludes, “Lincoln had revolutionized the Revolution, giving people a new past to live with that would change their future indefinitely.”
The parallels between Lincoln’s speech and the book of Jonah are worth exploring. Both are short documents, easily covered in a matter of a few minutes. Both utilize their people’s historical traditions in order to paint a picture, not of some new thing being initiated, but of something bigger; of a history that in fact extends further back than they were cognizant of, a story of how things have always been since the beginning. Most importantly, in reframing history, both give people a new past to live with that would change their future indefinitely.
Prior to reading the book of Jonah, our ancient reader was informed by the view of history as put forward by the Pentateuch, a history framed by genealogies and progressive covenants that led the God who created the heavens and the earth ultimately to concern himself with Israel – and Israel alone. This history can be conceived as a series of filters, by which Yahweh begins with all of creation; then, from among those who survive the Flood, he chooses Abraham and his descendants; from among these, he “becomes the God” of and for those Hebrews who come up from slavery in Egypt to take possession of the land of Canaan. In this history, the most important of these covenants becomes the last, for it is the most definitive, the most restrictive, the most specific. By positing the equivalence of the God of Creation with the God that chooses Israel, the Pentateuchal history affirms that Yahweh is not merely a tribal god among others, but is in fact the one and only God, the God who is supreme over all creation, all events, all places, and all times and has selected Israel as His own.
The Pentateuch tells us that the God of all creation, the God of Noah becomes the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Israel at Mt. Sinai. Yet here, in the book of Jonah—for the first time— we are offered this assertion in its reverse form: the God of the Hebrews, the God of Israel—has always been the God of Noah, the God of all creation!
That is to say, the origin for Israel’s history is found not with the covenant at Sinai, nor even in the covenant with Abraham. The first covenant is the one made with Noah, with all subsequent humanity – plus many animals besides – and animals will play a big part in the book of Jonah. Suddenly, the very God who seems to have winnowed out entire peoples and nations and tribes and families in choosing Israel is presented as the God who has always and all along been the compassionate, merciful God of Israel, yes! but also of the Edomites, Ishmaelites, Canaanites, Amalakites, in short, the God of everything and everyone, including, of course … the Ninevites!
Entering into the belly of this scant, 48-verse story, we find ourselves spit out with a new history, a story of a people and their God that, like the Ninevites, has been “turned upside-down”! What Lincoln did at Gettysburg, Jonah does for us. In reframing our history he gives us a new past to live with that changes our future indefinitely!
Nowhere in the text of the book of Jonah is this connection with Noah made explicit; it is simply assumed, much the way that Lincoln assumes on behalf of his audience that of course the roots of the United States began eighty‑seven years prior to his speech that day in Gettysburg.
What are these rapids that take us on a ride toward the life and times of Noah? One answer is found in the presence throughout the book of Jonah of what is termed a "Noahic milieu." There are numerous and, it would seem, intentional connections between the stories of Noah and the book of Jonah.
A technique that has garnered a great deal of recent notoriety in the world of popular music is known as "sampling." Sampling involves taking snippets of other artists' songs and weaving them into a new song. The technique is, in fact, nothing new. Consider the lyrics of the well‑known patriotic song, "You're a Grand Old Flag," which "samples" the much‑older song, "Auld Lang Syne":
You're a grand old flag.
You're a high flying flag
And forever in peace may you wave.
You're the emblem of the land I love
The home of the free and the brave.
Ev'ry heart beats true 'neath the Red, White and Blue,
Where there's never a boast or brag.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
Keep your eye on the grand old flag.
Such "samples" act as accents to the song itself as well as bring in the musical and affective associations that the listeners have with those songs being sampled. Sampling is a frequent practice in rap and hip‑hop music; its role is explained by Daddy‑0, of the group Stetsasonic: “We sometimes use the words 'recontextualization' or 'revivification,' but it means the same thing, which is to take something old and make it new again. The strong point of what sampling does for us, as a music form, is to establish some soul groove and some old funk that's lost with today's music.”
All such samplings represent a kind of "musical intertextuality," and, although a newly created song can be enjoyed on its own merits without listener knowledge of any other tunes, samples provide the aware audience with additional, potentially meaningful dimensions to their musical experience. In the case of "You're a Grand Old Flag," the use of "Should auld acquaintance be forgot" brings to a musical affirmation of patriotism the feeling of community, by evoking a song traditionally sung by close friends and family seeing in the New Year together.
Just so, the book of Jonah can be said to "sample" the account of Noah found in the book of Genesis. And, although the book of Jonah can be appreciated without any awareness of these "samples," recognition of the Noahic connections that sprinkle throughout the story takes us to all the nations. What follows is a list of phrases, characters, and images found in the stories of Noah drawn from Genesis 5:28‑10:32 that find resonance within the book of Jonah.
1. One hundred twenty years (Gen 6:3) – this is the length of time allotted to mortal life by Yahweh; it is also how many thousands of people are in Nineveh at the story's end.
2. Yahweh was sorry (Gen 6:6) – literally Yahweh repented (that he had made humankind); relenting/repenting is what the Ninevites bank on and what Jonah is upset with Yahweh for doing in Jonah 3 and 4.
3. “... people together with animals” (Gen 6:7). This phrase occurs throughout the Noah stories; the book of Jonah is remarkable for its very deliberate inclusion of animals along with people, both in how the Ninevites repent and in how God presents his final question to Jonah.
4. Violence (Gen 6:11) – this is the reason given for God's decision to destroy the earth and its inhabitants by means of the Flood; it is also the sin that the Ninevites recognize as their own, and repent of.
5. Evil (Gen. 6:5) is used throughout the book of Jonah and is one of its framing words.
6. The ark (Gen 6:14) is the means that God provides Noah for the
protection of him, his family, and the animals from the impending
flood; there is a connection between the ark and the ship that
Jonah boards, and even more so with the great fish‑which turns
out to be the "vessel" that God provides Jonah to protect him from the overwhelming flood waters.
7. Forty days (and forty nights) (Gen 7:4) – this is the period of time that the rains last, destroying all human and animal life that is not with Noah in the ark; similarly, this is the amount of time from the moment of Jonah's prophecy until Nineveh is to be "turned upside‑down." The association of "forty days" as a period for destruction is a link to these two stories.
8. Flood of waters ... the great deep (Gen 7:6, 11) ... These are two equivalent phrases for the watery torrent that drowns creation in the Genesis story; in the psalmic prayer that Jonah utters (Jonah 2), these same terms are used.
9. The adjective, "great," occurs frequently throughout both texts.
10. The waters ... dry land. (Gen 7:20‑22) ... While it is almost a commonplace in the Old Testament to pair “waters” and “dry land” in the story of Noah, the distinction between the two is utterly crucial (life and death); likewise, in the book of Jonah, the prophet identifies Yahweh as the one who made "the sea and dry land" and, indeed, the distinction between the waters and the dry land onto which the great fish vomits Jonah is critical.
11. And God made a wind blow (Gen 8:1). God is portrayed as actively controlling individual winds for specific purposes (this time, for the purpose of causing the flood waters to subside); in the book of Jonah, God hurls a wind into the sea to create a storm and, later, sends a searing wind from the east that adds to Jonah's misery.
12. Then he sent out the dove ... the dove found no place to set its foot ... it returned to him ... again he sent out the dove from the ark (Gen 8:8‑ 10). Noah uses a dove in the story “to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground”"; the name “Jonah” is Hebrew for “dove.” Moreover, the structure of the book of Jonah involves God sending Jonah out; the prophet does not alight on dry ground (specifically ending up in the waters) in his first journey; and, of course, he is then sent out again.
13. “Offered burnt offerings on the altar” (Gen 8:20). Noah, once on dry land, offers up burnt offerings to God; the mariners, once they are delivered from the great storm, “offer offerings” to Yahweh –
as Jonah pledges to do, once he recognizes that Yahweh has
delivered him “from the Pit.” In all cases, Noah as well as the
mariners and Jonah, their offerings to Yahweh are a thanksgiving
for their deliverance from death‑by‑drowning.
14. “I will require a reckoning for human life. Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person's blood be shed" (Gen 9:5‑6). This is a statute that God puts down for all humanity and the sailors demonstrate an awareness of it when they plead with Yahweh not to kill them as a punishment for throwing Jonah overboard, into the sea.
15. “I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature ... my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh" (Gen 9:8‑17). In this covenant God specifically includes not only humankind but also animals, domestic and wild; this means that the umbrella of this covenant is extended to non‑Israelite humans (the Ninevites) as well as their animals, whose donning of sackcloth and bleating perhaps serve to remind God of this eternal promise.
16. Shem, Ham, and Japheth are the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was peopled. The descendants of Ham include Nimrod who he went into Assyria, and built Nineveh, the great city (Gen 9:18‑19, 10:6‑12). Here it is made explicit that any covenant extending to Noah and to his descendants extends to Assyria, to Nineveh, and to its residents. The book of Jonah takes it as a given that this covenant is operative, and that the Ninevites (and Assyrians), even given their violence, are included in it.
The question is posed by this sampling is exactly the one posed by St. Paul, “Is he only the God of the Jews? Is he not also the God of the Gentiles?” (Rom. 3:29). The Greek of the text demands an emphatic “yes!” And that means our destination is not just Israel, not just the church – no. Our destination is all the world and this means and includes especially Nineveh!
The Chicago Times article entitled “The President at Gettysburg,” printed on November 23, 1863—less than a week after his speech—this presumed journalistic ally to Lincoln and to the Union bristled:
“It was to uphold this constitution, and the Union created by it, that our officers and soldiers gave their lives at Gettysburg. How dare he, then, standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government? They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges.”
The barrenness (hr'_q') of Israel’s three matriarchs Sarah (Gen. 11:30), Rebekah (Gen. 25:31) and Rachel (Gen. 29:31) highlight the fact that Yahweh “chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; he chooses the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chooses the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not” (1 Cor. 1:27-28).
~r'êb.a;-la, ‘hw"hy> rm,aYOÝw: (Genesis 12:1-3)
&'a<)r>a; rv<ïa] #r,a'Þh'-la, ^ybi_a' tyBeämiW ^ßT.d>l;AM)miW ^ïc.r>a;me ^±l.-%l, `~r'êb.a;-la, ‘hw"hy> rm,aYOÝw:
`hk'(r'B. hyEßh.w< ^m<+v. hl'ÞD>g:a]w: ^êk.r,b'äa]w: lAdêG" yAgæl. ‘^f.[,a,(w> 2
`hm'(d'a]h' txoïP.v.mi lKoß ^êb. Wkår>b.nIw> rao=a' ^ßl.L,q;m.W ^yk,êr>b"åm. ‘hk'r]b")a]w: 3
Exodus 9:14-16 – “[This] time I will send the full force of my plagues against you and against your officials and your people, so you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth. For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the earth. But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”
This is already hinted at in Ex. 4:22: “Then say to Pharaoh, 'This is what Yahweh says: Israel is my firstborn son.’” If Israel is Yahweh’s firstborn son, this implicitly means there are more children on the way.
~T,Þr>m;v.W yliêqoB. ‘W[m.v.Ti [;AmÜv'-~ai hT'ª[;w> (Exodus 19:5-6a)
`#r,a'(h'-lK' yliÞ-yKi ~yMiê[;h'ä-lK'mi ‘hL'gUs. yliÛ ~t,yyI“h.wI yti_yrIB.-ta, vAd+q' yAgæw> ~ynIßh]Ko tk,l,îm.m; yli²-Wyh.Ti ~T,óa;w> 6
2 Sam. 7:18-19 states: ”Then King David went in and sat before Yahweh, and he said: ‘Who am I, O Lord Yahweh, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far? And as if this were not enough in your sight, O Lord Yahweh, you have also spoken about the future of the house of your servant. Is this your usual way of dealing with man (~d'Þa'h' tr;îAT), O Lord Yahweh?’”
Indeed, the Davidic covenant, just like the Sinaitic covenant, is based upon the grace-based and missional covenant Yahweh first makes with Abraham. The repeated use of “Adonai Yahweh” plus the words “the charter of humanity” means that with David the plan of Yahweh that begins with Abraham continues with David.
1 Kings 8:41-43: “As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name -- for people will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm -- when he comes and prays toward this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you (‘^t.ao) ha'Ûr.yIl. ^m,ªv.-ta, #r,a'øh' yMe’[;-lK' û!W[d>yE ![;m;äl.), as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your name.”
Isa. 49:6 states: “He says: "It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth (#r,a'(h‘ hceîq.-d[;).””
This same global plan of Yahweh is in the Psalms, only more so. Israel’s hymnbook contains over 175 references to the nations of the world.
Romans 15:8-12 – “For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God's truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs so that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy, as it is written: "Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing hymns to your name." Again, it says, "Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people." And again, "Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and sing praises to him, all you peoples." And again, Isaiah says, "The Root of Jesse will spring up, one who will arise to rule over the nations; the Gentiles will hope in him.””
Jonah: The Survivor Series
Part 1: Ash Wednesday, “God is Calling!” (1:1-3)
Part 2: “Saved in the Storm” (1:4-16)
Part 3: “Our Providing God” (1:17)
Part 4: “Praying in the Belly of the Great Big Fish” (2:1-10)
Part 5: “The God of the Second Chance” (3:1-4)
Part 6: “About Face!” (3:5-10)
Part 7: Maundy Thursday, “On the Same Page” (4:1-2)
Part 8: Good Friday, “The Answer!” (4:3-11)
Part 9: Easter, “The Sign of Life!” (Matt 12:41)
Ash Wednesday, “God is Calling!” (1:1-3)
CHAPTER ONE – VERSE ONE – The word of Yahweh came to Jonah son of Amittai: The expression “And the word of Yahweh came to …” is found in the OT only when contexts and circumstances regarding the prophet and his mission are already established in previous statements. The story of Jonah actually begins in another place; i.e. 2 Kings 14:25. This account anchors Jonah in the 8th century B.C. as a court-prophet of the Israelite king Jeroboam II (786-746 B.C.). “He [Jeroboam II] restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath [i.e. Aram/Syria] as far as the Sea of the Arabah [i.e. the Gulf of Aqabah], according to the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, which he spoke by the hand of his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher.”
Jonah is the Hebrew word for dove (Gen. 8:8-12; Song of Solomon 1:15; 4:1, etc.). Hosea 7:11 is instructive; “Ephraim became like a dove (hn"AyK.), silly and brainless. They called to Egypt, they went to Assyria.”
VERSE TWO – "Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its evil has come up before me." The entire prophecy of Nahum, delivered sometime before Nineveh’s downfall in 612 BC, gives a picture of this city of bloodshed. It is full of lies, dead bodies without end, a city that could be likened to a shapely harlot out to seduce all nations (Nah. 3:1-4; cf. Zeph. 2:13-15). Nineveh was truly the “chief of sinners.”
Nineveh is remembered most for her inhumane warfare. Note these words of one of her kings, Ashru-nasirpal II:
“I stormed the mountain peaks and took them. In the midst of the mighty mountains I slaughtered them; with their blood I dyed the mountain red like wool. With the rest of them I darkened the gullies and precipices of the mountains. I carried off their spoil and their possessions. The heads of their warriors I cut off, and I formed them into a pillar over against their city; their young men and their maidens I burned in the fire. I built a pillar over against the city gates, and I flayed all the chief men who had revolted, and I covered the pillar with their skins; some I walled up within the pillar, some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes, and others I bound to stakes round about the pillar.”
VERSE THREE – But Jonah ran away from Yahweh and went down to Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from Yahweh. Jonah says nothing to Yahweh but rises to flee. Normally prophets protest their inability to speak – Moses protests that he is not a “man of words” (Ex. 4:10); Jeremiah fears that he “does not know how to speak” (Jer. 1:6); Isaiah insists that his words are unworthy, his lips unclean (Isa. 6:5) – but Jonah in contrast, goes the opposite direction without saying a word!
And all of this leads to a progressive downhill slide. He goes down to Joppa (1:3), goes down to the ship (1:3), goes down into the innermost parts of the ship (1:5), is thrown down into the depths of the sea and then descends to the realm of death or Sheol (2:3, 7). Down, down, down, down this is the inevitable path of those who seek to avoid the mission of the church. The only place we go is down. And going down in the OT depicts a movement toward death (cf. Ps. 88:4-6; Prov. 5:5).
The word “fare” actually refers to the ship. The idea here is not that Jonah paid a fare (so all of the English versions), but rather that he hired the ship and its crew. First, that Jonah has access to the ship’s “innermost recesses” (1:5) makes sense if he owned the boat. Second, the sailor’s hesitation to throw Jonah overboard (1:13-14) is understandable because he was their “boss.” Finally, according to most scholars it wasn’t until Roman times that the ancient world had a specific word for “fare” – a charge for the purchase of space in an expedition, seagoing or otherwise. No wonder Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh – he’s cashing in on his ministry under Jeroboam II – enough cash that is, to buy a ship and her crew to run away from Yahweh’s presence!
But God’s word will have its way (pp. 77-78). The answer is in another prophet’s name – Jesus. He willingly goes beyond his borders (p. 82) for us!
Listen, God is calling again. He is calling us to confess our sin. But all the more he is calling us to confess the name of Jesus. This is our path home from our wandering. He is our hope of survival!
“Saved in the Storm”
Jonah may have won the battle, but God will win the war. To do so he sends in the big gun, “the perfect storm.” Yahweh employs the wind (p. 99) to bring order out of Jonah’s chaos. Storms may sometimes function as theophanies to display Yahweh’s splendor (p. 118). But Jonah snores on in his sin (p. 104).
“And as for the ship – it had a mind to break up.” The irony is that the sailors fear disaster, the captain of the ship fears disaster, indeed, even the ship thinks it is going to break up. The only character – animate or inanimate – that has no fear is Jonah. The pun then is this: as the ship fears wrecking she becomes a nervous wreck!
“Perhaps” is indicative of one of the major themes of the book (cf. 1:14b; 3:9). Yahweh will act as it pleases him, which may or may not conform to human patterns of actions. No demanding here, just humble awareness that there are two foundational truths to human enlightenment – number one, there is a God; number two, you are not him!
VERSE NINE – He answered, "I am a Hebrew and I worship Yahweh, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land." Jonah 1:4-16 (Scene II) is built according to a concentric or chiastic pattern:
A Yahweh hurls the storm (1:4)
B The sailors pray, act (1:5ab)
C Jonah acts (lies down, sleeps – 1:5c)
D The captain and sailors question Jonah (1:6-8)
E Jonah speaks (1:9)
D’ The sailors question Jonah (1:10-11)
C’ Jonah speaks (1:12)
B’ The sailors act, pray (1:13-14)
A’ The sailors hurl Jonah and the storm ends (1:15)
Conclusion – 1:16
Jonah’s words in 1:9, a confession of faith, have been carefully placed at the midpoint of this chiastic structure. There are 94 words in the Hebrew text from the scene’s beginning in 1:4 to the beginning of the speech in 1:9 and 94 words in 1:10-15. Verse 16 stands outside the pattern as a conclusion. Both the chiastic structure and the exact balance of number of words serve to place the focus for this section on the confession in 1:9.
At the heart of this section is Jonah’s confession that is analogous to his sermon in 3:4. Both accomplish the salvation of unbelievers. Whatever Jonah’s intention, this confession functions as a means of grace whereby the sailors are brought to faith. Such is the power of the gospel – albeit in a very brief expression – indeed, it is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe, first the Jew and then – in this case – the Gentile sailors (cf. Is. 55:10-11).
VERSE FOURTEEN – Then they cried to Yahweh, "O Yahweh, please do not let us die for taking this man's life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O Yahweh, have done as you pleased." The role of prophet and people is reversed – the sailors refuse to commit a crime after the prophet has asked them to do so. Moreover, the sailors are praying the prayer Jonah should be praying. The sailors confess that Yahweh does as he pleases (cf. Ps. 115:3; 135:6), while Jonah expresses his frustration because God does precisely that.
Jesus’ sacrifice (p. 133) is similar to that of Jonah’s. Both sacrifices still the storm (pp. 230-32).
God sends storms to awake us to faith, but then when we cry out to him he calms the storm through his love for us in Jesus. He is our Savior and through him we survive the storms of life, even those we bring to ourselves!
The sailor’s confession is analogous to that of the disciples (pp. 115-16). And this is our confession as well!
“Our Providing God”
Two observations regarding the use of this word “provide” in the book are as follows. With each use a different divine name is used as the subject of the verb –
1:17 – Yahweh
4:6 – Yahweh-Elohim
4:7 – Ha-Elohim
4:8 – Elohim
When the verb occurs the object of Yahweh’s control belongs to a different realm in nature –
1:17 – the fish (sea)
4:6 – the plant (vegetation)
4:7 – the worm (animals)
4:8 – the wind (air)
Did Jonah deserve these provisions? No! Do we? Absolutely no!
But because of the cross, God’s greatest provision of all, we have everything we need, even when we have experiences similar to Jonah’s (being throw overboard, being hot, frustrated, angry, depressed), even when we are obstinate and callous. And so his “means of grace” are the key to survival!
Our God will never cease to be a providing God! (Philippians 4:19)
“Praying in the Belly of a Great Big Fish”
Jonah, now at his lowest place, literally, is now at his highest place spiritually. “My power is made perfect in weakness,” the Lord reminds Paul, Jonah and us. Jonah’s power derives from his memorizing sections in the book of Psalms.
Psalmic references in Jonah 2:
+ “my distress” 18:6; 120:1
+ “Sheol” 18:4-5
+ “all thy waves and thy billows passed over me” 42:7
+ “from thy presence” 139:7
+ “upon thy holy temple” 5:7
+ “the waters closed in over me” 69:2
+ “my life from the Pit” 30:3
+ “my soul fainted within me” 142:3
+ “into thy holy temple” 18:6
+ “deliverance belongs to Yahweh” 3:8
Jonah also found himself in unfamiliar surroundings, and that is putting it mildly! But Jonah was not alone in the belly of the great big fish. Yahweh was with him through his word in the book of Psalms (p. 210-11). Jonah addresses his prayer toward the temple (pp. 214-15). His experience foreshadows the story of Jesus Christ. Just as Jonah faces the judgment of God, so did Jesus on the cross. Just as Jonah experienced separation from Yahweh, so did Jesus. But here is the point; just as Jonah prayed from the psalms, so did Jesus (Matt 26:30; Ps 22:1). When you are in the belly of the great big fish you are not alone. God’s word in the psalms is with you. And God’s final Word, Jesus, is with you. This is how we survive in the belly of a great big fish!
“The God of the Second Chance”
“Hello, this is Andrew Larson. I am unable to take your call right now, but please leave your name, number, and a short message and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible. (beep).” This is a standard message that most of you have on your answering service at work or at home. The whole point of having a message bank or an answering machine is to make sure you don’t miss your calls. But there are some people who use it to screen their calls, to avoid certain callers, to sift out who they want to talk to, to work out which calls to return and which calls to ignore. Have you ever done that? Maybe you know someone who does that? Jonah is just like that when it comes to God, the message on his answering machine goes something like this. “Hello, this is Jonah. I am unable to take your call right now, please do not leave your name, number or message, because I won’t be getting back to you, (beep).” But God keeps calling! He never gives up on Jonah, or us! Jonah’s second call is the result of his “baptism” (p. 256-64).
“Forty days” is a term that denotes a time of testing, with a new beginning at the end. Without citing every Scriptural instances in which multiples of forty are use, the following are noteworthy: (1) forty years – Israel’s journey from Egypt to Canaan (Ex. 16:35); peace in Israel upon Yahweh’s selection of a judge (Judg. 3:11): (2) forty days – rain leading up to the flood (Gen. 7:12); Moses at Mt. Sinai (Ex. 24:18); spies in Canaan (Num. 13:25); Elijah’s fast (1 Kings 19:8); Jesus’ fast (Matt. 4:2); the post-resurrection epiphanies (Acts 1:3). Forty not only takes us to a Noahic “sampling” – it also takes us to the slow and merciful Yahweh who could have said to Nineveh, “I’ll make all new things, the old won’t do.” But instead he said, “I’ll make all things – even you – new!”
Empowered with a second chance, Jonah goes to Nineveh and offers them the same second chance (pp. 282-83; 296-97).
Jonah survived only through the gospel, and so do we because our God in Christ is the God of the second chance!
VERSE FIVE – The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. The verbal root is !ma (“believe, trust” – “AMEN”) the same root that forms the name of Jonah’s father (1:1), now ironically appears, not with Jonah, but with the Ninevites. The KJV, RSV, and NIV (among others) are wrong in translating the phrase "the men of Nineveh/Ninevites believed God." This translation means that the Ninevites only believed that God was telling the truth when he said that the city would be changed in 40 days. The philology dictates that the correct translation is that "the men of Nineveh believed in God," that is, the Word of God that Jonah preached brought them to repentance and faith.
VERSE SIX – When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This reaction of the king is all the more remarkable in that elsewhere the king of Assyria is portrayed as an arrogant, boasting monarch who not only defies Yahweh and threatens Jerusalem, but argues that his power is great than Yahweh’s because he has been able to defeat the God of Israel/Judah just as he defeated the gods of other nations (Is. 10:5-34, 36-27/ 2 Kings 18-19; Nahum 2-3). He rises from his throne, removes his robe, puts on sackcloth, and sits in the dust or ashes.
VERSES NINE – TEN Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish." When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened. But does God really relent, or, as the KJV translates the Hebrew word, “repent?”
Yahweh reveals himself as one who is not immutable in some absolute sense. Just so, Karl Barth calls it “the holy mutability of God.” This is perhaps at least one reason for Israel’s aniconic perspective that idols do not change (cf. Ps 115:5-7; Jer 10:4-5). Understood this way, this prohibition of images is a concern to protect Yahweh’s relatedness rather than his transcendence, though the two are not mutually exclusive. Also, one of the characteristics of the gods of the nations is that they cannot be moved or affected (cf. 1 Kings 18:27-29).
The confession of divine repentance, therefore, announces the priority of grace in all of Yahweh’s dealings with the world. His constant availability for repentance stands in the service of this unchanging divine intention, not simply for Israel (so Joel 2:13), but also for the world (so Jonah). The idea reflects the extent to which this loving and gracious God will go in order to execute his uncompromising salvific intentions. It is therefore necessary to speak of both immutability and mutability as essential divine attributes, each in their own sphere.
Two extremes need to be avoided – either that Yahweh is immutable in any absolute sense, or that he is mercurial, or capricious, or unstable. The question is not either/or, but rather both/and. To be affected and to interact genuinely does not mean some imperfection in our God. In fact, it should be said that not to be able genuinely to respond or interact, not to be open and vulnerable, or refusing to change are in fact signs of imperfection.
Divine repentance enables the primary attributes of Yahweh to be kept primary, namely, his steadfast love and mercy. He is not unbending or unyielding, as a focus on immutability suggests. He is not a “take it or leave it,” “like it or lump it” God. He will change course in midstream in view of the interaction with his world.
Key here are the words of Francis Anderson and David Noel Freedman in their commentary on Amos. On divine repentance they conclude: “We judge that the Bible is successful in conveying both facts of theological experience adequately, that he is God and that he is a person. Just as there is an important and unbridgeable distance between Yahweh and the gods of Canaan, or those of Mesopotamia or Egypt or Greece or Rome, so there is at least an equal or greater distance from an Aristotelian unmoved mover, or even a Platonic Idea. The biblical God is always and uncompromisingly persona: he is above all a person, neither more nor less.”
Nineveh’s change evoked Yahweh’s change (pp. 324-41). Our God changes from condemnation to grace, finally for the sake of Christ. What an awesome and life-giving about face. It means we survive!
“On the Same Page”
Have you ever not been “on the same page” as someone? A new resident was walking down a street and noticed a man struggling with a washing machine at the doorway of his house. When the newcomer volunteered to help, the homeowner was overjoyed, and the two men together began to work and struggle with the bulky appliance. After several minutes of fruitless effort the two stopped and just stared at each other in frustration. They looked as if they were on the verge of total exhaustion. Finally, when they had caught their breath, the first man said to the homeowner: “We’ll never get this washing machine in there!” To which the homeowner replied: “In? I’m trying to move it out of here!”
That was a definite communication breakdown. The truth is we only get things done when we are in agreement. We need to be either going in or going out. We have to be on the same page.
VERSE ONE – But it was evil for Jonah a great evil. A key word in the book that is repeated as a noun and a verb is “evil” occurring ten times (1:2, 7, 8: 3:8, 10a, 10b; 4:1a, 1b, 2, 6). There has been “evil” beginning with the Ninevites (1:2), moving to the sailors (1:7), returning to the Ninevites (3:10), coming to Yahweh (3:10; 4:2), and here with Jonah. Except in the reference to Jonah, all the evil is taken away. In v. 6 Yahweh tries, but to no avail. “Evil” is used in two closely related ways. On the one hand it refers to the wickedness of the Ninevites (1:2; 3:8, 10) and Jonah (4:6). On the other hand, it refers to the judgment which is sometimes threatened and other times carried out by Yahweh (1:7, 8; 3:10; 4:2).
The adjective “great” is attached to evil only in 4:1. Here, Jonah places Yahweh’s judgment under judgment! Salvation by Yahweh, according to Jonah, is the greatest evil! Indeed, the final use of the word in 4:6 depicts Yahweh trying to save Jonah from this evil. Jonah is now where Nineveh was – in need of deliverance from his all-consuming evil.
VERSE TWO – He prayed to Yahweh, "O Yahweh, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. We must now ask the question in its fullest sense – why did Jonah flee to Tarshish? The text never mentions that he is afraid (cf. 1 Kings 19:2-3). Nor does it indicate that Jonah viewed his task as too difficult or beneath his dignity. He does not, like Moses, Gideon, Isaiah, Jeremiah or Gideon (Ex. 4:10; Judg. 6:15; Is. 6:5; Jer. 1:6) flee because of some inadequacy he feels. He does not raise questions because he thinks the message is too difficult for the people to hear (Jer. 20:9; Amos 7:1-6; Is. 6:11). Thus, while other prophets draw back at times from the call of Yahweh, and some run out of fear, none seek to flee from “the presence of Yahweh.”
The striking answer to why Jonah took flight is in 4:2 – Jonah’s God is simply too merciful! The reason for Jonah’s running is delayed so that we may pause to consider why we run from God. Most of us will not admit to the reason given in 4:2 – at least initially. Most Christians don’t go around saying, or even admitting to themselves, that they don’t like the fact that God is too merciful. One author writes: “The author thus holds back on the real reason until his audience is fully identified with Jonah and is brought along to the point where the truth of the matter can have its sharpest impact.”
The issue here is not that Yahweh relents, but for whom he relents. Jonah is aware that Israel’s very existence depended upon Yahweh’s willingness to change his mind, to be merciful rather than simply just. Rather, Jonah’s problem is the indiscriminate extension of Yahweh’s relenting toward other people. He complains over Yahweh’s leniency toward the guilty. The good should be rewarded and the evil should be made to reap the harvest of destruction. That’s only fair!
This God is much too free with his mercy, he needs to be more strict in applying the rules of the very moral order which he himself ordained in the first place. When eyeball to eyeball, Yahweh blinks first and Nineveh is let go from its justly deserved punishment. This is the book’s second creedal statement. Almost every word in this verse contains an Old Testament theology in and of itself. The foundation here is Exodus 34:6-7. It is worth noting that the first person to make this creed known in Israel is Yahweh himself. There are seventeen passages where major parts of this creed occur (Ex. 34:6-7; Num. 14:8; Deut. 4:31; Ps. 78:38; Ps. 86: 5, 15; Ps. 103:8; Ps. 111:4 Ps. 112:4; Ps. 116:5; Ps. 145:8; Joel 2:13; Hah. 1:3; Neh. 9:17, 31; 2 Chron. 30:9).
Who was at the first Passover? Here detail the sins of the disciples, including and especially Judas Iscariot. Judas and Jesus were not on the same page! But just as God continued to love Jonah with his vindictive heart, so in Christ he continued to love not only Judas, but all of his disciples, none of whom was on the same page as the Savior.
In fact, all people are on the same page, the page of the Bible in Romans 3 that says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:23)
And so we put away our grudges and thoughts of revenge, and come to the table that Yahweh has prepared for us. And here, in the real presence of Jesus, we not only survive our grudges, we overcome them in the power of his broken body and shed blood!
The rabbis, not surprisingly, have speculated about Jonah's answer to Yahweh’s final question, though they posit a much more pious, even Job‑like Jonah: "Scripture does not record Jonah's response, but Yalkut Shimoni gives a moving conclusion to the narrative: At that moment he [Jonah] fell upon his face and said, 'Conduct your world according to the Attributes of Mercy as it is written: To HASHEM, our God, are mercy and forgiveness' (Daniel 9:9).”
The author employs the literary device called “the rhetoric of entrapment” (pp. 408-13).The LORD is not only posing the question to Jonah back then, he is also asking us right now, “Shall I have compassion upon the great city of Nineveh?” Our answer is a lukewarm, “well maybe.” So what does the LORD do? He sends the answer. Matthew 12:41, “One greater than Jonah is here.” And the narrative begins!
Compassion for Ninevites marked his ministry. Jesus talked publicly with women, socialized with sinners, exorcized demons, healed the lame, and gave sight to the blind. Matthew 9:36 describes him with these words, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion – the Greek comes from the word splanknizomai – meaning he had a spleen, a gut, a heart for the people, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Matthew 15:32, “He called his disciples to him and said, ‘I have compassion for these people.’” Mark 1:41, “Filled with compassion, he reached out his hand and touched the leper.”
But his most shocking act of compassion was before the creation of the world, when he planned the birth of Judas, made iron for the nails, planted trees for the wood, orchestrated events that led Pilate to Judea, Caiaphas to Jerusalem, and the crowds to repeatedly cry out, “Crucify him, crucify him!”
Shall Yahweh have compassion upon the great city of Nineveh? Whatever answer Jonah gave, and whatever answer we give just now. Jesus Christ proclaims Yahweh’s final, definitive answer with his whole heart and he writes it in blood. Jesus is the Father’s “yes” to compassion, yes to love, yes to full forgiveness; yes, yes, yes, a thousand times and forever yes!
And this is Good Friday and it means that because of Jesus’ compassion we survive the folly of our sin.
“The Sign of Life!”
Signs, signs, everywhere there are signs. “No shirt, no shoes, no service.” “Don’t walk on the grass.” “Do not disturb.” There are signs we dislike; “Speed Limit 55”, “Limit One Per Customer,” “Limited Time Only.” We dislike them because they limit us. Sure the limits are either there for our protection (like the speed limit) or because we’re getting a really good deal (so we’re limited to only one item for a limited time), but we don’t like to be limited. We want life to be lived unbounded and free, so we dislike the signs that limit us. And then there are the signs we crave. We search for a sign to believe that a love that once burned bright is not fading away. We pray for a sign that a loved one will soon enjoy a full restoration of health. And we yearn for a sign that peace will be had so our soldiers will come home.
Read about the sign of Jonah in Matthew (pp. 234-39).
Discuss the signs of Easter (lilies, paraments, music, full church, empty tomb, etc.) Here are more signs; John 1:4 –“In him was life and that life was the light of men.” John 6:35 – “I am the Bread of Life.” John 6:66 – “Lord, to whom shall we go, you have the words of eternal life.” John 10:10 – “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly.” John 11:25 – “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” John 14:6 – “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life.” All because we have the sign of Jonah! This sign leads to life now and life forever!
We have one more sign, the baptismal sign of the cross! It means we do more than survive, “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us!” (Rom. 8:37).