Jonah 1. The Story of a Prophet.
Key Notes: The prophet was a missionary and a patriot. Assyria was a warrior state. Interactions between Israelites and foreign leaders. Jonah was rebuked by pagans. The seamen worshiped God.
Most Old Testament prophecy is a transcript of God’s word to the prophets. Occasionally, a prophet’s reaction plays an important part in the writing. Jeremiah interacted strongly with God and his message, partly because of the great distress in Jerusalem during the siege of the Babylonians. Ezekiel is another prophet who suffered in the work he was called to do. In the case of Jonah, the prophet’s reaction to his message is the theme of the book.
Jonah is a simple narrative, understandable to a five-year-old. It has bits of biology, weather, politics, God’s attributes and sovereignty, human obedience and free-will, ancient history, conversions real and indefinite, and the work of the missionary. There is also some humor, often missing in the prophecies of judgment.
1:1 Jonah is the son of Amittai. His name is mentioned in IIK.14:25. The prophet was from Gath-Hepher, near Nazareth in Galilee, the territory of Zebulun. (Josh.19:13). Jeroboam II was king. (793–753). This is not the stuff of legend.
1:2 God said “Arise, go to Ninevah, that great city, and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before me.”
Ninevah was the capital of Assyria, the looming super-power. It was an ancient city, having been founded by Nimrod at the dawn of civilization. (Gen.10:11). He also founded Babel, another city with a bad reputation. Assyria terrorized its enemies with unspeakable atrocities, earning the fear and hatred of the surrounding nations. Much of our history comes from Assyrian records. The history is of progressive encroachments by Assyrian forces that eventually overwhelmed Israel, threatened Judah and extended into Egypt. To an Israelite, this was a nation that should not be helped in any way. It should be destroyed. The history of Assyria is a history of war.
853BC Shalmaneser III fought Hadadezer of Syria at the battle of Qarqar. Assyrian annals reported that Ahab of Israel supplied troops and weapons to the Syrian army. The Assyrian army reached down to Mt. Carmel in northern Israel. Jehu, then king of Israel, was forced to pay tribute. This was 841BC and Elisha was Israel's prophet. It was a tumultuous time.
806BC The Assyrian army under Addad-nirari captured Damascus. Joash of Israel paid tribute (796 BC).
782BC Shalmaneser IV died young (773BC) without successor. Assyria was weak. An eclipse of the sun (763BC) was seen as a bad omen. During this time Jeroboam II was king, and Jonah was a prophet. It is possible that Jonah was sent to Ninevah during this time of Assyria’s internal doubts and struggles.
793–753BC Jeroboam II was evil, yet the Lord mercifully allowed him to recapture much of the lands that had been in the original kingdom under David, including Damascus. (IIK.14:23–27). This concluded almost a hundred years of war with Syria. Amos was a prophet as well as Jonah.
744–720 BC Tiglath-Pileser recaptured Damascus from Israel. (732BC) . Menahem of Israel was forced to pay tribute of a thousand talents of silver presumably to avoid occupation. IIK.15:17–20
Ahaz of Judah formed an alliance with the Assyrians against Israel and Syria to his own disadvantage. (IIK.16:7–20). Isaiah, Micah, and Hosea were prophets.
720BC Shalmaneser V conquered Samaria after a long siege and the Northern Kingdom of Israel was gone. (IIK.17)
701 BC Hezekiah endured the siege by Sennacherib of Assyria, with destruction of much of the country-side although Jerusalem was spared. (IIK.18–20). Isaiah was prophet.
612 BC Ninevah fell to the Babylonians and Assyria was no more. Nahum prophesied its destruction.
We can sympathize with Jonah’s unappealing assignment. The Ninevites were pagans. They were also Israel’s worst enemies. With the repeated attacks on Syria and incursions in the northern frontier of Israel, Jonah’s people would have plenty of horror stories to tell.
There was also no tradition of missionary work by Israelites to pagans, although there were scattered interactions, some quite important.
Isaac with Abimelech of Canaan. Gen.26:28–33
Joseph with Pharoah of Egypt. Gen.41
Moses with the Priest of Midian. Ex.3:1
Moses with Pharaoh. Ex.5–11
Solomon with Hiram of Tyre. IIChron.2:11
Daniel with Nebuchadnezzar (Dan.4) and Darius the Mede. Dan.6
Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther with the Persian kings.
Over two millennia, these few contacts would appear minor. Israel’s primary role was to be the City on the Hill that would draw the nations to God through the Law and the Covenants. Deut.4:6–8
1:3 Jonah did not hesitate when given his assignment. He was supposed to go 500 miles to the north-east. He went west. He went down to Joppa (1:3), down into the hold of the ship (1:5) and finally down into near-death in the belly of the fish. (2:6)
Three times it is said that he fled from the presence of the Lord. (1:2,3,10). Eventually he would be afraid that God had actually let him get away. ( 2:4)
1:4 In the first of a half-dozen actions, God hurled a great wind at the sea, something that these experienced mariners could not handle and they turned to prayer, each one to his god.
1:6–12 The ship’s captain summoned Jonah to join in the prayers. He had a lot of explaining to do.
Why are you are sleeping?
Uh! I was tired.
What is your occupation?
I am a prophet.
Where do you come from?
My home is Gath-Hepher
What is your country?
I come from the tribe of Zebulun.
Who are your people?
I am a Hebrew.
What have you done?
I fear the Lord, the God of Heaven, who made sea and dry land. I am running away from Him.
What shall we do to you? You are the cause of this storm that will kill us.
Throw me out. I don’t care if I live or die and maybe you will live.
1:13–16 Although they were pagans, polytheists, probably Phoenicians, they had respect for Jonah’s life. They tried to row to land and failed. Then they cried to JHWH, the true God, and begged mercy for killing Jonah. They understood that it was His will. When all else had failed, they threw Jonah over the side. The storm stopped. The seamen feared God, made sacrifice to Him and made vows, perhaps : “If you get me home safe, I will serve you for the rest of my life.”
This is as good an account of OT conversion as we can find, comparable to that of Naaman the Syrian. IIK.5
1:17 The Lord prepared a great fish and it swallowed Jonah and kept him alive in the sea for three days and nights. Almost nobody in Israel could swim. They were not sea people. (See Isa.25:11, Acts.27:43 for rare references to swimmers.)
Everyone obsesses about the fish / whale / sea-monster, as if it was our apologetic duty to name the animal, describe its anatomy and physiology, how much air space there was, and how a human could avoid the digestive juices. The puzzles really stimulate our imagination. We spend much less time trying to explain the resurrection of Jesus—or Lazarus (“after four days he stinks”)--or the healing of the man lame since birth or the woman bent over for years.
“I was so obsessed
with what was going on
in the whale
that I missed
seeing the drama
There are credible accounts of humans who survived being swallowed by great fish in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (“Jonah”, p. 1115) and a recent Web-page of Probe Ministries (“Jonah and the Whale”).
Lessons so far:
* Don’t disobey God. He is bigger than you are. If there are no repercussions, you should feel bad. If there are repercussions, you will feel worse.
* Pagans may rebuke us for our disobedience. They hold us to a high standard.
* Pagans will be saved in spite of our disobedience and folly.