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March 14, 2011

What Jonah Teaches Us

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The LORD instructed Jonah to go to Nineveh to prophesy their destruction. Ultimately Nineveh was spared. The book appears late in the Old Testament among the writing of the other prophets, however, this should not in any way be used as evidence that the account told in Jonah occurred during the time of the four major prophets.

Texts from the Hellenistic period (500BC - 200BC) and later offered Ninus as the founder of Nineveh. These histories describe Nineveh in about 1800 BC as a center of worship of Ishtar, whose cult was responsible for the city's early importance. The goddess's statue was sent to Pharaoh Amenhotep III of Egypt in the 14th century BC, by orders of the king of Mitanni. The Assyrian city of Nineveh became one of Mitanni's vassals until the mid 14th century BC, when the Assyrian kings of Assur reclaimed it while overthrowing the Mittani Empire.

Nineveh thrived as Jonah describes, not after 700BC but a thousand years before that, concurrent with other similar events found recorded in Genesis, the Tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, events prior to the Exodus. Jonah is mentioned in the context of ancient history in II Kings 14:25.

Nineveh is likely far older than 1800BC. The other cities mentioned are Joppa or Jaffa which is described in 1440BC ancient Egyptian records indicate Jaffa was conquered and spoiled. Hellenistic Greek records cite Jaffa as an ancient city connected to the origin of their gods. Tarshish is less clear. While there is a city Tarshish, now known as Mosul, in Iraq, it seems that Tarshish is used in other places in the Bible, II Chronicles 20:35 for an instance, where it is used in exactly the same way as it is used in Jonah, to indicate a ship outfitted for and capable of long sea journeys.

This use of the word is also consistent with ancient Hebrew literature and could be used in Jonah simply to clarify for the reader that Jonah did not go to Joppa to get a ride to the next town, but selected a ship intended for a long voyage, long enough to surely escape the responsibility which God had given him.

The question of why Jonah thought he could escape God's instructions are the most interesting component of the story. While we are not privy to the conversation between God and Jonah when God first instructed Jonah, "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it;" we do find in chapter four, that Jonah had indeed responded to God, informing God that he did not believe that God would actually destroy Nineveh. Jonah claimed God was far too merciful and would change His mind or repent of an intent to do harm to His people.

Of course, God did forgive and spare Nineveh, but only after Jonah preached damnation exactly as Jonah had predicted. This "displeased Jonah exceedingly," giving rise to what is probably the earliest literary use of the phrase "See, I told you so." Of equal interest, the first recorded use was of the phrase is that being told to God. Jonah told God "...I pray thee, O LORD, [was] not this my saying, when I was yet in my country?" 4:1-2

Take note of the conscience of the crew of the boat on which Jonah bought passage fleeing the LORD'S instruction. They resisted their urge to throw Jonah overboard until it became impossible to get to the safety of land. They preyed that God would not condemn them for murder.

Jonah was in the belly of the fish, three days. The belly of the fish is also called the belly of hell in 2:2. The oft and nearly synonymous use of "belly" and "heart" for our most dear desires and wishes tells us that the writer did not intend to conjure a notion in the reader that a 150 ton Odontoceti rose from the sea and swallowed Jonah whole. Where in whose stomach Jonah built a campfire awaiting his excavation. Jonah drowned and was dead for three days. During which his spirit communed with God and preyed his case.

Jonah did not prey to be resurrected. Instead he thanked God for allowing him to experience many hardships throughout his life and the lessons learned thereby. He confesses his heart felt and deep conviction that God loves him and his desire to be in the company of God. I do not read Hebrew, but I am sure the chapter loses much in the translation. In it's original language, it is likely a beautiful poem of thankful redemption and grateful surrender to God's tender loving kindness.

Nineveh was important to God in ways that Memphis and Thebes were not. Egyptian cities are never mentioned except when they pertain to some activity of Abraham or his descendants. Nineveh was instead a city of Babylonia whose population was connected to the lineage of Abraham. God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob after all.

The inhabitants of Nineveh knew Jonah and remembered their ancient heritage. "and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did [it] not." 3:10 This is when Jonah told God "See, I told you so."

God was not cross with Jonah for his attitude. Instead, he reasoned with him, asking Jonah if he thought his anger was misplaced. I take from God's concern for the temporal fortunes of 120,000 people who, as God puts it, don't understand how the world works, don't know which way to turn, don't know their right hand from their left, that God treats people differently. Those simple people are of the same family of people as Abraham and God cares not just for their immortal souls, but for their temporal fortunes and happiness, their "cattle" as well. But for a few people, a few great men, such as Jonah, God pushes them and pushes them until they feel certain, they can take no more preferring death instead.

It is in this same way that a school child learns only by struggling with class work that is at the edge of his experiences. It is only by experiencing things which are beyond our familiarity, uncomfortable and terrifying that we can learn. We can trust God to keep us safe. Everything about us that is really important anyway. There are many things that we who do not know our right hand from our left think is important that really isn't. God can restore our physical, flesh and bone lives more easily than a parent can replace a child's broken toy. The toy is of no importance what so ever. Yet the parent often replaces the toy because the child hurts.

Though if the parent replaced every broken toy as soon as it breaks, the child would grow up spoiled and worthless. It is in struggling with problems that we learn. God protects the temporal for those of Abraham who are weak, but he pushes those who are strong. "For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth." Hebrews 12:6

When I think of the few hardships with which I have been confronted in my life I worry that I am not strong enough. That I fall short. I find myself preying for hardships for which I prefer physical death to avoid. Then fear that may prayer might be answered.