THE BOOK OF JONAH 1

A study by Reverend Christopher Cooke

Jonah goes overboard

Week 1

The Twelve Prophets and Jonah.
Amongst the Scroll of The Twelve Prophets, Jonah is an oddity as Peter Craigie and Paula Gooder argue. The other eleven books contain small elements of biography and history but are essentially prophetic books. But Jonah contains a story and the actual prophetic content is very small.

“The book of Jonah is much closer in style to Ruth, the other famous short narrative book of the Old Testament, than it is to the prophetic books.” [Paula Gooder].

However, there are similarities, as James Crenshaw notes, with the accounts of Elijah and Elisha in 1 and 2 Kings.

Jonah son of Amittai.
There is a reference to Jonah in 2 Kings 14:25 as a prophet of salvation during the expansionist era of Jeroboam II. He was a northern prophet from the Galilee area quite near to Nazareth. Jeroboam’s reign was from about 793-753 or 786-745 BCE.
James Crenshaw argues that the choice of this prophet as the target of didactic satire is doubly appropriate:
1. He proclaimed nationalistic oracles
2. His name means “dove [of faithfulness or truthfulness]”.
Paula Gooder describes Jonah as not a very attractive character. He was stubborn, inflexible, and arrogant. He only did God’s will when he couldn’t avoid it. He was also down to earth, fallible and bad tempered. James Crenshaw goes so far as to call Jonah an antihero! He lists Jonah’s main failings. He thinks Jonah’s version of prophecy is also extremely flawed:
1. He manipulates the facts when answering the sailors.
2. When he prays, he exalts his ego and accuses God.
3. He is spiteful hoping the sailors’ repentance will be short-lived.
4. He eagerly awaits the destruction of Nineveh.
5. He resents the sparing of the repentant Ninevites.
6. He is unrepentant until the end.
7. His main concern was his reputation for accuracy of prediction.
8. He wants to restrict divine compassion to Israel.
This is a devastating mockery of Israelite piety as exemplified by this dubious prophet. On hearing Jonah’s facile confession that deliverance belongs to the Lord, the fish throws up!

Nineveh and Assyria.
Assyria was the great power of the eighth century BCE and threat to both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Israel’s capital of Samaria fell to the Assyrians in about 722 BCE and there was a policy of integration and marriage between races throughout the Assyrian Empire. Nineveh was an important Assyrian city and from 704 BCE the capital. (Judah survived until they fell to the Babylonians).

Questions.

CHAPTER 1:1-10.

Jonah 1:1-3: The Call of Jonah.

Do the opening verses remind you of other prophetic books?
Does Jonah’s reluctance to obey the divine call remind you of Moses, Amos and Jeremiah?
In what ways is Jonah’s response different from theirs?

“The atmosphere of the story is quite different from that of Ruth, for example…or Esther… This is a story about Jonah, but more precisely about the Lord and Jonah”. James Limburg.
“God seems to be telling the prophet to proclaim the evil city’s doom”. David Gunn.
“But the shock of the audience would be followed by complacency: what more could you expect from a northerner, practically a foreigner, being dispatched on a mission to gentiles!” Peter Craigie.

Is there anything similar to the flight to Tarshish in your life?
Are we avoiding God in any way?

Jonah 1:4-10: Storm at Sea.

What was the Hebrew view of the sea?
Does the storm scene remind you of other such storms in the Bible?
How does Jonah come out of it compared to the sailors?

“Jonah’s flight from God is one of perpetual descent. Having gone down to the port of Joppa, and there having gone down into a ship, he now goes beneath the deck, hoping to rest after his trying experience!” Peter Craigie.
“The captain’s words to Jonah mirror God’s own words at the start of the book. Again, this is more apparent in the Hebrew text: the captain says, ‘Get up, cry to your god’, which mirrors God’s words, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh and cry against it’”. Paula Gooder.
“One of the themes that is drawn out by this book is the obedience of the non-believers in contrast to the disobedience of the believer. Jonah, a prophet to whom God speaks regularly, gets things wrong at every turn and refuses to acknowledge God’s power and sovereignty”. Paula Gooder.

As Christians, would we do any better than Jonah “the professional”?
Can we learn with humility from the non-believers we know?

Commentary by Reverend Christopher Cooke

CHAPTER 1:1-10.

Jonah 1:1-3: The Call of Jonah.

Do the opening verses remind you of other prophetic books?
Does Jonah’s reluctance to obey the divine call remind you of Moses, Amos and Jeremiah?
In what ways is Jonah’s response different from theirs?

The Book of Jonah begins in a conventional fashion for a prophetic work. It is God who speaks first. James Limburg points out that in this short book, “Lord” (translating Yahweh) appears 25 times, “God” 13 times and “Lord God” once for a total of 39 times.

“The atmosphere of the story is quite different from that of Ruth, for example…or Esther… This is a story about Jonah, but more precisely about the Lord and Jonah”. James Limburg.

As Paula Gooder notes the Hebrew actually says: “Get up, go to Nineveh”. This is very similar to God’s command to Elijah to get up and go to Zarephath in 1 Kings 17:9. The previous book in the Twelve Prophets is Obadiah. At the beginning of that book, Obadiah is commanded to go and prophesy to nearby Edom. Jonah is commanded to go to far away Nineveh in what is now Iraq. The Assyrians were also the enemy who threatened invasion of Jonah’s homeland (and the readers would know successfully invaded and incorporated the land and people into the Empire through inter-marriage and integration). Yet this is where God commands Jonah to go! And Jonah is to go there because of the evil found in Nineveh. Jonah is not sent to make converts but to warn the people of Nineveh of the coming judgement.

“God seems to be telling the prophet to proclaim the evil city’s doom”. David Gunn.

Moses, Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah all show reluctance to obey the divine call because they think they do not have the qualities needed. Jonah just runs away. I suppose he does “get up” but he sets out in the opposite direction and takes ship on the Mediterranean and sails away heading west. (Tarshish means ‘sea’ and a lot of Mediterranean ports were called Tarshish). Jonah really does not like the sound of going to Nineveh (and who could blame him) but he does not stay at home. Perhaps, Jonah is too afraid to take a hostile message to a feared nation. He decides to put as much distance between him and Nineveh as possible. In doing so, Jonah is also fleeing from the presence of the Lord. Does he think that God is anchored in Israel and that he can escape him?

Those who first read or heard this Book would have been reassured by the opening but then unsettled, like Jonah, by the call to go to Nineveh. Then this is followed by Jonah’s disobedience.

“But the shock of the audience would be followed by complacency: what more could you expect from a northerner, practically a foreigner, being dispatched on a mission to gentiles!” Peter Craigie.

Is there anything similar to the flight to Tarshish in your life?
Are we avoiding God in any way?

Jonah 1:4-10: Storm at Sea.

What was the Hebrew view of the sea?
Does the storm scene remind you of other such storms in the Bible?
How does Jonah come out of it compared to the sailors?

“Jonah’s flight from God is one of perpetual descent. Having gone down to the port of Joppa, and there having gone down into a ship, he now goes beneath the deck, hoping to rest after his trying experience!” Peter Craigie.

Paula Gooder notes that this master storyteller captures the panic of the storm and possible shipwreck in three short verses. The gentile sailors typify the human condition as a whole. They are doing everything they can to save the ship but they are also praying to their own gods – probably Canaanite and Phoenician ones. They are realistic, pious and peaceful men. Their religion calls from them a healthy balance between action and prayer. Through all this Jonah is sleeping. Trying to escape from God, he can only rely on himself. He is exhausted and, possibly, depressed. He is oblivious to the world around him. The captain is a good man and he wakes Jonah up. We might have expected him to have demanded that Jonah help save the ship, but he wants Jonah to pray to his God!

“The captain’s words to Jonah mirror God’s own words at the start of the book. Again, this is more apparent in the Hebrew text: the captain says, ‘Get up, cry to your god’, which mirrors God’s words, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh and cry against it’”. Paula Gooder.

It transpires later that Jonah realizes that he is the reason for the storm but he is reluctant to admit this and does not cry out to God as instructed. He seems to have turned his back on God. Jonah is a prophet and professional of the faith but the inadequacy of Jonah’s faith is shown up by the amateur non-believers. The sailors cast lots and the lots fell on Jonah. In response to urgent questions, Jonah admits his faith in verse 9. It seems to have been drawn out of him. “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” [NRSV]. The RSV translates “and I fear the Lord…” We know that “fear” was used in the sense of “worship” but the sailors take him literally and they become even more afraid. They have extracted from Jonah that he was fleeing from his God. There is also an irony here in that Jonah claims the Lord as “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” but he is trying to escape from him by going to sea. However, in making his declaration, Jonah who refused to be a prophet to the gentiles of Nineveh is compelled to become a prophet to the gentile sailors! But James Limburg asks whether he is talking about God while he is not prepared to talk to God.

“One of the themes that is drawn out by this book is the obedience of the non-believers in contrast to the disobedience of the believer. Jonah, a prophet to whom God speaks regularly, gets things wrong at every turn and refuses to acknowledge God’s power and sovereignty”. Paula Gooder.

As Christians, would we do any better than Jonah “the professional”?
Can we learn with humility from the non-believers we know?

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