The story of Jonah is narrated simply and effectively. Details we might want to know about are omitted because they would only divert attention from what should be grasped. This terse style is found right from the start, where in the first three verses we are introduced to Jonah (1:1), told of his commission (1:2), and of his disobedience (1:3). The story of the runaway prophet who feels he must get away from the Lord's command matches in its breathless style the breathlessness Jonah must have experienced when he arrived at Joppa. To appreciate all that is being said we have to look at it more slowly.
The word of the Lord came to (v. 1) is a phrase found over 100 times in the Old Testament to describe what took place when the Lord spoke to one of his prophets. Generally it is followed by the message they were authorised to deliver to the people in the name of the Lord. This is found, for instance, at the beginning of the prophecies of Joel and Micah. But there are also passages, such as this, where what is related is a set of instructions to the prophet himself, as, for example to Elijah in 1 Kings 17:2; 21:17. It is the Lord's initiative that gets the story of Jonah started, just as it is the Lord's hand that determines the outcome.
The prophet who receives the Lord's message is named as Jonah son of Amittai. Some have felt that because the name Jonah means 'a dove', and Amittai is connected with the Hebrew word for 'truth' or 'truthfulness', an allegorical interpretation of the book is justified. This, however, is being too fanciful. Hebrew names nearly always meant something (just as Brown or Smith do), and Jonah here is just a name. We are told he is Jonah son of Amittai, because he is a real person about whom more is known from 2 Kings 14:23-27.
Jonah's prophetic ministry coincided with the reign of Jeroboam II (793-753 B.C.), who ruled over the northern kingdom of Israel. It had broken away from Judah after the death of Solomon (931 b.c.), and its subsequent history was marked by spiritual decline and apostasy. First of all, a debased worship of the Lord using idols and a non-Levitical priesthood had been established in the north, but by the time of Elijah's ministry (around 860-847 B.C.) the land had degenerated to outright worship of the Canaanite god, Baal. Though this threat had been dealt with by Elijah, and also by Jeroboam II's great-grandfather, Jehu (2 Kings 10:18-29), the official religion of the northern kingdom continued to be corrupted by idolatry and paganism. This was still true under Jeroboam II (2 Kings 14:24).
But Jonah was given an extraordinary message regarding Jeroboam's reign. It was going to be a time of prosperity and national success (2 Kings 14:25). This was not a reward for Jeroboam's piety, or that of his people. It was rather a gracious initiative from the Lord. Because of their disloyalty, he had been punishing his people through foreign invasion from both Syria (Aram) and Assyria, but now, seeing their desperate circumstances – they were on the point of being wiped out –'he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam' (2 Kings 14:26-27). Repeated defeat before their enemies had not brought the people to their senses, and unfortunately granting a predicted time of blessing was to fail also. The people did not recognise their good fortune as coming from the Lord (Hosea 2:8). But knowing that it was Jonah who had brought the message of the coming period of prosperity helps us to understand his thinking in connection with the altogether different message he is commanded to relay in this book.
2 Kings also provides us with the information that Jonah came from Gath-Hepher (2 Kings 14:25; see Map II). In Joshua 19:13 this village is identified as being in the territory of Zebulun, and it probably lay a few miles north of Nazareth. Jonah was the only Old Testament prophet we know about from Galilee (John 7:52), and he is the only Old Testament prophet to whom Jesus compares himself and his ministry (Matt. 12:39-41; Luke 11:29-32; see on 1:17).
In the book of Jonah, however, it is not to his own nation that the prophet has to deliver his message -at least that is how it appears initially. We do have to remember that he wrote this book for them, so what he was doing affected them too. However, what the Lord says to him is "Go to the great city of Nineveh" (v. 2). In fact it begins with 'Arise!', a word that the NIV does not translate. It is used not just of getting to one's feet, but also of responding speedily to a matter that is presented as urgent. The task that the Lord is assigning to Jonah is one that requires immediate action.
Now Nineveh was in northern Mesopotamia, on the east bank of the river Tigris, opposite the modern city of Mosul (see Map). While it was not the capital of Assyria in Jonah's day, it was a major centre with royal palaces where the king would on occasion stay. It was a large and wealthy city, benefiting from Assyria being the major power in Mesopotamia. Its size and importance are mentioned again in 3:3 and 4:11. Jonah was being ordered to go to a major pagan metropolis.
Assyria had spread its power throughout the Near East. Already there had been various contacts with Israel. Assyrian records tell us that in 853 B.C. Ahab king of Israel joined an alliance of western states that fought against the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III at Qarqar. Assyrian records again tell us that in 841 Jehu paid tribute to Shalmaneser III of Assyria. Also in 796 Jehoash paid tribute to Adad-nirari III, who was conducting a series of campaigns in the west, evidently in an attempt to keep the area under his control.
There are other instances of Old Testament prophecies against foreign nations (see on Zeph. 2:4-15), but the prophet did not ordinarily travel to the foreign land to deliver it. The messages against the foreign nations had as their primary function reassuring God's own people of his watchfulness over their affairs and his readiness to act appropriately against those who harassed them.
But here Jonah is to go to Nineveh with a message. Preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me. It is a denunciation of the city from the God who rules all. It proceeds on the basis of the Lord being the one to whom all nations are accountable. Whether they acknowledge him or not, he is 'the Judge of all the earth' (Gen. 18:25), and is taking official cognisance of what they are doing. When he decides to act in the matter, it is inevitable that judgment will engulf the city.
Nineveh was a major centre of the Assyrian Empire. As the Assyrians had increased their zone of influence through the ancient world, they had became renowned for their cruelty and rapaciousness (see on Nahum 3:1). Already this feature of Assyrian power had become so notorious that it called for specific divine intervention. There is no indication that the message to be sent would call for repentance, but that is an inevitable inference. When God warns people of his impending judgment, it is with the aim that they will respond in time and be saved. 'If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned' (Jer. 18:7-8).
But what was the reason for God giving this commission to Jonah? One of the lessons of the book is that God's ways are beyond ours, and that his actions are not constrained by our understanding of what is going on. Our capacity to understand and approve does not set the standard to which God has to adhere.
Still there is more to it than that. Fitting it in with the divine programme outlined in 2 Kings enables us to see that if Jonah had carried out the commission when it was originally given to him, then it would have fulfilled a very important role in God's dealings with his covenant people – namely provoking them to respond to him. This was one aspect of the Lord's procedure in dealing with his people's waywardness and desertion of him. As early as the time of Moses, such circumstances had led him to say, 'I will make them envious by those who are not a people; I will make them angry by a nation that has no understanding' (Deut. 32:21). To rebuke them for their ingratitude, the Lord would make his own people envious of the blessings he had bestowed on others (Rom. 10:19-21; 11:14).
In this respect we can see an element of continuity between Jonah's ministry and that of his immediate predecessors, Elijah and Elisha. They too had been used to bring divine blessing to outsiders. Elijah had been ordered to go to Zarephath in Sidonian (Phoenician) territory, and had provided food for a widow and her family and restored her son to life (1 Kings 17). Elisha had cured Naaman the Syrian of his leprosy (2 Kings 5). Such facts did not sit comfortably with the small-minded view of the scope of divine blessing held by the Jews of our Lord's day (Luke 4:24-30). It is quite likely that Jonah and his generation considered themselves to have an exclusive right to the Lord's favour.
The Lord was blessing Israel with respite from their enemies, but this was so that they would return to him. It would not have been long after this that the Lord would send Amos and Hosea to Israel to condemn them for their ingratitude and lack of response. Jonah's ministry presumably took place earlier in Jeroboam's reign, and was designed to urge them back to the Lord, by showing how Nineveh would respond to the blessing bestowed on it (Matt. 12:41; 11:20-24).
But matters did not develop in such a straightforward fashion. Having received his urgent commission, one would have expected the narrative to have continued, 'And Jonah arose and went to Nineveh.' That's the way other prophets responded (e.g. Elijah, in 1 Kings 17:9-10), and it's the way Jonah will respond eventually too (3:3) – but first there's a rather surprising detour. But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish (v. 3). That was in the opposite direction. To get to Nineveh, Jonah would have had to travel north and then east. We are not sure where he was when he received the command. Presumably it was in the Northern Kingdom, though perhaps not at his home town of Gath-Hepher. Had he been there, the port he could have reached soonest would have been Acco, which lay further north than Joppa (see Map II). It is likely that he was in the south of the land, not far from the capital, Samaria.
The location of Tarshish is uncertain. The word means a 'refinery' or 'smelter', and was used of a number of sites around the Mediterranean where Phoenician traders had gone to find metals. The most probable situation for it is in what is now southern Spain, near the mouth of the Guadalquivir. Scripture views it as a distant and remote place (Ps. 72:10; Isa. 66:19). Jonah's choice is thus seen to be of somewhere as far as possible from the city to which he had been directed to go.
Two questions are raised by this. (1) Why did Jonah not want to obey the command? (2) Did he really expect to change anything by running away?
(1) We are not told at this point the reasons for Jonah's disobedience. That remains until later (4:2). But his response does not seem to have been motivated by the personal danger involved. Undoubtedly taking an unpopular message to Nineveh was no easy matter, but Jonah's attitude later on (1:12; 4:3,8) does not suggest that he was particularly afraid of death. Jonah did not want the Lord to spare Nineveh. He understood the conditional nature of the command given to him. It was opening up the possibility of a positive response from the people of Nineveh, and that would mean that the enemies of his people – and the enemies of God – would be blessed. Jonah's problems were primarily theological. Having already been the means of delivering a message of prosperity to his own people, he did not want to be party to a revival of Assyrian fortunes. They were pagan and had already shown their hostility to the Lord. They were only worthy of judgment. God should preserve the line of distinction between his own people whom he blesses and others who rejected him and should be rejected.
(2) As regards how his running away would solve his problems, there may have been an element of unthinking, irrational response, induced by guilt. He knew he was in the wrong and, like Adam and Eve trying to hide from the presence of the Lord among the trees of the garden (Gen. 3:8), he just wanted to avoid the one he had offended. It is unlikely that Jonah really believed he could find somewhere that the Lord's writ did not run. He himself will shortly confess (1:9) that the Lord is God of heaven and earth. He never doubted that, or believed that one could escape the scrutiny of God (Jer. 23:24). As chapter 2 shows, Jonah was conversant with the Psalms, and would have known the words of David, 'Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?' Even settling 'on the far side of the sea' would not suffice (Ps. 139:7,9).
Why run away then? The key is in the phrase which may be literally rendered 'Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord'. 'The presence of the Lord' was something particularly associated with the land of promise. It was there God had been pleased to reveal himself to his people. Being there before the Lord was the place of the prophet's duty. Going somewhere else, away from the Lord's land and people, Jonah might well have been hoping that he would have escaped from this commission. It was not that he thought himself indispensable in carrying out God's purposes. Rather he thought that by getting out he would not have to witness what would happen when what was envisaged came to pass through some other prophet.
The story continues with the first of three mentions of Jonah 'going down', that chart the prophet's disobedience: going down to Joppa (1:3), going down below deck (1:5), going down into the depths (2:6). The course of disobedience is downwards until the Lord intervenes. 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 the Lord. Joppa does not seem to have been conquered by Israel during Old Testament times, and so in a sense by going there Jonah would already have half-escaped. The ship going from Joppa would have been Phoenician. It is a measure of his desperation to get away that he resorted to going by sea. The Hebrews were not naturally sailors. The repetition of the phrase 'to Tarshish away from the presence of the Lord' re-emphasises Jonah's intention to be quit of the Lord's service.
These study questions are designed to assist individual reflection on the significance of Jonah for today. They may also provide useful starting points for those leading discussion groups. The Biblical references indicate passages of Scripture of relevance to each topic, but we may not always have a complete or final answer to what is asked.
verse 2: What role should patriotism play in the Christian's behaviour? (Rom. 9:1-5; 10:1; Gal. 3:28; 6:10)
Are unbelievers used by God today to stir up the church to renewed obedience? (Matt. 5:46-47; 1 Cor. 5:1; 6:6)
verse 3: What does Scripture teach about God's presence and knowledge? (Ps. 139:7-12; Jer. 23:23-24; Heb. 4:13)
Do these divine attributes have the same significance for the believer and the unbeliever? (Job 34:21-22; Pss. 11:4-5; 17:3)