Misunderstanding Jonah (Dr. Trey Benfield)

Scripture Readings:

Genesis 10:8-12
Matthew 5:38-48
Jonah 1:1-17

The story of Jonah may be one of the most familiar stories of all time.  Even those who no little about the Bible and have never been to church know the story of the man who tried to flee from God and was swallowed by a whale. 

In some ways it is a simple story.  In fact I can sum it up in five sentences.  God tells Jonah to go to Ninevah and preach to the people.  Jonah runs away but a storm endangers the crew of the ship he is on and so he asks the crew to throw him overboard where he is swallowed by a whale or more accurately - a great fish.  After spending three days in the belly of the great fish, Jonah is spit up on the shore and travels to Ninevah warning the people to repent or they will be destroyed.  Surprisingly the people do repent and they are saved.  Jonah then complains to God that this is exactly why he ran away because he knew God was compassionate and merciful and might actually save them.  

The book of Jonah reads like a folk tale.  Throughout the narrative exaggerated language is used.  Ninevah is the great city, the storm is a great storm, we have a great fish.  It takes three days for Jonah to walk through the city of Ninevah.  Everyone from the king to the livestock covers themselves in sackcloth and greatly calls to God.  We are told in all 120,000 people are saved.  Yet for all its simplicity and children’s bed time story qualities, there is a depth and complexity here.  

Although a prophet, Jonah does not work like other prophetic books.  In every other prophetic book, the focus is on the message - the content of the prophecy.  Here the message is the simple message, “yet forty days and Ninevah will be overthrown.”  The prophecy that Jonah delivers is only eight words in English and only five in Hebrew.  Instead, the primary focus of the book is on Jonah himself and his actions, thoughts, and fears as well as God’s response.   

The book also ends with a bit of an existential crisis for Jonah.  In chapter 4 God questions Jonah about the events that have taken place.  God and Jonah enter into a dialogue with each expressing their opposing views.  However, the book is open ended without much resolution and it is unclear whether Jonah has changed.

Today I want us to dive into the text and take a close look because I think we miss a lot of what the text is trying tell us for two reasons.  First, because we are very removed from the historical context. Second, because we are taught this story as a child and we are usually taught a very simple straightforward moral.  By looking at this story with fresh eyes, I hope to show that the story of Jonah is more challenging and therefore has more to teach us than we might think at first glance.

So we start with a standard prophetic call to Jonah beginning with the word of YHWH coming to Jonah son  of Amittai.  This is followed by the command to arise, go, and call.  Sometimes called the prophetic commission, this is typical of commands God issues to his prophets.  The destination is Ninevah described as the great city.  Ninevah was located in modern day Iraq very close to the city of Mosul.  There was an ancient shrine to Jonah that stood on top of Nineveh’s ruins revered by both Assyrian Christians and Muslims .  It was actually destroyed by ISIS about two years ago because ISIS deemed the shrine idolatrous.  

Ninevah is a very old city and eventually became the capitol of the Assyrian empire.  At the time Jonah is set, Assyria was the dominant empire and still on the rise reaching its peak under Sennacharib in the next few years.  At this time it was a heavily fortified city about eight miles around. 

Jonah is to call out against it because their evil has risen before YHWH - literally before   my face.  Here evil is a carefully chosen word implying great wickedness not simply a moral failure, but rather malice and violence.  The situation is to the point where the actions of Ninevah can no longer be ignored.  As a result, the word of YHWH is given to Jonah the son of Amitti and he is to take the word to Ninevah the great city.  In this way Jonah is set up as the mediator in the conflict between God and Ninevah.  

So far the narrative has been relatively straightforward, even stereotypical in its language.  However, we expect the next words will be, “And Jonah arose, went to the city of Ninevah, and called out against it.”  Instead Jonah rises and then flees to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.  The phrase “from the presence of the Lord” is repeated twice in verse 3, emphasizing the remarkableness of this action.  Notice it was the evil of Ninevah rising before the presence of the Lord that causes the Lord to send Jonah, now Jonah is fleeing from that same presence.  

Jonah goes to Joppa which is a port city that lies outside of Israel in the land of the Phoenicians.   Jonah’s ultimate destination is Tarshish.  Tarshish seems to be a real place that is attested by multiple sources, but we still are not sure where it is located.  The best guess is Spain or Sardinia - but it seems to be the furtherest west anyone knew about.  However, the important point is to notice that Ninevah is located very far to the east of Jonah’s original location and Tarshish is located very far to the west.  

The language of the text repeats the word down.  Jonah goes down to Joppa, he goes down into the ship.  When the storm comes Jonah, is found to have gone down to the down-most parts of the ship to sleep.  So again we see the progression of Jonah the prophet trying his best to distance himself from his mission and the presence of God.  

Jonah’s plan is of course thwarted by the storm.  Verse 4 leaves no doubt that the Lord is responsible - the Lord hurls a great wind and the result is a great tempest.  The greatness of the storm left no one with any doubt that its origin was not a severe drop in barometric pressure and various fronts colliding, but that this storm was divine in nature.  In contrast to Jonah who tries to avoid the storm by sleeping, everyone else on board seems to know that the problem they are facing is supernatural.  At the end of verse 4, we are told the ship itself thought it might be broken.  Even the boat is more aware than Jonah.  

The sailors respond by hurling the cargo in the sea.  Literally, the text says that they hurled the cargo to lighten the sea - not lighten the ship as a lot of translations make it.  The idea is that the sea god was upset and the sailors offer the cargo as a sacrifice.  The sailors were afraid, cried to their gods, and hurled the cargo.  By contrast, Jonah goes down, lies down, and sleeps.  While the sailors move toward activity to appease whatever divinity has been offended, Jonah moves to inactivity. The crew is showing themselves more in accord with God than Jonah despite the fact that they are pagan foreigners. 

Notice that Jonah was told to arise, go to Ninevah and call out.  He arose, went to Ninevah, and fled.  The pagan Captain confronts Jonah, after finding him asleep, with the words - arise, call out.   These are two of the same verbs that God used when issuing Jonah’s prophetic commission.  Hearing these words repeated must have been quite jarring to Jonah - however again Jonah remains silent when hearing the words of the Lord, whereas the pagan captain sees hope for deliverance.  

We see the hand of God at work again as the sailors cast lots - literally they hurl lots.  Just as God hurled the wind and the sailors first hurled the cargo, now they seek divine guidance by hurling lots.  The text wants us to understand that unlike Jonah, the crew is imitating God’s actions.  

After the casting of the lots identifies Jonah as responsible for the great danger, they pin Jonah down by interrogating him.  Up until this point, Jonah has met God and the Captain with silence, but now Jonah is forced to answered.  Here Jonah makes a confession of faith emphasizing the God he serves is no local or limited deity as they would have understood, but rather the God of the cosmos. While explaining God’s all encompassing power, Jonah still remains silent about the reason God is angry with him.  

Interestingly, we learn that sailors already know the reason God is angry with Jonah because Jonah had previously told them.  The text has withheld this information from us until now.  That means this is an important fact.  We will return to the significance of this fact later.  For now I just want to draw it to your attention.  

Notice too that. though the men now understand the cause of the storm and Jonah presents them with a remedy, they first try rowing toward land.  It is only after this plan fails that they hurl Jonah into the sea.  Before hurling Jonah to his certain death, the sailors will pray to the Lord to absolve them of any responsibility for Jonah’s death.  

The sailors call to the Lord.  They actually use the name YHWH which is the personal name for God.  Prayer is the first action we would expect from a prophet, but here we find pagan, foreign sailors doing just that and the prophet trying everything but prayer.      

After hurling Jonah in the sea the storm ceases.  The sailors change from worshipping their own gods or the sea god to worshipping YHWH.  Now like Jonah, the sailors fear YHWH.  

So as I said earlier, this story seems fairly straightforward with a simple moral.  Jonah was told by God to go to Nineveh and not wanting to obey this command, Jonah runs away.  Today we are given commands in the Bible and so we should obey them and not run away like Jonah.  If we do run away, then bad things like a great storm are likely to result and we will get thrown overboard, so it is best to follow God.  So that is the message, lets go home - amen!

I want to suggest that the story is a little more complicated than this.  I think the typical simplistic reading of Jonah is based on a false premise.  There are very few instances in the Old Testament of prophets being sent to a foreign nation.  True there are lots of prophecies directed against foreign nations but these oracles are usually directed to the Israelites comforting them that their oppressors will eventually be brought low.  In chapter 4, Jonah says he does not want to go to Nineveh because he knows that God is gracious and might be merciful to the people of Nineveh.  

Taking these two pieces of information, that prophets were seldom sent to foreign nations and Jonah fled because he was worried that that God might be merciful to Nineveh, it is usually assumed that the problem was that Jonah like most Israelites did not like foreigners.  That Jonah did not want to see God’s grace and mercy extended to people who were not Israelites.  The covenant that God made with Israel meant that Israel had a special, unique relationship and that meant that Israel was special and seeing God’s grace and mercy extended to others would threaten the pride Israel felt by their exclusivity.  Jonah’s flight then was made because of notions of Israelite exceptionalism.  

However, several facts in chapter one argue against this interpretation.  First, when Jonah flees he leaves Israel going first to Joppa, then getting on board a ship with a bunch of pagans, and traveling far from Israel to the edge of the known world.  Second, Jonah is not content to let the ship go down because of his actions.  Although he is still trying to flee God, Jonah does offer to sacrifice himself in order to save the pagan sailors.  Third, we learn during the crisis of the storm that the sailors knew that Jonah was fleeing from God.  That means that far from the usual idea of a prudish Jonah spending all his time alone, Jonah had interacted with the crew swapping stories and telling them the sad circumstances that led him to share their voyage to Tarshish.

So I want to challenge the premise that Jonah is fleeing because he does not like foreigners because giving up this notion will allow us to see that the point Jonah is making is much more radical than simply the importance of obeying God’s commands or even the need to extend God’s grace and mercy to others.  

Here is where the historical background becomes important.  When we hear about Nineveh we just think of an old city filled with ancient Assyrians. However, the history is far more interesting.  The Assyrians were really the first people to establish an empire - meaning they conquered other people outside their own ethnic group.  This was accomplished by supporting a large standing army funded by looting conquered territories.  Walled cities were no longer an adequate defense as they had been for centuries because the Assyrians developed siege technology in order to breach enemy defenses.  The Assyrians forced their conquered foes to speak Aramaic.  This was so successful, that 600 years after the fall of Nineveh, Jesus would speak teach in Aramaic.  

 The Assyrians held their territory by intimidation and brutally put down any revolt.  The Assyrians cultivated an image of ruthlessness and publicly broadcast their willingness to torture their conquered foes.   Some of the Assyrians practices included impaling their conquered foes so their dead bodies could be displayed as a warning.  It is thought this practice led to the development of crucifixion.  Conquered foes were marched from their lands naked, strung together by rope that were attached to hooks pierced through the victims noses.  There victims would then be resettled into other parts of the empire so they could be sold into slavery or forced into prostitution.  In other words the Assyrians were the first large scale human traffickers.  Selling captives into slavery made so much money that the Assyrians were able to fund their opulent building programs of cities like Nineveh.  The evil that God complains about is not the result of a prudish God, but disgust in an empire that dealt in horrific violence, exploitation, and oppression on a scale never before conceived of in the ancient world and one that still would shock us today.

The reason it is important, is because Jonah is not called to go to a foreign nation and offer the possibility of salvation. Jonah is being asked to go Assyria and in Jonah’s world that would have been the modern equivalent of God asking one of us to go to the Nazis or ISIS.  In light of this we may have some sympathy for Jonah’s action because how many among us would not also flee if asked by God to do this?  Who among us would even want to offer the hint of the possibility of salvation to ISIS?  

Forty or so years after the events of Jonah, the Northern kingdom of Israel would be conquered by the Assyrians led by Sargon II after a three year siege.  Later Sargon II’s son Sennacharib would devastate the southern kingdom of Judah destroying most of the kingdom and only falling short of conquering Jerusalem itself by some last minute divine intervention.  So think about this - Jonah is a book in the Bible.  That means that ancient Jews who knew their kinsmen in Israel had been conquered and the people deported, sold into slavery or prostitution, who knew that the Assyrians had almost conquered Jerusalem would have read this book.  That this book was thought by them as holy scripture.   It is absolutely amazing because it means that despite their knowledge of the evil of the Assyrians they still read this book of a prophet ordered by God to deliver God’s words and as they read it they knew they would have done exactly as Jonah did.  

Now that we understand this concept, we see that the message of Jonah is not one of the importance of obeying God’s command, although that is true, it is not the importance of mission to people that are different than us, although that is also true.  The radical message of Jonah is summed up by Jesus’ words “love your enemies.”  

When Jesus says the words love you enemies, he also says if someone strikes you then turn the other cheek.  Jesus says if someone asks for your tunic give him your cloak and if he asks you to walk one mile you walk two.  Each of these is a command a Roman soldier might give. At the time of Jesus, the Romans were the occupying force of Israel and the Jews were not OK with it.  Jesus is telling his followers the message and teaching of his kingdom is to love your enemies and that means not people who are mean to you or who annoy you but people like the Romans or people like the Assyrians.  It is not an easy teaching that should be made more manageable but an incredibly difficult teaching that on some level causes all of us to flee in terror just as Jonah did. 

Given the radical nature of loving your enemy, how should we then live? I think the only way that we can love our enemies is because the story of the Bible and what Jesus promises is hope.  Hope in a possibility that the world can be different.  That people can change, that violence, exploitation, and oppression need not be the last words.  That humanity can be redeemed and that there can be shalom and peace.  

In our first reading, we learned that Ninevah was founded by Nimrod.  Nimrod means rebel and he is described as a mighty hunter.  The term mighty hunter would better be translated warrior.  Nimrod is described as a a mighty warrior before the Lord - this is the same phrase used in Jonah describing the rising of evil - before the the Lord.  He is a man of violence who founds the great conquering cities of the ancient world.  Nimrod is the spiritual father of kingdoms founded on violent conquest like the Ninevites or the Romans.  A couple of chapters in Genesis later God will introduce His plan to solve the problems of Nimrod.

Abraham and the blessing that is promised to him is hope because the blessing of Abraham will lead to all the families of the earth being blessed.  It is this blessing that will ultimately solve the problem of violence, exploitation, and oppression.  This blessing finds itself fully expressed in Jesus Christ who presents an alternative kingdom that brings salvation for those oppressed but also offers the possibility of redemption for the oppressor.  

The history of the Assyrian Empire ends with the complete and utter destruction of Nineveh by a coalition army led by the Babylonians about 150 years after Jonah.  However, this is not the end of the Assyrian people.  Like the Israelites they will eventually become subjects of the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. After the time of Christ, they would be one of the first groups outside of Israel to convert to Christianity.   

The cycle of violence of the Assyrians is broken and so they are a people who have been redeemed.  There is hope for change in this world and it is this hope for redemption that allows the possibility of radical enemy love.  This is much more radical than our liberal notions of tolerance which simply allows for coexistence.  Loving your enemy is much, much more difficult

It is so radical that it makes no logical sense in our world.  When Jesus issues the command to love our enemies it is in the context of the kingdom of God that Jesus has been sent to bring about.  The kingdom of God functions different than the kingdoms of our world.  The law of ancient Israel said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  That was a pretty enlightened law for the ancient world since it limited vengeance.  It is really the idea that if someone takes your eye you should only take an eye as compensation.  Jesus is saying now that my kingdom is here, there will be no more violence.  Jesus will stand before Pilate knowing that His path leads to crucifixion and He will tell Pilate my kingdom is not the same as this world.  The ethics of the kingdom of God are radically different.

What happens in the kingdom of God is that evil is punished, the victims are heard, wrongs are righted.  The problems of this world are not simply allowed to continue, but are corrected.  A holy and just judgment issued by God will be issued that will be final and will break the cycle of violence and exploitation and oppression.  Pilate may knowingly crucify and punishment an innocent man but Pilate will be judged.    So there is hope.  

There is hope because Christ says all authority in heaven and earth is mine.  The kingdom of God means that we are free from the power of our enemy.  Power, exploitation, and oppression are over because the consequences of failing to yield to the oppressor is over.  Pilate has no power over Christ because the ultimate weapon of the tyrant is death and death has been defeated.  In the kingdom of God there is no death, so we are free and that freedom means we are free to love our enemies knowing they have no power over us.  

However, there is also hope in the transforming power of God’s grace and mercy.  The centurion will see Christ and Christ crucified and he will confess - “Truly this was the Son of God.”  So there is hope. We as Christ’s church are called to follow by taking up the cross and showing the way of suffering.  It is only in this way that there is hope because this world has shown itself to be broken.  The good news is that all authority in heaven and earth has been Christ and what the cross does, what loving the enemy does, what suffering does is bring about redemption and salvation.  The kingdom is here.  All authority on heaven and earth has been given to Christ so we can love our enemies because we can be confident that God will right their wrong or that God will redeem them.  This is where our hope lies and so in our world loving our enemy makes no logical sense, the story of Jonah makes no logical sense, however, what Christ tells us is that we no longer live in the world but we are part of the kingdom and the kingdom is transforming this world and the message of Christianity is that the old ways of being human are over.  Power, oppression, and exploitation are over.  We are removed from the cycle of violence and the message of Christianity is not about the rites, rituals and practices of a religion, nor is about replacing those in power with a new political order, but it is about a new way of being human.  May Christ gives us at Resurrection Church the strength and wisdom to love our enemies because the kingdom of God is the start of a new world order and it will be victorious!