Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Mining Gems in Jonah

The book of Jonah is jammed with gemstones of extraordinary value. Jesus himself mined such gems regarding what he would have to experience being the Messiah, being in the grave for three days, calling it the “Sign of Jonah.”[1] However, to be like Jesus and mine gemstones from Jonah, we need to apply his hermeneutical principle of ‘reading with discernment.’ (Matthew 24:15; Mark 13:14) This involves reading the text with our eyes being like pickaxes, digging into it, always being curious about the meaning of the Hebrew words involved, including how they are used; and using our mind like a headlamp to picture the scenes as if they were unfolding before our very eyes, even placing ourselves among them. If you do that, you will be rewarded with great spiritual wealth, even as Jesus was.

One way to read the text with mining tools is to use annotated Bibles offering insight into the text. Facilitating this effort is the NET Bible, which can be read here:

Jonah 1:3 in the NET Bible:
Instead, Jonah immediately headed off to Tarshish to escape from the commission of the LORD. He traveled to Joppa and found a merchant ship heading to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went aboard it to go with them to Tarshish far away from the LORD.
Its note on commission of the LORD explains:
Three times in chap. 1 (in vv. 3 and 10) Jonah’s voyage is described as an attempt to escape away from the LORD – from the LORD’s presence (and therefore his active awareness; compare v. 2). On one level, Jonah was attempting to avoid a disagreeable task, but the narrator’s description personalizes Jonah’s rejection of the task. Jonah’s issue is with the LORD himself, not just his commission. The narrator’s description is also highly ironic, as the rest of the book shows. Jonah tries to sail to Tarshish, in the opposite direction from Nineveh, as if by doing that he could escape from the LORD, when the LORD is the one who knows all about Nineveh’s wickedness and is involved in all that happens to Jonah throughout the book. Compare Jonah’s explanation when talking with the LORD (see 4:2).
It also seems like Jonah should have reflected on the Psalm penned by David, Psalm 139:7-12 on the utter futility of trying to run and hide from the Almighty God. This theme though is emphasized in his choice of Joppa to flee from:
Joppa was a small harbor town on the Palestinian coast known as Yepu in the Amarna Letters (14 century b.c.) and Yapu in Neo-Assyrian inscriptions (9th-8th centuries B.C.). It was a port through which imported goods could flow into the Levant (Josh 19:46; 2 Chr 2:15 [16]; Ezra 3:7). It was never annexed by Israel until the Maccabean period (ca. 148 b.c.; 1 Macc 10:76). Jonah chose a port where the people he would meet and the ships he could take were not likely to be Israelite. Once in Joppa he was already partly “away from the LORD” as he conceived it.
Rabbi Professor and Jewish theologian Jonathan Magonet comments regarding his flight:
To flee from God, he reproduces the experience of the patriarchs, of ancient Israel and of the Jewish people, of going into exile, but this time against the will of God. Yet the author hints that his flight is more than just an attempt to escape the immediate task. Three times the Hebrew verb for ‘going down’ (yarad) occurs in the first chapter—as Jonah goes down to Jaffa [Joppa], and into the boat (v. 3), then down into the innermost part of the boat to sleep (v. 5)—and then a fourth time, because of a pun in the Hebrew text, when he goes into a deep sleep (vayeiradam). There is a direction in his journey—into unconsciousness as he sleeps though the storm, and ultimately into oblivion, as he asks to be thrown overboard. Jonah in flight is on a journey away from God, on a journey towards death.[2]
Jonah explained his disastrous decision in Jonah 4:2 in the NET Bible, which says with “LORD” being replaced with “Jehovah”:
He prayed to [Jehovah] and said, “Oh, [Jehovah], this is just what I thought would happen when I was in my own country. This is what I tried to prevent by attempting to escape to Tarshish! – because I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in mercy, and one who relents concerning threatened judgment.
The footnote for Tarshish explains:
The narrator skillfully withheld Jonah’s motivations from the reader up to this point for rhetorical effect – to build suspense and to create a shocking, surprising effect. Now, for the first time, the narrator reveals why Jonah fled from the commission of God in 1:3 – he had not wanted to give God the opportunity to relent from judging Nineveh! Jonah knew that if he preached in Nineveh, the people might repent and as a result, God might more than likely relent from sending judgment. Hoping to seal their fate, Jonah had originally refused to preach so that the Ninevites would not have an opportunity to repent. Apparently Jonah hoped that God would have therefore judged them without advance warning. Or perhaps he was afraid he would betray his nationalistic self-interests by functioning as the instrument through which the LORD would spare Israel’s main enemy. Jonah probably wanted God to destroy Nineveh for three reasons:
  1. as a loyal nationalist, he despised non-Israelites (cf. 1:9);
  2. he believed that idolaters had forfeited any opportunity to be shown mercy (cf. 2:9-10); and
  3. the prophets Amos and Hosea had recently announced that God would sovereignly use the Assyrians to judge unrepentant Israel (Hos 9:3; 11:5) and take them into exile (Amos 5:27). If God destroyed Nineveh, the Assyrians would not be able to destroy Israel. The better solution would have been for Jonah to work for the repentance of Nineveh and Israel.
Thus, Jonah fleeing his commission was not necessarily out of panicked fear, but from his own confession, it was due to selfishly wanting to spare the Israelites by having the capital of the Assyrians destroyed, thus hopefully removing that potentially ominous threat from the horizon. (However, Jonah’s mention at 2 Kings 14:23-25 seems to place him prior to the ministries of Amos and Hosea, during the idolatrous reign of Jeroboam II,[3] imbuing point 3 with irony as the Ninevites returned to their wicked ways, seemingly justifying Jonah’s concern!)

In Jonah 1:5 where “The sailors were so afraid that each cried out to his own god,” the NET Bible notes:
Or “gods” (CEV, NLT). The plural noun אֱלֹהִים (ʾelohim) might be functioning either as a plural of number (“gods”) or a plural of majesty (“god”) – the form would allow for either. As members of a polytheistic culture, each sailor might appeal to several gods. However, individuals could also look to a particular god for help in trouble. Tg. Jonah 1:5 interpretively renders the line, “Each man prayed to his idols, but they saw that they were useless.”
This shows a usage where ʾelohim may function as “plural of majesty.”

In the next verse, Jonah 1:6, we read:
The ship’s captain approached him and said, “What are you doing asleep? Get up! Cry out to your god! Perhaps your god might take notice of us so that we might not die!”
Regarding Get up! Cry out, it notes:
The imperatives “arise!” and “cry out!” are repeated from v. 2 [“Go immediately … and announce] for ironic effect. The captain’s words would have rung in Jonah’s ears as a stinging reminder that the LORD had uttered them once before. Jonah was hearing them again because he had disobeyed them before.
This tangible irony was also noted by Magonet, when he wrote:
Certainly for Jonah other messages were continually coming through. In one of the most subtle ploys of the author, the words of the captain to Jonah when he asks him to rise up and call on his God (1.6) are identical with the words of God’s call. For the captain they merely mean: ‘Wake up and pray!’ For Jonah the words of God echo in the air waiting for him to respond. Thus the captain becomes the unconscious messenger of God’s word, and indeed the wind, the storm, as later on the fish, the gourd, the worm, all of nature, become agents of God, bringing the divine word to the recalcitrant prophet.[4]
Thus, mining this account also reveals the gem of agency.

Continuing to Jonah 1:14, we read:
So they cried out to the LORD, “Oh, please, LORD, don’t let us die on account of this man! Don’t hold us guilty of shedding innocent blood. …”
The NET Bible notes:
“Do not put against us innocent blood,” that is, “Do not assign innocent blood to our account.” It seems that the sailors were afraid that they would die if they kept Jonah in the ship and also that they might be punished with death if they threw him overboard.
As far as they knew, Jonah had died, sacrificing his life to save them. In this sense, he ironically acted as a Christ-like character. However, Jonah in his viewpoint may have anticipated dying in the stormy waves as a relief from his divinely-instigated torment.

This later point is manifested in Jonah 2:6, where the NET Bible offers an enlightening translation:
I went down to the very bottoms of the mountains; the gates of the netherworld barred me in forever; but you brought me up from the Pit, O LORD, my God.
Regarding the gates, the NET Bible interestingly notes:
“As for the earth, its bars…” … The word translated “bars” appears elsewhere to speak of bars used in constructing the sides of the tabernacle and often of crossbars (made of wood or metal) associated with the gates of fortified cities (cf. Exod 36:31-34; Judg 16:3; 1 Kgs 4:13; Neh 3:3; Pss 107:16; 147:13; Isa 45:1-2).
Regarding the translation of netherworld, it notes:
“the earth.” The noun אֶרֶץ (ʾerets) usually refers to the “earth” but here refers to the “netherworld” (e.g., Job 10:21, 22; Ps 139:15; Isa 26:19; 44:23; BDB 76 s.v. אֶרֶץ2.g). This is parallel to the related Akkadian term irsitu used in the phrase “the land of no return,” that is, the netherworld. This refers to the place of the dead (along with “belly of Sheol,” v. 2, and “the grave,” v. 6), which is sometimes described as having “gates” (Job 38:17; Ps 107:18).
Similarly, it notes regarding the Pit:
Jonah pictures himself as being at the very gates of the netherworld (v. 6b) and now within the Pit itself (v. 6c). He is speaking rhetorically, for he had not actually died. His point is that he was as good as dead if God did not intervene immediately. See Pss 7:15; 30:3; 103:4; Ezek 19:3-4, 8.
Magonet comments further: “For Jonah in flight, even death seems to be the better option than living with the God who haunts him. But even the luxury of death is not permitted him—waiting in the wings is the fish.”[5]

Regarding this “fish,” and the language of agency noted above, we should compare how both it and the worm are described. In Jonah 1:17, God “sent a huge fish,” and in Jonah 4:7 “God sent a worm.” All of His creatures regardless of their size or mass immediately respond to His bidding without any dissension, unlike Jonah of God’s crowning creation created in His image. (Genesis 1:26-27) Additionally, the NET Bible notes that the same word sent is used for both the fish and worm.

Regarding the fish:
Or “appointed” (NASB); NLT “had arranged for.” The Piel verb מִנָּה (minnah) means “to send, to appoint” (Ps 61:8; Jonah 2:1; 4:6-8; Dan 1:5, 10-11; HALOT 599 s.v. מנה 2; BDB 584 s.v. מָנָה). Joyce Baldwin notes, “Here, with YHWH as the subject, the verb stresses God’s sovereign rule over events for the accomplishment of his purpose (as in 4:6-8, where the verb recurs in each verse). The ‘great fish’ is in exactly the right place at the right time by God’s command, in order to swallow Jonah and enclose him safely” (Joyce Baldwin, “Jonah,” The Minor Prophets, 2:566).
Regarding the worm:
Or “appointed.” The verb מָנָה (manah) in the Piel stem means “to send, to appoint” (Ps 61:8; Jonah 2:1; 4:6-8; Dan 1:5, 10-11; HALOT 599 s.v. מנה 2; BDB 584 s.v. מָנָה).
Thus these were miraculous appointments, and they both responded without any deliberation.

All in all, my favorite gems mined from an analytical reading of Jonah are of agency and realizing that Jonah may not have run in the opposite direction out of fear of the brutal, bloodthirsty Ninevites. Instead, as he himself confessed, he may have selfishly wanted that potential threat to Israel’s existence eliminated. In other words, warn them and they will repent and live; do not warn them, and the potential dreadful threat is removed!

Jonah is featured in an epic dramatization in the 2018 Regional Convention: The Story of Jonah—A Lesson in Courage and Mercy.

[1] This phrase is explained here, along with other spiritual gems:
[2] Bible Lives. London: SCM Press Ltd. 1992. 138
[3] Bible Book Number 32​—Jonah. “All Scripture Is Inspired of God and Beneficial” p. 153 Additionally, the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible in its introduction to Jonah states that the reference to Jonah in 2 Kings 14:25 “places the setting for the book…in the generation just before Amos and Hosea,” during the reign of Jeroboam II.
[4] Supra note 2. 140
[5] Ibid.

Additional reading:

All underscoring is added, and all italics are original.