This Sunday (7/1) we dipped our toes into the book of Jonah … and by “dipped,” I mean we only got through the first three verses. Jonah is a short book, but it is rich in detail. I don’t yet know exactly how long God has for us in this book; I guess we’ll find out together.
Jonah 1:1 “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying,” (Amplified)
So many of us have learned about Jonah from childhood, that we feel as if we know him – have met him, at the very least. The first word in the book is Now. In preparing for this lesson, I wondered what about before now? Is anything known about Jonah before the account described in this book?
Let’s start with the verse itself. We learn is that Amittai was his (fore-)father. Is Amittai significant in his own right, biblically speaking? If you look him up in a concordance, you’ll find him only through his connection to Jonah. Okay, so what about Jonah, is he mentioned anywhere else? There is only one other Old Testament verse that speaks of Jonah:
“Jeroboam restored Israel’s border from the entrance of Hamath to the [Dead] Sea of Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which He spoke through His servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath-hepher.” (2 Kings 14:25)
What do we learn here? Well, we now know where Jonah was from. Gath-hepher was a town in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean. Also, when set chronologically, the event described in 2 Kings happened before those of the book of Jonah (as many as 30 years before). So we also know that Jonah had a history with God – a good one! Jonah not only had the privilege of God speaking through him, but God had allowed him to see “his” prophecy fulfilled and quickly so. “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah” again, but what was the word this time?
Jonah 1:2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me.”
Jonah was given three commands in verse 2. First, Jonah was told to “Arise.” This “get up” command is seen over and over in Scripture, especially when God has pressing business for His servants. Second, Jonah was told to “go to Nineveh.” Nineveh was a city, not in Israel or Judah, but in Assyria (a pagan nation in modern-day Iraq).
In the 2 Kings verse, Jonah was a prophet with a positive message to his own people. A message – and result – that would have been well-received. Not so with these new words God had for him. I wonder how the book of Jonah would have changed if Jonah had simply been asked to speak judgment from the comfort of his homeland of Israel, as opposed to going to Nineveh to deliver God’s judgment in person, but discussing changes to the ending would be premature – given that we’re only in the second verse and there may be readers who don’t yet know how the real story ends.
Third, Jonah was told to “proclaim against” Nineveh. Other versions translate proclaim as “cry” or “announce my judgment.” The Hebrew word used includes the idea of calling out. As Jonah had prophesied for Israel once before, he was now being called to prophesy against Nineveh. Set beside each other, it occurred to me that prophecy, in general, can be thought of in two broad categories. (1) Revelation of God’s knowledge. Jonah’s first prophecy, concerning the restoration of Israel’s border, seems to be an example of this. Prophecies concerning Jesus as Messiah could also fit here. (2) Call to action. Jonah wasn’t just going to Nineveh to yell at them. His job was to call them out on their wickedness, but what action was God calling them to?
Jonah 1:3 “But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from being in the presence of the Lord [as His prophet] and went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish [the most remote of the Phoenician trading places then known]. So he paid the appointed fare and went down into the ship to go with them to Tarshish from being in the presence of the Lord [as His servant and minister].”
This verse contains repetition. When we notice awkwardness in reading Scripture (caused by repetition), it should serve as a signal to us that we need to look more closely at what was repeated and why. Two times it is said that Jonah was fleeing “from the presence of the Lord.” There were a few cross-references that my Bible connected to this verse. Both gave examples of others who had left the presence of the Lord – Cain (Gen 4:16) and Satan (Job 1:12, 2:7). Jonah had gone from being a notable prophet, listed with Elijah, Elisha, Joel, Obadiah, etc. to being lumped into the same group as Cain and Satan himself. Searching out a ship in Joppa did not put Jonah in good company! He would soon learn that it is impossible to flee from the Lord.
Jonah was fleeing from the Lord, but where was he fleeing to? This verse mentions Tarshish three times. Again a cross-reference helped to clarify things, and actually brought a whole new dimension to Jonah’s story. Back in Genesis 10, both Nineveh and Tarshish are listed as descendants of Noah.
Noah had three sons who left the ark with him – Shem, Ham, and Japheth (Gen 9:18). Some time later Noah became drunk and passed out on the floor of his tent, where Ham found him. Instead of covering his father, Ham ran to tell his brothers, who went to Noah’s tent and covered him up (Gen 9:20-22). Noah blessed Shem, his eldest son, and Japheth was to be blessed through Shem. Against Ham though, Noah spoke a curse. The Hebrew people – the Israelites – were descendants of Shem (blessed son). Tarshish was a descendant of Japheth. Nineveh was a descendant of Ham (cursed son).
In the first three verses of Jonah, we actually have a portrait of the family of Noah. As Noah called Ham out on his disrespectful behavior, God was going to speak through Jonah to call out Ham’s descendants. But was it to curse them again? I guess we’ll just have to see about that.