“Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me.’ But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:1-3, NKJV).[i]
The Book of Jonah is one of the Minor Prophets in the Bible. It is described by the famed Tanach teacher, Nehama Leibowitz as a mystery story. There are so many critical gaps; it is nearly impossible to make sense of the narrative flow. It tells of a Hebrew prophet named Jonah, son of Amittai who is sent by God to prophesy the destruction of Nineveh (Figure 1) but tries to escape the divine mission. It is set in the reign of Jeroboam II (786–746 B.C.), and was probably written in the post-exilic period, sometime between the late 5th to early 4th century B.C. Nineveh, where Jonah preached, was the capital of the ancient Assyrian empire, were ardent enemies of Israel, and fell to the Babylonians and the Medes in 612 B.C.
The narrative quickly raises several important questions: How can Jonah, a divinely appointed prophet, think he can flee from the presence of God? Why has God sent Jonah to Nineveh? And why doesn’t Jonah want to go? To answer these questions, let us turn to the Midrashic narrative, a parable and narrative expansion of the original story.[i]
“And Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.”
Was he (really) fleeing from before God?!
Doesn’t it already say, “Where will I go from Your spirit, and where from Your face will I flee? If I go up to the heavens, there You are…” (Psalm 139:7-8);
And it says, “…the eyes of God move over the whole earth” (Zechariah 4:10);
And it is written, “In every place, the eyes of God watch…” (Proverbs 15:3);
And it is written, “If they dig down into the grave, from there My hand will take them…” (Amos 9:2);
And it is written, “There is no darkness, and there is no shadow of death (in which) to hide…” (Job 34:22).
But rather Jonah said,
“I will go outside the Land (of Israel) because the Divine presence is not revealed there,
for the nations (Nineveh) are close to repenting,
(and I do not want to go to Nineveh) so as not to convict Israel.”
They gave a parable (that compares to this)
To a servant who fled from his master, a priest, to a graveyard.
He said, “I will flee to a graveyard, a place that my master cannot follow me.”
His master said to him, “I have (other) servants like you.”
Thus, Jonah said, “I will go outside the Land (of Israel)…”
The Holy One blessed be He said, “I have (other) servants like you.”
As it says, “And God cast a great wind on the sea…” (Jonah 1:4).
Let us first understand this Midrashic structure:
Line 1 – The opening words, or words that start (dibur hamat’hil).
Line 2-6 – The prooftexts, e.g., verses from other parts of the bible used for commentary (Petihta).
Lines 7-10 – First part of the Midrashic story, i.e., narrative expansion (1st Mashal).
Lines 11-14 – Second part of the Midrashic story, i.e., parable (2nd Mashal).
Lines 15-17 – The explanation of the Midrashic story (Nimshal).
How can Jonah, a divinely appointed prophet think he can flee from the presence of God? It appears from scripture that it is impossible to escape, even in the shadow of death (lines 1-6). So, if Jonah was not fleeing from before God, then the only plausible explanation is that Jonah must have been fleeing from his responsibility to act as a prophet of God. But why?
One linear interpretation is that Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire were enemies of Israel, severely persecuted and exiled the northern ten tribes. Jonah’s distaste certain could have been a strong motivator for not wanting to repent and escape God’s judgment. But scripture is not that simple, and the Midrashic narrative gives us another perspective.
In the narrative, Jonah said, “I will go outside the Land (of Israel) because the Divine presence is not revealed there, for the nations (Nineveh) is close to repenting, (and I do not want to go to Nineveh) so as not to convict Israel.” Jonah knows the people of Nineveh are on the verge of repenting. Israel, however, is not close, even after many prophets have been sent to them, and even after the Assyrian occupation and exile. What dilemma does this pose for Jonah, and (in his perception) for God? A Jewish prophet is sent to a gentile nation, an arched enemy of Israel. They repent, but Israel does not? What will the nations say about the God of Israel? Can’t he even save His own people? Will this defile God’s name? Will it shame God’s people? And, will this bring God’s further judgment against Jonah’s people, Israel?
Jonah’s desire to avoid being the instrument of God’s plan is seriously flawed. If God wants to convict Israel, Jonah’s flight cannot prevent it. Either God will send another prophet to do Jonah’s job, or God will somehow force Jonah to return to Israel, receive the prophecy, and carry out his assignment.
Going to an even deeper level in the Midrashic narrative we find the Mashal and its associated Nimshal do not so much focus on why Jonah was fleeing his prophetic assignment, but more on the place where Jonah was fleeing to. Why? Let us compare the metaphoric elements of the Mashal and Nimshal:
Jonah believed that God’s presence would not leave the land of Israel. True or untrue, the Mashal forcefully makes the point that a prophet’s abandoning the Land of Israel cuts himself off from prophecy. This is tantamount to seeking death. This is a graveyard for Jonah. Similar, a prophet who removes himself from God’s people also cuts himself off from God’s life. It is a form of spiritual death. Has not the removal of prophecy from the church been a form of spiritual death for both the church at her prophets? It is now clear that Jonah himself is seeking death. His own people have rejected Jonah, and now the Lord commands him to go the Assyrians? He would rather die than fulfill his prophetic assignment. This is further reinforced in the story of Jonah, e.g., his descent to the hold of the ship to sleep during the storm, his willingness to be thrown overboard into a raging sea, and his two requests to God in chapter 4, verses three and eight that he would rather die than continue living.
But this story is one of hope and redemption, for Noah, the Jewish people, and the Gentile nations who repent before the Lord: “Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the fish's belly. And he said: ‘I cried out to the LORD because of my affliction, And He answered me. ‘Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, And You heard my voice… I went down to the moorings of the mountains; The earth with its bars closed behind me forever; Yet You have brought up my life from the pit, O LORD, my God’” (Jonah 2:12 & 6). For we see in this story a picture of the coming Messiah, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40).
God will not allow Jonah to die and will force him to fulfill his mission. The servants that God employs will not replace Jonah but will be used to bring him back to the land of Israel, to receive the prophesy and deliver it. The ship, storm, sailors, and the huge fish are all God’s servants, instruments of His will, just as Jonah will be. Jonah will have to change from a person who seeks death and evades his prophetic role, into a prophet who learns the lessons God wants to teach him and becomes obedient to God’s will.
You also will fulfill the prophetic mission that the Lord has set before you, for His word will not return to Him void. As you learn the lessons of God and become obedient to His will, speaking as a prophet of the Lord, you also will return His word to Him fulfilled.