A Deep Dive into Jonah: Part VI

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I II III IV V VI VII VIII IX X XI XII XIII XIV XV


ii. Jonah responds to God’s call, 1:3

1:3. So Jonah got up. Jonah’s response to God’s commission is immediate. The initial verb, וַיָּקָם, corresponds with the opening imperative of the divine command in verse 2. The New American Standard’s addition of the conjunction, but, is unfortunate as it lessens the stark contrast between Yahweh’s command and the prophet’s response: God said, Get up! Jonah got up! This is the exact response the original audience would expect from a prophet of Yahweh upon receiving a divine command. Jonah seems to be showing immediate and total obedience to his God. However, this is merely a set-up used to emphasize the coming surprise.

To flee to Tarshish. The disobedience of the prophet of God is striking. Jonah is told by Yahweh to go (לֵךְ) but instead flees (ברח). Lohfink has pointed out the possibility of a concentric structure of the verse which makes clear the centrality of Jonah’s intended destination to the point of Jonah’s rebellion: 

So Jonah got up to flee to Tarshish, away from Yahweh’s presence. 
He went down to Joppa, 
found a ship 
bound for Tarshish, 
paid the fare, 
and went down inside it 
to go with them to Tarshish away from Yahweh’s presence (1).

Jonah is to travel to Nineveh, northeast, but instead, the prophet sets his sights on Tarshish, requiring travel south and then west. While the exact location of Tarshish has yet to be established with certainty, the best suggestion places the city in southwest Spain (2). This would put Jonah’s desired destination almost as far away from his required destination as humanly possible at the time. His rebellion is dramatic and offensive.

The purpose given by God for the getting up was to cry out against Nineveh because of their Yahweh-opposing and offensive wickedness. This would have meant that Jonah, if obedient, would have marched into Nineveh as an instrument of Yahweh carrying with him the very word of the living God. Instead, Jonah attempts to escape the presence of the God he has been called to represent (3). The table below shows the contrast between the divine command given to Jonah and the human response of the prophet.

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Does Jonah’s attempted flight from the presence of Yahweh indicate the prophet thought it possible to hide oneself from God’s gaze? It certainly seems as though Jonah is under the impression that, if he could only get to Tarshish, he would be out of Yahweh’s jurisdiction and, thus, free from the divine demand just placed upon him. However, this interpretation is at odds with Jonah’s later acknowledgement that the Lord is the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land (1:9). It seems, rather, that Jonah is well-aware of Yahweh’s ever-presence and omniscience. In addition to this, the testimony of the Old Testament is that God’s presence is inescapable (e.g., 1 Kings 8:27; Ps. 139:7–18; Isa. 66:1). Therefore, Jonah’s attempted flight to Tarshish could not have been with the intention of being totally free from God’s watchful eye. What then was the purpose of his running? If Jonah did not actually believe he could outrun God, why does the inspired text say he set his eyes on Tarshish, away from Yahweh’s presence

It has been suggested that Elijah says something similar to Jonah when he states “before whom I stand” to indicate his personal status of a servant of God (1 Kings 17:1 NAS; cf. 18:15; Jer. 15:19) (4). If Jonah was using a similar idiom as Elijah, then, his fleeing from the presence of Yahweh could be understood to be a emphatic announcement of his unwillingness to faithfully serve God. His action, then, is nothing less than open rebellion against God’s sovereignty, a fact that is emphasized by the repetition of the same phrase at the end of verse 3, i.e., to Tarshish, away from Yahweh’s presence. Thus, his attempt to flee from the presence of the Lord was less about futilely escaping God’s presence and more about a declaration of disagreement with the mission and, ultimately, a dramatic renouncement of his role as a prophet.

In his attempt to abandon his status as a prophet of Yahweh, Jonah went down to Joppa. Archeological excavations “reveal that the east Mediterranean port of Joppa (modern Joffa) … [was] the only natural harbour on the coast of the Palestine south of the Bay of Acco [and] was an important seaport for the surrounding region, especially Jerusalem” (5). It makes sense, then, that Jonah, in his attempt to flee as far from his assigned destination as possible, would travel first to a port city in order to cross the Mediterranean Sea. 

Once at the port in Joppa, Jonah found a ship bound for Tarshish, exactly what he was looking for, and paid the fare, and went down inside it. The detail the author includes of Jonah’s efforts to travel emphasize his determination to flee. He travels to Joppa, searches the port for a ship that is heading to the furthest known place from Nineveh, reaches into his own pockets to pay the required fare for passage (6), and then loads himself onto the vessel. At each of these steps one would assume Jonah, who is used to hearing from, speaking for, and serving Yahweh, would have had to re-consider and reassess his commitment to disobedience. Regardless, the prodigal prophet remains resolute in his insubordination.

It is important to note that at this point of the narrative the audience is yet privy to Jonah’s rationale for his flight. They may still very well be reeling from the idea that a prophet of God would disobey and rebel in such a dramatic way. While his justification will be revealed in chapter 4 by the prophet himself, at this point in the narrative readers are left to speculate.


Footnotes

  1. Norbert Lohfink, “Jona ging zur Stadt hinaus (Jona 4,5),” BZ 5 (1961): 200.

  2. Baker, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, 110.

  3. As a point of contrast, Amos, a contemporary prophet of Jonah, responds to Yahweh with the reverence, fear, and immediacy expected: “A lion has roared! Who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken! Who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3:8 NAS).

  4. Baker, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, 111.

  5. Ibid., 112.

  6. Money is probably earned doing his job—prophesying for Yahweh!