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Monday, January 22, 2007

Man on the run

Jonah 1:1-3
And the word of Yahweh came to Jonah, son of Amittai saying, “Go, immediately to the great city, Ninevah, and cry out against it; because their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah rose up to flee to the sea from the presence of Yahweh and he went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to sea and paid the fare and went down into it to go with them to the sea - away from the presence of Yahweh.

The first three verses are simple and to the point: God tells Jonah to go, and Jonah says, "No." Well, he doesn't speak the words, of course. Rather, he just turns around and heads the other direction effectively ending his career as a prophet. This isn't the gig for Jonah. Not anymore.

What was so threatening about God's call? Jonah is called to the "great" city of Nineveh. Great because of size and/or because of importance. Most of our modern day prophets would jump at the chance to hold some revival meetings at the prominent city of the day. Think of the high-status of the converts! Think of the cash flow! This is Jonah's shot at the big time.

God isn't asking Jonah to do anything except preach and rail against the city. The text literally reads that Jonah is to "cry out against" Nineveh. Sounds like street preaching. It also sounds like it might be right up Jonah's alley. As we continue on in our drama we will see that Jonah has some pent up bitterness against the Assyrians - against Nineveh, and for good reason. So, why not take that negative energy and channel it into some hell-fire-and-brimstone preachin'? Who better to proclaim the doom of Nineveh than a prophet with a chip on his shoulder?

But Jonah is not just any old prophet with attitude. He has some very deeply rooted anger. And this, of course, is one of the central issues of the book which leads to a showdown with God later on. But notice that for Jonah to skip town implies to me that he is ready to effectively resign his post as a prophet. (Stuart WBC 452-53) He is ready to hang it all up because this is a task that he is not up for.

And think of the things that God's prophets have had to do throughout the years? Hosea, for example, had to marry a whore to illustrate in a vivid way the spiritual adultery that his nation had committed against God. And then when his whore wife left him to go back to prostitution Hosea had to humiliate himself by purchasing his wife from her pimp. Given the choice between Jonah and Hosea's situation I think I would opt with Jonah's job description.

God had given his prophets some absolutely absurd tasks - some difficult messages to preach, but consider: None of them said no. They might agonize, debate or otherwise grumble - but they didn't flat out run. Jonah ran. Jonah effectively slapped the face of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The mighty Elohim. (Stuart 453)

In the opening verses of Jonah it is easy to read through them quickly and miss the critical significance of Jonah's action. He is saying no to Yahweh, and this is no light thing. There is no precedence for it. What compels Jonah to act in this extreme? What drives him to resign his prophetic post and flee from his land and people and God? What is it about Jonah and his calling that makes it a worse fate than Hosea?

Stuart puts it this way:
Jonah represents an anomaly. He actually disobeyed God's word, so deep was his hatred for a nation whom God loved, and his resentment that God would do something good for a people who had done so much that was bad. (453)

What we are introduced to in this passage is Jonah's hate. But also catch the subtle point here in these first three verses. Even though God had called Jonah to "cry out against" the city of Nineveh there was an implication that God would show mercy and forgiveness if the city of Nineveh turns to Yahweh for forgiveness. God sent a prophet to warn the city. This warning was an extension of God's hand of mercy. A plea to turn or to face destruction. And it is this act of love that Jonah could have no part of. Send another prophet! There were plenty of others around. This was a golden age for prophets. (Stuart 453) But don't send me.

Jonah was on the run. Out to sea. Anywhere to get away from this call. Did he feel safe when he boarded the outgoing vessel? Did he have a second thought? A sentimental longing to stay in his homeland? For the ones that he loved? Or perhaps he was so driven by hate that a cold, harsh sea journey with cold and hardened seamen was a welcomed relief. Did he feel a sense of relief? Perhaps a bit of peace in knowing that he had eluded this task. As much as he may have feared the unknown, his trepidation was nothing compared to the dread of holding out the possibility of salvation to the city of Nineveh.

We end in verse 3 with the focus on Jonah and Yahweh. This book is, after all, a showdown between the two. Jonah is fleeing from the presence of Yahweh. The calling is too much to bear - so much so that Jonah would sacrifice the presence of his God to get away. The split has occurred. The relationship is fractured. Anger and hate of this kind must be protected and nurtured, at any cost. For Jonah the cost was literally everything he had.


ktismatics said...

"Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters -- four yarns -- is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah's deep sea line sound! what a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish's belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us; we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; seaweed and all the slime of the sea is about us!"

Thus begins Father Mapple's sermon -- Chapter 9 of Moby Dick. You just don't hear preaching like that any more.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Thanks, K. That's good stuff!

I'd like to explore more of the soul of this story. There is just so much going on. I looked over this post again and thought to myself, "Geesh, that's a lot of words." But the writing seemed to take only a few moments. There is quite a bit going on even in the first few verses.

Melody said...

Jon: There is quite a bit going on even in the first few verses.

Only when you flash back through half the OT to expound upon them ;)

It is kinda crazy though, being willing to leave everything just to get out of it.

I guess as a kid I always thought he was scared, because that made sense to me. Ninevah was a big scary city with big scary people who might just take off your head if they didn't like you.

It made sense to risk it all but keep your life...maybe not eternaly, but for a gut reaction it makes sense.

And then he gets stuck in the whale...so what has he got to lose? Even if he had a long life, who wants to spend it in a whale? Might as well go risk it all in Ninavah.

So, veering back to the point, it just seems odd to me, with this idea that it was Jonah's hate making him run away, that Jonah ever repented the first time in the whale.

For what? It seems he pretty much knew what was going to happen...or he wouldn't have been so ticked. And if he knew...why the let down at the end? Why didn't he come to terms with what would happen while he was in the whale?

Jonathan Erdman said...

All of these are good questions to keep in mind as we proceed. Especially the question about the psalm Jonah wrote while in the fish's tummy. It sounds so pious and spiritual. If he had hate in his heart it seems as though it got flushed out of his system before he was....uh...er....flushed out of the fish's system....

I think I'm going to stick with my hate hypothesis for now, and hope it works out for me! We shall see, however, if other options are better. I'm open. There is a lot to explore about this dude.