On the Run
So Jonah goes directly to Joppa and buys a rather expensive ticket to a place called Tarshish ... in Spain ... at the other end of the Mediterranean ... two thousand miles in the opposite direction. What's wrong with this picture? The text (Jonah 1:1-2) says he went to flee from the presence of the Lord. I guess he hadn't read Psalm 139 about how the Lord is everywhere. Pretty dumb prophet if you ask me. Pretty inadequate theology, too.
So, things got a bit choppy for him and the others on his boat. A Really Big Storm threatened to destroy the ship. In fact, the storm was so big that the sailors (religious all) decided it must be some sort of divine intervention. They checked with each other to see if they had good relations with their gods and somehow came to the conclusion that the only one on board who was spiritually unaccounted for was this quiet fellow they had picked up in Joppa. The Captain went looking for Jonah and found him sleeping (?) in the hold of the ship. "Who are you and what in the world is going on!? " he screamed over the wind.
Jonah answered honestly, "I'm a Hebrew. I worship YHWH, the God of heaven, who created the sea and the land". Good answer. So Jonah didn't have such bad theology after all. I wonder what he meant by "worship" though.
"Well, what have you done?" demanded the captain, steadying himself as the ship pitched dangerously. He apparently knew that Jonah was running away for some reason, but, being a foreigner, probably didn't know that YHWH is spelled with all caps for a good reason. "And what in heaven's name should we do to get the sea to calm down?"
"Throw me in it." said Jonah matter-of-factly.
But they didn't want to do that. If YHWH was this angry about his prophet being on their boat, what would He do if they picked him up and tossed him in the middle of the Mediterranean? So, they hauled as hard on the oars as they could to return to land. It didn't work. Finally they yelled up to YHWH not to hold it against them for dumping Jonah (they thought they were killing him), and over he went. We all know what happened next.
A couple of questions have always nagged me about Jonah's actions. Why didn't he just repent while on board and tell the captain to turn around and take him back to Joppa? I think the Lord would have accommodated him. Or, refusing to do that, why didn't he just jump overboard himself? Instead of taking any personal action or responsibility he makes others toss him in the drink. This is one stubborn servant of God. If he can't go to Tarshish he would rather drown (he didn't know the Lord had a submarine standing by). If he is going to drown, he wants others to force him into it. He just folds his arms, sets his bearded jaw, and refuses to do anything but what he wants.
Puny prophet. There are a couple of facts about Jonah worth noting. For one thing, he was not faithless. He knew the Lord well enough to know that he was in rebellion. His was not a deed of ignorance or lust or greed. Nothing so crass; it was a calculated risk. Jonah was a knowledgeable, useful, mature minister; not some callow youth, unaccustomed to the ways of God. He knew the Divine Voice and could discern His will.
He wasn't a coward, either. Whatever else may be said about him, Jonah was no chicken. He was willing to breathe sea water rather than change directions. Those who agreed with him would say he had "firm convictions". Others might call him bull-headed. But I don't think anybody would dismiss him as timid. What then? Why this dangerous disobedience? I think it was Jonah's very knowledge of God, coupled with his steel will, that prompted his decision to bolt. Any loyal Hebrew of the eighth century BC would loath the very smell of an Assyrian. Assyria was the greatest threat to the security of Israel on any border. They had raided and prodded the Israelis regularly over the years and were well known for their brutality. Having Nineveh's stamp on his passport would mark Jonah as a traitor, which he was not. His friends would never forgive him if he were the agent of redemption for these cruel people. He had every reason -- political, religious, and personal -- to hate the Ninevites.
Jonah also knew that if the Lord had decided to bring rebuke to the Ninevites there was the possibility that they would repent -- and if they did that He would forgive them. And if Ninevites were going to heaven, Jonah didn't want to. His theology was deep enough to know God's mercy, but he didn't want mercy extended to these mortal enemies. He would gladly have pronounced a judgment on Assyria from within the borders of Israel because that would have meant that Assyria was doomed. But to go into the very heart of the evil empire with a message of possible grace was beyond Jonah's internal boundaries. What the Lord wanted to do with the uncircumcised souls of the gentiles was His business, but He would have to accomplish it without the help of this prophet.
Why would YHWH desire to keep the Ninevites around anyway? There was only one possible reason and any well-read prophet would know it. He was planning to use Assyria to chastise Israel for their flagrant disobedience to Him. He had warned His people on several occasions that if they persisted in their sin He would bring their northern antagonists against them in force.
Jonah's root problem was not ignorance of God. Nor was it a failure of prophetic nerve, fear for his personal safety in Nineveh. His disobedience was a result of seeing clearly what God had in mind, and violently disagreeing with it. He saw God's plan shaping up and rejected it entirely. He was putting in for a transfer to a place where he wouldn't have to see what the Lord was doing. His problem was pride and pride's firstborn -- anger.
Mark Twain once commented that the Scriptures he didn't understand were not the ones that bothered him, it was those he did grasp that kept him awake. Good point. We talk a lot about crass and obvious sins -- adultery, murder, theft, dealing drugs, etc. -- but it's the subtle, internal struggles that most solid servants of God must face more squarely. The tendency to run from the works of God while still defining ourselves as His people is strong in us (1:9). We are shocked and offended when His thoughts prove themselves higher than ours (and different). We start reading the travel brochures on Tarshish. Maybe there is a place far away from this challenge where I can risk my body without changing my mind, where I can "be a Hebrew, a worshipper of YHWH" without having to face my ego problems or my pride, where God's ways fit neatly into mine, His plans fulfill my goals, His eternal counsels meet my emotional needs.
But our Tarshish is mythical. The Lord is doing as much in us as with us, and we must let Him. If we hop a boat to far off ports, He will catch up. We will have to face ourselves sooner or later anyway. We might as well make our stand of faith here and be done with it, let Him change our hearts and mold our minds into His form.
Jonah never did (at least in the biblical account of it) really bend to God's view of things. The story ends with the angry prophet sulking on the outskirts of Nineveh as a generation of pagans rejoices to be saved. Like the older brother of the prodigal son, he just can't bring himself to see life from the Father's perspective.
Will we? I wonder...Just a thought.