1 The word of Yahweh came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 ‘Arise’, he said, ‘go to Nineveh, the great city, and cry to them that their wickedness has come up before my face’.
3 And Jonah set out, but to flee to Tarshish, away from Yahweh. He came down to Joppa and found a ship bound for Tarshish; and he paid his fare and went aboard, to go with them to Tarshish, away from Yahweh.
4 But Yahweh sent a strong wind over the sea, and there was a great storm on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. 5 Then the sailors grew afraid, and each of them called upon his own god, and to lighten the ship they threw into the seas the goods that were in it. But Jonah had gone down into the bottom of the ship, and he had lain down and was fast asleep.
6 Then the master of the crew came to him and said to him: ‘What do you mean by sleeping? Arise! Call upon your God! Maybe God will have thought for us and we shall not perish’. 7 Then they said to one another: ‘Let us put it to the lot, to learn on whose account this evil has come upon us’. And they cast their lots, and the lot fell to Jonah.
8 Then they said to him: ‘Tell us, what is your business, whence do you come, what is your country, and to what people do you belong?’ 9 And he answered them: ‘I am a Hebrew, and I worship Yahweh, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land’. 10 Then the sailors were greatly afraid, and they said to him: ‘What is it that you have done?’ For they knew that he was trying to escape from Yahweh, because he had told them so.
11 And they said to him: ‘What shall we do with you, so that the sea may grow calm for us?’ For the sea was rising more and more. 12 He answered them: ‘Take me and throw me into the sea, and the sea will grow calm for you. For I know that it is on my account that this great storm has come upon you’.
13 Then the sailors began to row so as to reach the shore, but in vain, for the sea rose more and more against them. 14 And they called upon Yahweh and said: ‘O Yahweh, let us not perish because of this man’s life, and do not hold us guilty of innocent blood! For you, Yahweh, have done as
you pleased’. 15 And laying hold of Jonah, they threw him into the sea, and the sea abated its fury. 16 Then the men were greatly afraid of Yahweh, and they offered a sacrifice to Yahweh and made vows.
17 And Yahweh appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah; and Jonah remained in the belly of the fish three days and three
You can’t name your son Jonah and not have a little fun with it.
But the day our son Jonah was born, of all the congratulations and greetings, my favorite words of welcome were from a Presbyterian pastor friend, Rev. Laura Viau, who said, “Welcome, Jonah. May you always turn back to God and speak truth to those who need it most.”
It was a beautiful blessing. It also captures the core message of the Book of Jonah in a nutshell.
Turn back to God, and speak the truth to those who need it most. Really, we could stop right there and call it quits for the rest of the month! But of course, we won’t do that. There is so much more depth to the Book of Jonah, figuratively and literally (joke!).
There has been some debate about whether Jonah was an actual historical person, or whether this whole story is an extended parable. As with many ancient stories, there’s really no way to prove either position definitively, and in any case I think the debate misses the point of the story. What does seem clear to me after studying Jonah in both English and in Hebrew (this was actually the first book of the Bible I was able to read and translate from Hebrew in its entirety!) is that whether fact or fiction, the text is the work of a highly gifted storyteller, who crafts and orchestrates the narrative with great intentionality and purpose, weaving together symbolism and imagery, poetry and prose, action and drama, humor and surprise, all in service a powerful message.
As we often do, let’s begin with some names. Names are important. The first one we encounter is Yahweh, a name for God. And that’s interesting, because by tradition, Jonah is a prophet of Northern Israel. During the age of the prophets, in the North, the name for God was Elohim, not Yahweh. The name Yahweh comes from the far south, and in early Canaanite mythology, Yahweh is the war God, or at least represents the militant aspect of God. It wasn’t until much later, after the return from the Babylonian captivity that the name of Yahweh became universal in Jewish religion. so either the story was written centuries after the age it describes, or else we are left to wonder, what’s Yahweh doing in Northern Israel?
Moving on to the other names… The word of Yahweh came to Jonah son of Amittai. Jonah (יוֹנָה) means dove. In the Bible, as elsewhere, the dove is usually a symbol of peace and reconciliation. Amittai (אֲמִתַּי) is a name that, if translated, means “truth” or “my truth.” So putting all that together… The word of the War-God comes to the peaceful dove, the son of my truth. There’s a whole lot of meaning (and irony!) wrapped up in those names, which we’ll unpack over the next few weeks.
One more name: The word of Yahweh comes to Jonah and says, “go to Nineveh, the great city, and cry to them that their wickedness has come up before my face’.”
Nineveh is a city in modern-day Iraq, right about where the city of Mosul is today. Back then, it was the capital of the mighty Assyrian empire, which was in a perpetual state of war with Israel, with Jonah’s people. Ultimately, it was Assyria that conquered Israel, leveled all of its chief cities, and carried its children off into exile and slavery. Nice folks!
In the ancient Assyrian language, the symbol for Nineveh was a house with a fish inside it. One of the chief gods of the Assyrians was Dagon, the great fish god. The Hebrew word for fish is דג (dag), and a “great fish” דָּ֣ג גָּד֔וֹל (dag gadol) is what swallows Jonah at the end of today’s reading. So… the word of the War-God comes to the peaceful dove, the son of my truth, and says, “Go to the great house of fish…and tell them they stink!”
There is a longstanding tradition among almost all the prophets of the Old Testament that when God shows up and asks you to do something, first you politely refuse a few times: No, God, I couldn’t do that, I’m not qualified, you need someone better. Moses says, “who am I that I should go to Pharoah?” Jeremiah says “I don’t know how to speak, I’m only a boy!”
This is appropriate humility. You don’t want your hero of the faith to answer God, “No problem, God–I’m just the man you’re looking for. You just sit back and let me handle this.” Even Isaiah, the one who says “Here am I Lord, send me!” before those words says “Woe is me for I am a man of unclean lips!”
But Jonah takes the cake. He doesn’t politely protest, he doesn’t argue back and forth with God, he doesn’t even speak a word. He just…disappears, ninja style. One verse later and he’s on an intercontinental passenger ship headed for Tarshish.
Where is Tarshish? No one really knows. Some equate it with Tarsus, in Turkey; medieval scholars thought it was Carthage in North Africa; and at least one modern theory links it with Tartessos in Ancient Spain. Basically, it’s the farthest place you can imagine in the opposite direction of Nineveh.
Now, reading this from the safety of our air-conditioned church and padded seats, it’s easy for us to play armchair quarterback and say, “Silly Jonah. He should do what God said–You can’t run from God, or pretend you didn’t hear.”
But what would you do if God came to you and said, “Go to Mosul, Iraq. By yourself. Find the meanest, most angry group of radical ISIS terrorists you can find, tell them you’re a Christian from America, and then tell them ‘you stink!'” Now who’s ready to buy a plane ticket today? So maybe let’s not judge Jonah too harshly, just yet.
There may be some of you–those with great faith, or injured national pride–who are saying right now, “If God appeared and told me to do it, that means God would protect me, too, and with God on my side, those lousy, no-good terrorists better look out! Yeah God! Let’s go get ’em! Let’s drape ourselves in a great big American flag, go to Mosul, and show those evil heathens what the Wrath of God is all about!
And God says, “No. I want you to go there because I love them, and I’m going to forgive them.” Wait, what? After all they did? No consequences? That’s not justice, God.
Now, our text today doesn’t actually say this, but if you know the story, you know that IS how it ends, and in the last chapter, Jonah admits that he knew that was God’s plan all along.
I don’t think Jonah runs away because he’s afraid of the Ninevites. Jonah runs away because as the son of God’s truth he knows God’s true character, and he doesn’t want to be the bringer of peace and reconciliation to his sworn enemy. And if we’re honest, we can probably relate to that. We all have enemies, people we don’t want God to forgive and bless. Or, at the very least, we don’t want to be the ones facilitating it.
So Jonah gets on a boat and heads to Tarshish. It’s a short trip, because a storm blows up and threatens the life of everyone on board. The passengers cast lots to determine which one of them is to blame. By the way, casting of lots is a type of Cleromancy, determining the will of God through seemingly random things like rolling the dice, drawing straws, that magic eight-ball we all played with as children, or the ever-popular basketball technique: “If I make this shot, then it means…” Don’t laugh–this is a practice used many times in the Bible, by God’s prophets, priests, and even by the early Christians in the New Testament.
And it works. Jonah draws the short straw, and then comes clean about his identity. They ask him what they should do, and he offers a surprising suggestion: Throw me into the sea. Notice that he doesn’t say, “turn the boat around and take me to Nineveh.” Presumably that would have appeased God as well.
Throw me into the sea. He’s basically saying “Kill me now. I’d rather die than do what God has asked of me.” This is the first of three times in the Book of Jonah our hero will make that sentiment known.
Obviously, Jonah (like us) has difficulty with the concept of mercy and forgiveness. He’s much better with the concept of cost and payment–he got on the boat and paid his fare. Now it’s time to pay another fare. He knows that he has defied the will of God, and the payment for that *should* be his life. But not the lives of the innocent sailors who are also threatened by the storm. In offering himself up as a sacrifice to save the lives of others, Jonah reminds us of another, later prophet from Northern Israel, Jesus of Nazareth, who knew the story of Jonah and at least on one occasion compared himself to Jonah.
God, however, is not willing to let Jonah go, not willing to let him slip away underneath the waves. Since Jonah refuses to go to the Nineveh, the great house of fish, God says, “how about I bring a great fish house to you instead?”
Next week we’ll pick up the story inside the belly of that great fish house (or whale, whichever you prefer). But before we leave today, I think there’s a great take-away lesson in today’s passage, for our own faith journeys and interactions with God.
It’s simply this: God speaks to us in many different ways. For some, it may be directly, the way God spoke directly and clearly to Jonah, and all the prophets. That kind of divine communication is both beautiful and terrible all at once. I think we desperately want to hear God clearly and audibly, but when it happens, we desperately want to say, “Wait a minute, what was that again God? I’m sure I must have misheard you.” Or go back to pretending that we never heard at all.
God also speaks in other ways. To the sailors on the boat, he speaks through nature and circumstances, the storm and the waves, which alert them to the fact that something is not right. It’s not as clear as a direct, audible voice, but it was enough for them to slowly put two and two together, and then act upon what they learned. To hear God in this way requires being awake, alert, vigilant, and wise–like the sailors, not like Jonah, who was asleep in the bottom of the boat.
What does that look like today? It might not be reading the wind and the waves, but it might be wisely reading the financial and political landscape, the environmental landscape, the cultural landscape. It means being like the Tribe of Issachar in 1st Chronicles, who “understood the times, and knew what Israel should do.” As Christians, it means not isolating ourselves from the world’s problems but, to paraphrase Karl Barth, engaging the world with the Bible in one hand, and a newspaper in the other.
God also speaks to the sailors through something as seemingly random as the casting of lots. Why does this work? It’s not anything magic about the lots, the dice, the straws, or the basketball shot. It just that there is nothing random in a world where God is in control. Proverbs 16:33 says “The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is the Lord’s alone.” Our job is to seek God’s will using our mind, our good judgement, and every spiritual and intellectual resource we have. But having done all that, if you still face a difficult decision…say a prayer for guidance and then flip a coin. But follow through. Don’t be the one who keeps flipping the coin until you get the answer YOU wanted all along.
Finally, sometimes God speaks drastically and dramatically–that’s the “big fish” method. Jonah ignored God’s direct communication. He slept through the wind and the waves. The casting of lots called him out and gave him another opportunity to turn the boat around, but he skirted that too. So God took all the options out of his hands in a big fish kind of way. You’re in time-out now, Jonah. You think Nineveh stinks?
So for those of you here today, who have missed, ignored, or slept through all the other voices and signs, know that sometimes…you just get swallowed. By an ambulance, by a catastrophe, by a sudden and unexpected change of life plans. It happens. But it doesn’t mean that it’s the end. Remember that the giant whale that looks like a catastrophe to you…may actually be the saving grace sent by God to protect you from the real catastrophe, even and especially the ones of your own making.
Remember too, these words of Jonah at the end of the book: The God we serve is a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in graciousness, relenting from evil.
May we, too, always hear and turn back to that God.
May we, too, speak the truth (in love) to those who need it most.