A Journey with Jonah – 2
“The Renegade Prophet”
Jonah Chapter 1
The entire book of Jonah is a study in contrasts. The one who writes the story wants us to see the prophet Jonah in contrast with the sailors from the ship, and in contrast to God, and in contrast to the Ninevites, and in contrast with all the animals, beginning with the fish, and ending with the worm, even including the domesticated creatures of Ninevah. Even the wind and the sea and the sun are placed in contrast to this sad man.
I mentioned yesterday that this story is like a political cartoon. We are supposed to listen to this story with an increasing bewilderment at the actions of the various characters. Every one breaks stereo-type in this account. No one is doing the predictable thing.
What images come to mind when you think of sailors? Coarse? Vulgar? Profane? Irreligious? Drunk? Carousing? Violent? lecherous? (Terrible sterotypes by the way!)
What images come to mind when you think of Prophets? Saints? Courageous? Bold spokespersons for God? People of prayer? Martyrs?
Now let us read the first chapter to see what happens to our stereotypes.
Jonah Chapter 1
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” 3 But Jonah set out 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 his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.
4 But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. 5 Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. 6 The captain came and said to him, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.”
7 The sailors said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. 8 Then they said to him, “Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” 9 “I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” 10 Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so.
11 Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. 12 He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.” 13 Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them. 14 Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, O Lord, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” 15 So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. 16 Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. 17 But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
Quite a contrast, isn’t there? In this chapter I want us to focus on Jonah. The next chapter will take a closer look at the sailors.
What’s in a name?
Jonah is a prophet. Prophets are people of God. Prophets are so in touch with God that they have insight into God’s character and God’s plans. Prophets were believed to have been allowed access to the divine council of heaven. In almost every other story of the prophets, they are exemplary people who speak for God, even in the face of great personal danger. They stand in the courts of kings and queens, like Elijah before Ahab & Jezebel, and risk their lives. Isaiah is sawn in two by King Manasseh because of his words. Jeremiah is put in the stocks and thrown down a well because of his prophecy. But prophets are willing to be obedient to God at all costs, and though, like Jeremiah, they shrink from the task, they go ahead anyway. Prophets are heroes of the faith.
But Jonah is no hero. From beginning to end, he is the villain in this story. And it is interesting to note that the traditional villains, the Gentiles and the people of Ninevah, are the role models.
But the question comes, why pick on a prophet and make him into a villain? And why pick on Jonah? I can think of three reasons.
First, the story has come down to our writer from earlier days, and the inherited story is about Jonah a renegade prophet. And those are the facts, says tradition. It was what simply what happened.
But that may not be a good enough reason for retelling it. There is no obligation to wash dirty laundry in the face of the nation. If one prophet were a renegade, why not just ignore it. Why not change the names and the profession to protect other prophets who are not charlatans and renegades. Not every minister is a TV evangelist, but every time we hear of a scandal, it gives the rest of us a black eye. There must be another reason for black-listing this prophet than simply letting us know that it happened.
Second, there is the possibility that the author is making a play on the name given to our prophet.
His name is Jonah, son of Amittai. Now the name Amittai can mean one of two things: His name may mean “Jonah, son of the God who is faithful.” Or, the prophet is called “Jonah, the son of a man who was faithful to God”. But faithful is the one thing that Jonah in fact isn’t. In this book God is more than faithful, but Jonah hates this very thing about God as we shall see by the final chapter. He runs away because he does not want to keep faith with his call to be a prophet.
But it is his personal name that is most interesting. The name Jonah means “Dove“. Listen to a passage from the book of the prophet Hosea. Hosea was from Northern Israel, the place from where Jonah also came. Hosea 7:11-13
Israel has become like a Dove (like Jonah)
Silly and without sense
They call upon Egypt
And go to Assyria.
As they flee I will cast my net over them
I will bring them down like birds of the air
… Woe to them
because they have fled from me.
destruction to them
because they have rebelled against me.
Hosea says that a dove is a silly and foolish bird, and Jonah too is silly and without sense. He rose to flee from the presence of the omnipresent God. Three times these verses tell us that he tried to flee from God’s presence, and yet Jonah’s words in verse 9 are quite clear that he knows that God is the Lord of heaven and the earth and the seas. There is no place this bird can fly, that God cannot reach him. But he flees anyway. He is a foolish man. We are intended to laught at his folly.
But Jonah is more than silly or foolish. That may be the least of his crimes. Perhaps our author chooses Jonah the prophet because of his name. But there is a more serious reason for choosing this man.
Third, he happens to be a prophet. The author chooses a prophet who flees, because that is a distortion of all that is expected. It is unbelievable that a prophet would do such a thing. To be called and not to go! That is incredible!
But our author is not talking about a particular prophet, he is really talking about his own nation. Just a few years earlier they had been released from exile in Babylon, and had returned to be God’s servants. (See Isaiah 41:8-10:42:1-4, 43:10-12, 44:1-2, 44:21-23.) They were intended by God to be a nation of priests and prophets who would be his witnesses before the Gentile world. They were his servants, commissioned to tell the good news of God to all the nations.
Isaiah had said it so well,
“You are a light to the Gentiles.”
“You are my servants. I have called you by your name.”
“You are my witnesses.”
The task of the returnees was quite clear. You do not exist for yourself: you exist to be a blessing to others.
But upon their return the people forgot their commission and instead reversed it. Instead of reaching out to the gentiles, they retreated from them. Instead of loving the gentiles, they hated them and vilified them and spurned them. They were intended to pray for their salvation. Instead they prayed for their damnation.
Our author tells us a story of a prophet who does the unbelievable, to say to his nation, we too are doing the unbelievable! It is incredible. God gave us a task to do and we are running from it. We are as silly as Jonah. We are as wicked as this Prophet gone A.W.O.L.
The Unbelievable Continues
The physical movement of Jonah is interesting in this first chapter. He rose to flee from the presence of God. And instead of going to Ninevah over 800 km due East, he takes a ship to go to Tarshish, the city located in Spain at the point farthest west in that ancient world (about 3500 km). He does not simply say “no” to the call and stay home, but he flees as far away as he can get, and all at his own expense.
And in his flight our author tells us that he rose up to go down. He went down to Joppa, down into the inner part of the ship, down to the roots of the mountain as he plummets down through the waters, and finally finds himself down inside the stomach of a great fish.
But it was more than physical descent, it was a moral descent too. Notice how he is contrasted with the sailors. A great storm comes up. The sailors start bailing, start praying, and end up throwing overboard all of their worldly goods. But where is Jonah? He is not working and he is not praying. He is fast asleep in the hold. But that is unbelievable!
This is not a case of a rocking boat with a minor breeze blowing that might lull any of us to sleep. This is no quiet inland lake with a bit of turbulence. This is a storm at sea of mammoth proportions. Listen to the author. “The Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up.” The storm is so bad that sailors start praying as they throw overboard their entire investment of goods. This is a storm that promises to be their doom. But where is Jonah? Fast asleep! Unbelievable!
Our author is saying, my people are also asleep. Asleep at the wheel! The nations perish and you couldn’t care less. The nations are frantic trying to save themselves and you refuse to work or pray. That is unbelievable!
The Passivity of Jonah
These sailors know that this is no normal storm. This is a supernatural occurence. God is angry at someone. But who? Does Jonah volunteer himself to be the probable cause? Oh no. The sailors have to go through the sequence of casting lots until it indicates Jonah. Only then does he tell them that he is on the lam from the God of the universe.
The sailors ask his counsel, and he says “Take me up and throw me into the sea, then the seas will settle down.” YOU take me up. YOU throw me overboard. The sailors are reluctant to do so and row feverishly trying to get to land. It is of no use. They pray for God’s forgiveness, and only finally do they take up Jonah, perhaps one on each limb, and heave him overboard.
But the question arises; why didn’t Jonah do them a favour and jump overboard instead? That would have been the kind and thoughtful thing to do. But there is nothing in this account that makes us think that he is a thoughtful or considerate man. He is entirely passive throughout this entire scene on board ship. He will not lift a finger to help save the ship or lighten the conscience of these sailors. He cares for no one, not even himself.
One thing is clear about Jonah, as we encounter him in this first chapter. He and God have little in common. We shall come to see that the God of Jonah cares deeply about all persons, even Jonah. Jonah cares for no one.
One of the seven deadly sins is called “sloth” in English. It is often associated with laziness. But in the Latin language it is the word “acedia” which means “to be without care”. It is the sin that does not care enough to lift a finger to help. It is the sin that suffers from “inertia in the face of the possibilities for doing good”, says Thomas Aquinas.
Dorothy L. Sayers is eloquent as she describes this dark disposition.
“It is not merely idleness of mind and laziness:
it is that whole poisoning of the will which,
beginning with indifference…
extends to the deliberate refusal of Joy,
and culminates in morbid introspection and despair.”
Sayers continues in another place:
Sloth is the sin which believes in nothing
cares for nothing
seeks to know nothing
interferes with nothing
finds purpose in nothing
lives for nothing
and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for.
If the supreme virtue of the Christian life is Passionate Love, then it may be that to be uncaring is the ultimate sin. “I couldn’t care less!”
Let us pray that God delivers us from the “Jonah syndrome”, the care-less-ness that gripped Jonah and his ancient audience.