The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”
But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.
Reflect on times when God has spoken to you, whether through the words of Scripture, in your prayer life, through the encouragement or admonition of your family or friends, or in another way. What was your immediate response to God’s voice? Have you continued to hear His voice speak to you? What have your subsequent responses been?
This passage introduces the story of Jonah’s ministry as a prophet of God; however, Jonah’s call appears very different than the other call stories of prophets in the Old Testament. The two most obvious of these differences are Jonah’s immediate response to God’s call and the audience to whom God is calling Jonah to prophesy. Read 1 Samuel 3:1–14 to see a different perspective on God’s call of a prophet.
Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire during a time of great expansion that included a view towards the conquest of Israel and Judah, and the Assyrians actively engaged in the worship of many pagan gods. Despite their worship of gods other than God, God seeks to reach out to the people of Nineveh.
Joppa was the primary seaport of Israel, which was located approximately sixty miles from Gath-Hepher, which 2 Kings 14:25 records as the birthplace of Jonah. Tarshish was approximately 2,500 miles west of Joppa, while Nineveh was located roughly 550 miles northeast of Joppa. Another way to think about Tarshish is that it was as far west as the people of Israel could think about fleeing away from Israel.
The Israelites were not noted as open water sailors; while Solomon is credited with building a sizable merchant fleet, he hired sailors from King Hiram of Lebanon to actually man these vessels. For Jonah to have taken passage on a ship bound for Tarshish would have involved him confronting one of the great fears of the Israelites: sailing beyond sight of land.
The meaning behind names was especially important to the Hebrew people, as an example, Jacob (which means supplanter) spent most of his early life in a struggle to overtake the position of his older brother Esau, and after he had wrestled with God, his name was changed to Israel (which means God contended). Jonah means dove, while the name of his father, Amittai, means truth.
The Bible contains a great deal of imagery of a dove being sent forth by someone, specifically Noah sending a dove to see if the flood waters had receded and God sending the Holy Spirit upon Jesus in the form of a dove at Christ’s baptism. In this passage, God seeks to send His dove, Jonah, to Nineveh; however, the dove flees from the one who has sent it forth.
Jonah’s story begins with him running away from God’s call, for reasons that he explains later, and while this is a familiar story to many, one of the joys of the Bible is learning new and often eye-opening information about stories that are already well-known. What will God’s response to the flight of His dove be?
Lord God, the Bible is filled with stories of people who we often think are not like we are, whether we see them as too holy to relate to or too evil to even contemplate, while in reality, these stories are truly about people who are just like we are. We confess that like Jonah, we sometimes desire to flee from You and from the tasks that You have set before us. Open our eyes to Your Presence and our ears to Your Call that might know the ways in which You are working within our lives and the ways that You are seeking to call us into Your work within Creation. Help us to respond to Your Call, not in fear but in the faith that You are our God who seeks good for each and every one of us. In Christ’s Name, we pray; amen.
The book of Jonah is much more than a story about a man who went overboard and ended up in the belly of a whale; it’s also about the way God goes overboard to show his love to the world. Join us as we look into the book and listen to God’s heart!