Study of the Prophets #13: Jonah
This week we begin the study of Jonah, another of the writing prophets from the eighth century. We will start with an overview with the timing of his work, background history, then his work and person before moving to specifics of the book.
The general date of Jonah is fixed by a reference to him in II Kings 14:25, which speaking of Jeroboam II, says, “He restored the coast of Israel from the entering of Hamath unto the sea of the plain, according to the word of the L-rd G-d of Israel, which He spake by the hand of His servant, Jonah, the son of Amittai, the prophet, which was of Gath-hepher.” Therefore, we can conclude that Johan lived during the time of Jeroboam II and was actively ministering by a time soon enough to minister to him that he would conquer areas to the north of Israel. Since Jeroboam ruled for 41 years, however (II Kings 14:23-793-753 B.C.E.), and Jonah may have been either young or old when he made this prediction, the specific time when Jonah lived and visited Nineveh of which he writes in his book is left open to a span of many years. However, Assyrian history has been used to identify tow points of time that are most likely.
One possibility is about 800 B.C.E. The Assyrian emperor, Adad-nirari III (810-783 B.C.E., is known to have dedicated his worship of one god Nebo, favoring a type of monotheism. Since he was the only Assyrian ruler who did this, he may have been influenced by Jonah who proclaimed the worship of only one God, although he was speaking of the G-d of Israel, rather than Nebo, the god of Assyria. If this was the case, Jonah’s visit would have occurred fairly early in Adad-nirari’s reign, perhaps a little before 800 B.C.E.
The other possibility is about 760 B.C.E. During this time there was a psychological condition in Assyria that would have been favorable for Jonah’s ministry. There was an atmosphere of general discouragement, despair, and fear. First, there was little left of Assyria’s former great empire status due to the ineptness of weak kings. We can certainly relate to this situation in our own country. Second, a serious plague swept through the country in 765 B.C.E, killing many people. Finally, a total solar eclipse occurred on June 15,763 B.C.E., spreading a general fear among the people. Because such conditions could definitely work in Jonah’s favor, and indeed enhanced the effectiveness of his visit, this later date becomes a possibility and probably the more likely of the two presented in this narrative. Jonah wrote the book after his return from Nineveh to Israel, when he could look back in retrospect and evaluate everything that transpired.
At the time of Jonah’s ministry, Israel was experiencing power, which fostered prosperity but unfortunately increased sin of her people. Since Jonah predicted to Jeroboam that he would expand the country, he lived prior to the time when that expansion occurred. So, in his early days, he may have known something of the much weaker period that came in the early years of Jehoash, but in his later life he certainly knew the position of power that Israel enjoyed.
It is important to make comment on Jonah’s visit to Nineveh. Although Nineveh was the largest city in Assyria at the time, it was not the capital. During most of Assyria’s history, Assur was the capital, located south of Nineveh on the Tigris River, and at the time of Jonah’s visit, it was at Calah (Nimrud). Calah was much closer to Nineveh than Assur, but still south of it by a few miles. Nineveh was not made the capital until 705-681 B.C.E., more than half a century after Jonah’s visit.
Adad-nirari III, the king who at least confined his worship to one god, started his rule at an early age, and his mother, the famous Semiramis, assumed control during his beginning years. Although he ruled for 28 years, he was young when he died. That he died without descendants created problems in regards to his succession. Internal dissension resulted during the reign of his successor Shalmaneser IV (783-773 B.C.E.) Things continued to deteriorate under his successor Ashurdan III (773-755 B.C.E.). It was during his reign that the plague and eclipse occurred, spreading fear and panic among the people.
Interestingly, almost nothing is known regarding Jonah’s work as a prophet in Israel. The one reference, II Kings 14:25, indicates that he was active and predicted the expansion of Israel to Jeroboam. Anything else besides the mission to Nineveh is pure conjecture. Because he was a prophet called by G-d for such an assignment would indicate that G-d used him in other ways; but perhaps not.
His work in going to Nineveh is described in some detail, for it is the subject of his book. G-d called on him to go to Nineveh and cry against the city because of its pervasive wickedness. Like many of us, Jonah rebelled at G-d’s initial call and immediately took a ship to Tarshish in the opposite direction. Ironically, in G-d’s mercy, yes, I said mercy, the ship gets tossed around in a raging storm, which caused panic among the sailors. Lots were cast in accordance with their pagan practices to decide who was to blame for the storm, and G-d used this opportunity to designate Jonah. Jonah’s rebellion against G-d was immediately recalled to him, and he told the men to cast him into the sea. The sailors obliged him, yet G-d in His mercy (there’s that word again), prepared a fish taxi to pick him up and swallow him as he struck the water. I submit that we cannot possibly imagine what must have been going through Jonah’s mind at this time! Jonah was given a “time-out” of sorts for three days and nights, just as Yahshua was in the tomb for that same period of time. After this time, the fish coughed Jonah up onto the shore. Jonah had a change of heart by this time and did not hesitate to head for Nineveh!
When he reached the city, he got down to work. He began to preach an unpopular message. “Yet fourth days and Nineveh shall be overthrown “(3:4). Amazingly, as he spoke, his words took root and the people in their fear, came to repent before G-d and put sackcloth n their bodies, including the king of Nineveh. He also published a decree that both man and beast should be covered with sackcloth and cry mightily unto G-d. When G-d saw this repentance, He relented His anger and did not destroy the city. Instead of Jonah being happy about this, he was angered because his ego was hurt. He felt that he had been made out to be a false prophet, and he called on G-d to take his life. G-d then taught Jonah another lesson as Jonah pouted. G-d taught him though a gourd that grew in a night and was destroyed in a night-that Jonah should be more interested in the sparing of people’s lives than in any possible hurt he thought he had suffered. This is an extremely important lesson for us. We need to internalize the Kabbalistic concept of seeking to receive G-d’s Light with the motivation of wanting to share it with others, rather than hoarding it for ourselves. We need to “get over” ourselves and our fragile egos and look for ways in which we can fulfill our purpose, to glorify G-d. Jonah lost sight of this and so often we do the same.
Interestingly, this is the only occasion when an Israelite prophet was sent to a foreign country. For this reason, Jonah has often been called G-d’s foreign missionary of the Old Testament. However, his message was not one of salvation, but of a warning, as he said. “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Jonah was interested in their destruction, not their salvation. Even so, the fact that G-d sent Jonah to Nineveh demonstrates G-d’s love and caring that none may be lost. The people deserved destruction because of their wickedness, but G-d in His mercy, gave them another chance, just as He does for people today, for now.
Reasons for Jonah’s success with his warning can certainly as always, be attributed to G-d setting the stage. There was fear and despair as previously discussed, but there were at least two other reasons. One must certainly have been Jonah’s ability to speak. He not only told the people of the destruction, but of the G-0d who would exact it and His power to bring it as demonstrated in his own life by the experience with his rebellion and attempt to flee from G-d, the storm, his being cast overboard, and the fish experience. This is a fish story that was so incredible, I think people believed it with little skepticism. His body may still have shown a few markers from this experience. The second reason which is most important, was G-d’s own power to bring the spirit of repentance demonstrated as the people heard Jonah’s stirring message. G-d clearly wanted the people to repent and used Jonah as an instrument to effect this change of heart. It is no different today. G-d is still calling on hearts to change and follow His ways before it is too late.
Jonah was obviously a man that G-d knew was perfect for the job at hand. The problem was that Jonah didn’t know it. The fact that he initially fled at G-d’s call for this mission demonstrates that Jonah was not at the spiritual level of Amos or Hosea, for example. Can we know why Jonah was not totally dedicated to obedience when initially called? Perhaps.
One explanation may be that there was no doubt about the kind of country Assyria was at the time Jonah was called. Assyria had been a great and terrible conqueror of other countries for a long time. Fear and terror had spread everywhere as Assyrian armies spread from one place to another. The cruelty of Assyrian troops was well known. Jonah, no doubt believing that Assyria deserved destruction and no second chances, just didn’t want to go.
Also, Jonah possessed a narrow-mindedness that is often held by Orthodox Jews today, and even some Messianic believers. That is, that Gentiles are not deserving of G-d’s blessings. In the minds of some, biological Jews are the only ones considered G-d’s Chosen People. This could not be further from the truth. This same spirit continued into the B’rit Chadashah and caused Peter to hesitate in going to Cornelius’ home with the message of G-d’s Kingdom (Acts 10:9-21). The same mindset caused the assembly in Jerusalem to call Peter to account for his action when he actually went (Acts 11:1-18). We’ve discussed many times in synagogue that the phrase “all Israel shall be saved” does not mean geographical or biological Israel. Israel is defined as all true believers defined by G-d/Yahshua himself in both the Tanakh and the B’rit Chadashah. So, another reason Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh because it seemed to him that Gentiles should not have the privilege of receiving G-d’s message and mercy. However, it would not be accurate to accuse Jonah of being a man without courage. The fact that he admitted his sin and asked to be thrown overboard attests to incredible courage. He faced his guilt and accepted accountability. He must also have been a gifted speaker compliments of G-d. That the people were moved to resentence attests to G-d’s choice of Jonah as the one to deliver the warning to a foreign nation and for the people to have repented. Foreigners would not have been anything new to Nineveh, and surely there must have been others who had proclaimed their own messages. However, when Jonah preached, the whole city turned to G-d. His words must have been meaningful, forceful, and persuasive. People stopped to listen and heeded. It would be interesting to know if G-d used Jonah in other venues, even Israel. Of course, there is no Biblical record of this, so we must conclude that Jonah’s mission in life was to glorify G-d by preaching to the people of Nineveh.
The book of Jonah is different from all the other prophetic books because it contains only the account of Nineveh. Because it is so unusual, one might ask why G-d would include it as part of His Torah. The answer is not so difficult when we examine the narrative closely and look at the bigger picture.
There was a need for people to know that G-d is interested in Jew and Gentile. G-d had chosen Israel as a special people for Himself centuries earlier and had essentially segregated His word for a time. However, this was not because of a desire to forget the nations of the world. It was in fact designed to make it possible for the gospel to be preached to the nations in due time. Recall that Yahshua sent His disciples to first attend to the lost sheep of Israel:
Matthew 10:5-15English Standard Version (ESV)
5 These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers] cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay. 9 Acquire no gold or silver or copper for your belts, 10 no bag for your journey, or two tunics or sandals or a staff, for the laborer deserves his food. 11 And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart. 12 As you enter the house, greet it. 13 And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14 And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. 15 Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the Day of Judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town. Only later were they to share the message with Gentiles: Matthew 28:18-20
18 And Yahshua came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, immersing them into the reality of the Father, Son and the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” In the Book of Jonah G-d was showing that He maintained an interest in Gentiles even while He was working with His own people to this end.
There was also a need to rebuke the attitude of elitism in Orthodox Judaism of the time as previously discussed.
Also, Jonah represented a type of Yahshua. Yahshua Himself spoke of Jonah’s dwelling in the fish three days and three nights as typical of the time He would be “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:39-41).
Finally, several lessons were set forth that are significant for our generation and those that will follow. One was that G-d means what He says and if we are disobedient, we will be held accountable. G-d always provides for our needs, just as He provided the fish for transporting Jonah to Nineveh. Who would have thought G-d would use a fish instead of a passing ship! Another lesson is that we must overcome our egos and focus on the mission, whether or not we think it is justified. We should not allow our selfishness to interfere with our degree of obedience to G-d’s commands. We are to love the L-rd our G-d with all our heart, soul, and might/strength/resources. Also, sometimes G-d’s warnings are conditional. In the story of Nineveh, G-d did not bring the total destruction prophesied when they repented. However, repentance must be from the heart and not “lip service from people. Fortunately for the animals, G-d’s mercy extended to them also as we will cover in the last class on this book.
Next week we will cover the specifics in each chapter.
Rabbi Tamah Davis
Study of the Prophets #13: Jonah