The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Ammitai, and instructed him to go to Nineveh to cry out against it. Nineveh is a great city, the capital of the Assyrian empire. Assyria is the rising power in Jonah’s day, and it is a cruel empire, known for the brutal treatment of conquered peoples.
Its wickedness is so great that it rises all the way to heaven. Sacrificial smoke rises to heaven from the temple in Jerusalem, but wickedness also ascends to heaven. Sacrificial smoke soothes Yahweh’s anger; it cools his burning nose. Ascending wickedness is like the smell of garbage in his nostrils, and He recoils.
The wickedness of Nineveh is like the wickedness of Babel, which created such a hubbub that the Lord went down to investigate. It is the wickedness of Sodom, where the outcry of the oppressed rose to God. It the wickedness of the harlot Babylon, which touches heaven.
Jonah the prophet is sent to Nineveh to cry out against the outcry, to be a light in the darkness of the Assyrian capital, a light to the Gentiles.
Jonah, though, goes the other way. He finds a ship in Joppa heading to Tarshish and he jumps aboard. No one knows exactly where biblical Tarshish is. Maybe it was Carthage, a Phoenician colony in north Africa. Maybe it was Spain. It doesn’t matter. All we need to know is that it’s the opposite direction from Nineveh.
It’s not a good move. From the moment he heads to Tarshish, he begins to descend. He goes down to Joppa on the coast. He goes down into the ship. When a storm starts raging on the sea, Jonah is sleeping below in the hold of the ship. To calm the sea, the sailors throw him down into the sea, and he sinks – down, down, down to the roots of the mountains and the gate of Sheol.
Jonah’s life literally goes downhill when he tries to flee from Yahweh, when he refuses to be a light to the Assyrians.
Jonah flees from the “face of Yahweh” (1:3). We shouldn’t think that Jonah has doubts about the omnipresence of God. He isn’t so foolish to think Yahweh is confined to the land of Israel, and that if he ran far enough away God would never find him.
For a prophet, the “face of Yahweh” has a specific meaning. A prophet is someone who can come before the “face of Yahweh.” A prophet is a member of Yahweh’s council. He or she listens to the deliberations of Yahweh’s court, and reports the decisions of the court to Israel.
Prophets have the privilege of the floor: They can offer their own counsel to Yahweh, and sometime a prophet can change Yahweh’s mind. I’m going to send a locust swarm, Yahweh tells Amos. Amos says, No, Lord, please pardon, and the Lord changed his mind. “I’m going to send a fire,” Yahweh says. Amos says, No, don’t do that. Stop! And the Lord changed His mind (Amos 7).
This is what Jonah is fleeing from when he “flees to Tarshish from the face of the Lord.” He abandons his prophetic vocation.
Why would he do this? Why would a prophet of the Lord flee from the face of God? Why would he give up this great privilege? Why would he refuse to carry out his prophetic task?
Besides, Jonah knows the promises to Abraham that set the entire trajectory of Israel’s history: “In you all the nations shall be blessed.” In the abstract, Jonah is committed to the calling of Israel, to be Yahweh’s agent to bless the nations, to shine light into a dark world.
Yet he flees. Somehow, this is different. Somehow, this is a task Jonah doesn’t want to take on.
The answer to the puzzle comes from the song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32. Moses composed this song and instructed Israel to sing it. We know that it was a well-known song throughout Israel’s history. Few passages of Scripture are quoted more often than Deuteronomy 32.
Part of the song warns about how the Lord will respond if Israel forsakes him to serve other gods. When Israel provokes him to anger with idols, when they make him jealous by cozying up to other husbands, Yahweh threatens to turn his attention to another nation, to make them jealous and to provoke them to anger by seeking another bride.
It is an act of eye-for-eye justice: When Israel forsakes Yahweh, Yahweh forsakes Israel. When Israel provokes Yahweh to anger, He will provoke Israel to anger. When Israel makes Yahweh jealous, He will make them jealous. When Israel ceases to act like Israel, then the Lord will turn His attention to another nation.
It happens several times in Israel’s history. Before Jonah’s time, Yahweh sent Elisha to anoint Gentile kings who would wreak havoc on Israel. When Israel and Judah refused to listen to the prophets, Yahweh raised Gentiles to discipline them.
In the New Testament, Paul cites Deuteronomy 32 to explain what is happening to the Jews: Because they have rejected Jesus, the Lord sends Paul to the Gentiles to provoke the Jews to jealousy and bring them back to the Lord. Paul is another Jonah who provokes the Jews to jealousy. Paul even nearly drowns in a shipwreck.
Jonah has sung Deuteronomy 32 all his life. He grasps what’s happening when Yahweh turns to Gentiles. He knows that the Lord is compassionate, that He will spare the Assyrians, and that Assyrians will rise up to afflict Israel. He doesn’t want to be part of Yahweh’s plan to overthrow the people of Israel. And so he runs the other way. He flees from the face of Yahweh. He abandons his prophetic calling.
Or does he?