The second part of our reflection on the book of Jonah.
1The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”
3 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.
The book of Jonah is found amongst the minor prophets in our Bibles. Like all prophetic books, it starts with ‘the word of the Lord came to _______’ and moved onto what the word was and who it was for. The prophetic books then become about the words that were spoken by the prophet. The book of Jonah starts with the right recipe for a prophetic book but we soon realize this book is not about the words of a prophet but is a story about a prophet.
A few things to keep in mind as we start. Tarshish was regarded as a paradise. An ancient holiday destination where beauty was on display and you couldn’t help but kick back and just take it all in. Tarshish was regarded as a place of riches because of the wealth that was made there, from minerals mined from the ground. It’s estimated that it was located about 3000 Kilometres West of Joppa (the port), in modern-day Spain.
Ninevah was no paradise at all. It was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. Assyria was the enemy of Jonah’s people, the Israelites. In fact, Assyria had many enemies. That comes with the territory when you are the most powerful and ruthless empire of their time. The Assyrians were the largest empire of the day and ruled most parts of the known world for hundreds of years. It’s estimated that the city of Ninevah was located about 500 Kilometres East of Joppa, in modern day Iraq.
We only have one other mention of Jonah in the Old Testament. He brings a prophecy in 2 Kings 14 that Jeroboam II would extend the boundaries of Israel. The same passage of scripture describes Jeroboam II as evil and oppressive towards his own people, the Israelites. So, whilst Jonah brought a true prophecy before the King, we see that he is different to the other prophets who would speak out against injustice or wrongdoing despite the harm that could come to them. Jonah, seems to only give the prophecy that helps those who are doing evil, and in doing so, avoids the wrath that comes with speaking against evil people. (Interestingly, the prophet Amos would rebuke the taking of the land in Amos 6, and declares that it will be taken away from Israel.)
So, here is our intro, a man of God (supposedly) who is tasked to take a message to a city just a few days journey away. Instead, he decides to ‘Flee from the Lord’, by heading to the easygoing paradise, 3000 Kilometres in the other direction. It seems that Jonah is up to his old tricks. Avoiding the difficult, for the easy. Choosing comfort over courage. Thinking of self, rather than the salvation of others.
Of course, this is Jonah’s story, not mine, I would never run from my calling. You wouldn’t either.… Right?
I say that with sarcasm because the reality is, these few verses actually say a lot about me and just about anyone else who follows Jesus. There is always an easier option. A wider gate if you prefer that analogy. We often avoid what God has called us to because it isn’t convenient. We make choices every day that often just extend our comfort levels, rather than challenge us to be who we are called to be.
Within this short introduction to the book is a question for all of us.
What is your Ninevah?
What is it that God has called you to that you are trying to run from? We all have areas or callings in our lives that are going to take the effort to head towards. They may be painful to fix or even to simply acknowledge. But if we just keep on avoiding them and head to Tarshish, we actually miss the opportunity to live the radical, exciting, (sometimes) dangerous and counter-cultural life that Jesus calls us all to. So, what is your Ninevah? Can you name it? Are you heading towards it?
That’s just the Intro. I warned you that there was more to this book.
Missed part 1? Find it here – Intro to Jonah: The most grown-up Children’s story you will ever read.