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2 Kings 14

2 Kings 13

Genesis 10, 11

Interpretation 1

Interpretation 2

Interpretation 3

Interpretation 4

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Last modified: March, 2002

The word of God comes to Jonah telling him to go to Nineveh, and he flees to Tarshish (Spain) from the presence of the Lord.  En route, the ship is hurled about by a storm upon the sea; the mariners first cry to their own gods then remember that Jonah, asleep below, may be able to invoke a more responsive presence.  Desperate, the sailors implore Jonah,  "call on your god! perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish" (1. 6).  Casting lots, they next determine that Jonah is the cause of the calamity; they demand to know his occupation, his origin, his people, and Jonah answers honestly that he is Hebrew, that he worships the God of heavens, who made the sea and the dry land" (1.8, 9).  The mariners become even more afraid, for now they remember that Jonah had told them earlier that "he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord" (1.10).  The sea is tempestuous, and Jonah, more suicidal than redemptive, asks the mariners to "Pick me up and throw me into the sea; the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you" (1.12). They pick Jonah up and cast him into the sea; Jonah is in the belly of the fist three days and three nights (1.17)

To understand God's call to Jonah, one must find out something about Tarshish, Nineveh, and the Assyians. First, however, the reader should note that Jonah is fleeing from the presence of God.  Recalling that Adam and Eve also ran from the presence of God in Eden will alert the reader to the trouble which is brewing for Jonah. Recall that human beings have been created bearing the image of God: 1. 27: So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. This image of God, though, quickly reveals his human dimension:  8: And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden.
9: And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?
10: And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.
11: And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?

Tarshish may be debated but probably is to be associated with Ezekiel 27.12 and Jeremiah 10. 9:

12: Tarshish was thy merchant by reason of the multitude of all kind of riches; with silver, iron, tin, and lead, they traded in thy fairs.

9: Silver spread into plates is brought from Tarshish, and gold from Uphaz, the work of the workman, and of the hands of the founder: blue and purple is their clothing: they are all the work of cunning men.

This association suggests Tarshish is a smelting place of silver, iron, tin, and lead; ships of Tarshish carried smelted metals to the Phoenician ports of Joppa, the place one will recall where Peter was commanded to go (Acts 10.5) in his mission to the Gentiles. If one looks at Jonah as a missionary of God's mercy, should it not also be remarkable that a hint of the universalism already extends in the mention of Joppa here to Peter's revelation: "You yourselves know it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean"10.28).  It's further remarkable that the Holy Spirit is "poured out" here upon the Gentiles, and they are baptized (10.47)  Jonah, though,  is a reluctant missionary and is bent upon going in the opposite direction, 2000 miles west in the wrong direction!  He seems hell-bent on getting as far away from his call as possible. 

Assyria has a long history in relation to the Israelites, a history recounted by the Oxford Companion to the Bible. Reviewing Genesis 10 and 11 reminds the reader that the Assyrians were not always the enemy, that they, too, are part of the regeneration of humankind following the flood: Assyria is founded by Cush and Nimrod, the first warriors, responsible for both Babel and Nineveh. In Amos, this role of Assyria extends to being a nation that afflicts Israel in all its borders (6),  During the greater part of Jeroboam II's reign in Israel, Assyria had been weak; but under new leadership, it regains expansionary powers and sets forth to conquer the world.  Amos prophesies the coming invasion.

What we know of Nineveh is this history of war; this "great" city is Nineveh and its satellites; again, from the Oxford Companion the following:


Nineveh (Map 6:H3). The capital of Assyria in the seventh century bce, when that empire had annexed the northern kingdom of Israel and forced Judah to pay tribute. Most biblical references reflect this time, when Nineveh was the center of the Assyria they knew. The book of Jonah, even if written long afterward, remembers this period of Assyrian glory and Israelite humiliation. Nahum prophesies the destruction of this enemy (Nahum 1.1; Nahum 2.8; Nahum 3.7), as does Zephaniah (Zephaniah 2.13). Sennacherib is said to have withdrawn to Nineveh after Yahweh inflicted a plague on his army besieging Jerusalem (2 Kings 19.36; Isaiah 37.37). Otherwise, Nineveh appears in the description of Assyria in Genesis 10.1112, where its association with Calah reflects early-first-millennium geography, when Calah (Akkadian Kalu) was a major complement to Assur and Nineveh. Archaeological evidence shows that Nineveh already existed in the fifth millennium bce, and contacts with Sumer and Akkad to the south are recorded in third-millennium texts. Nineveh remained an important Mesopotamian city for the next two thousand years, though it only became capital of Assyria under Sennacherib.


Daniel E. Fleming

Like any individual running from the presence of God, we should expect what we discover in Jonah: once on the ship, Jonah has gone down into the hold and is fast asleep.  This is a return-to-the-womb symbolism; we can imagine Jonah curled up into a fetal protectiveness of self.  We are reminded of the disciples of Jesus first upon the sea just after Jesus has told them that to them "has been given the secret of the kingdom of God" (Mark 4.10); this time, Jesus is sleeping, and the disciples cry out, "Teacher, do you care we are perishing?"  This is the same concern the captain voices to Jonah: "What are you doing sound asleep?" (1.6) Both Jonah and Jesus carry with them the mercy and compassion which can prevent others from perishing.  Jonah is next asked about his occupation, his origin, his people to which he replies, "I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land"  (1.9).  Hearing Jonah acknowledge this God of creation makes the sailors more fearful, especially when they recall that Jonah has already told them that he is fleeing from his God.  The mariners want the sea to quiet down; Jonah wants rest from having caused the tempestousness: "Pick me up and throw me into the sea... I know it is because of me that the great storm has come upon you" (1.12).  As the sailors relent and toss Jonah overboard, they pray, "do not let us perish on account of this man's life" (1.15).  Despite fleeing from God, Jonah or Mercy, is picked up and put back on course--but only after three days and nights in death itself.