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God’s Word for You

Jonah 1:3 to run away from the LORD

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Saturday, June 23, 2018

Permit me to format this verse so that we see the poetry and the parallel thoughts:

3 But Jonah got up to run away from the LORD.
    He went down to Joppa,
      where he found a ship
        bound for Tarshish.
      After paying the fare,
    he went down into the ship,
  and sailed with them to Tarshish to run away from the LORD.

Jonah himself will talk about why he did this in chapter 4, so here we will confine ourselves to the what rather than the why. Some commentators struggle with the idea that a prophet who could praise God for being with him even in the belly of the whale (Jonah 2:5-6) could also attempt to run away from God. But anyone who wonders about this seeming paradox is a person who had never committed a sin, or at least has never realized that other people are sinful, too. Couldn’t a musician who sings about love also fall out of love? Couldn’t a preacher who preaches about the Ten Commandments also break those Commandments? This account of Jonah—not a mere story, but a real, historical event—proves that all of God’s prophets and apostles are sinful men who need a Savior.

God had commanded Jonah to “Get up and go to Nineveh.” Jonah got up and went… to Joppa. Nineveh could in fact have been reached by ship. From the city of Ugarit on the Mediterranean coast east of Cyprus there was a good road to Nineveh that also passed through the important cities of Carchemish and Haran. It would have been the quickest route for Jonah to take, cutting something like three hundred miles from his trip.

Instead of Ugarit, Jonah found a ship bound for Tarshish. There is a Tarshish listed as a descendant of Japheth in Genesis 10:4, a list that is presented for geography as much as for genealogy. Other passages in the Bible tell us that Tarshish was a sea-faring place very far away from Israel. We hear about “ships of Tarshish shattered by an east wind” (Psalm 48:7) and “kings of Tarshish and of distant shores” (Psalm 72:10). There was a connection between Tarshish and the Phoenicians of Tyre (Isaiah 23:1). It was a place with a harbor (Isaiah 23:10) and a fortress (Isaiah 23:14), a place that did trade with cities of Africa, Greece, and Asia Minor (Isaiah 66:19). The most likely candidate for this mysterious place is a Phoenician colony known as Tartessos, which was not in the Mediterranean Sea at all, but was actually on the Atlantic coast of southern Spain on the mouth of the Quadalquivir River, in the region between modern Cadiz and Seville. Ezekiel said, “Tarshish… exchanged silver, iron, tin and lead for your merchandise” (Ezekiel 27:12). The southwestern part of the Iberian Peninsula was famous as a source for those metals and especially tin, without which bronze cannot be made.

Map showing the location of Tartessos

Jonah’s run from God began with a run to the coast. Now he has boarded a ship bound for a place far, far, away. He wanted to get away. A note in the margin of the Hebrew text says that the phrase “away from the LORD” (lit. “from before the LORD”) occurs eight times outside the Pentateuch. Three of these are in this chapter of Jonah (twice here in verse 3 and once again in 1:10), see also 1 Samuel 21:7; 1 Chronicles 16:33; 2 Chronicles 19:2; 2 Chronicles 33:23 and Psalm 97:5. In the Pentateuch, see Genesis 4:16; Leviticus 9:24, 10:2, 16:12; Numbers 17:11, 17:24 and 20:9. Jonah’s desire did not match God’s will, and therefore Jonah was sinning. His sin was compounded because he was a preacher—a prophet—who was intentionally avoiding the delivery of a message from God. Still more, he was involving the crew of a ship, opening them up to the Lord’s wrath and displeasure at what he had done—and we will see soon enough how serious this would be, and how close they would come to paying for Jonah’s sin with their lives.

Our Savior did not run away from his Father’s will, not even once. He fully understood the will of God, and he explained: “My Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:40). Jonah’s actions describe the kind of temptations we would expect Jesus to have undergone:

  • He could run away as Jonah did (Jonah 1:3)
  • He could preach the law with the intent only to condemn (as Jonah admitted to the Lord, Jonah 4:2)
  • He could have become obsessed with some small detail rather than the big picture (as Jonah did with the plant, Jonah 4:8-9)
  • He could get angry with the Father for rescuing the unworthy (also Jonah 4:2)

    But Jesus didn’t do any of these things. He set out “resolutely” for Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). He constantly proclaimed both law and gospel. He never took his eyes off the big picture. He and the Father agreed on everything. He was constantly obedient to the Father’s will, and the Father supported him in everything he did. In this way, may Jonah’s account of a sinful man give glory to our sinless Savior even more brightly and clearly.

Introduction Part 3

B. Supposed Historic Inaccuracies

    Jonah’s description of Nineveh is sometimes criticized, and it is claimed that a man who was present in the moment would not have exaggerated such details as the size or population or the title (“king”) of its master.

1, The Size of the City. The phrase “the great city” (Jonah 1:2, 3:2, 4:11) recalls the language Moses used: “He (Nimrod) built Nineveh, Rehoboth, Ir, Calah, and Resen, which is between Nineveh and Calah; that is the great city” (Genesis 10:11-12). The four places, Rehoboth, Ir, Calah, and Resen, are placed beneath the umbrella name of Nineveh. Although Nineveh itself was an individual city, the “great city” of Nineveh included the other four, as far south as (Moses points out) Calah. This is the same kind of thing we say today when we talk about the five boroughs that make up New York, or the smaller cities that are part of Houston, Chicago, or Los Angeles, or hundreds of other American cities comprised of several smaller cities.

2, The Population of the City. Jonah says that Nineveh had “more than a hundred and twenty thousand” people (lit. “two and ten of tens of thousands of men,” Jonah 4:11). But these are said to be people “unable to distinguish their right hand from their left.” Does that mean that Nineveh had 120,000 little children? That would seem to make the total population in excess of half a million, perhaps even 600,000, which seems to be far too many people for the historical walled city. Recent estimates of the population of nearby Calah stand at about 18,000. This number strongly suggests that Jonah’s 120,000 is also too high for Nineveh by itself but could be the total for “greater Nineveh.”

3, The King of Nineveh. There is no reference to a “king of Nineveh” in any Mesopotamian documents so far discovered (most of these are from after Jonah’s historical time in the eighth century BC). Also, the ruler of Assyria was usually called “king of Assyria” in the archaeological record and throughout the Old Testament (2 Kings 15:19, 18:9, 19:36; Isaiah 37:37; Jeremiah 50:17; Hosea 10:6; Nahum 3:18, and many other places). With this title so definitely defined in the Bible, why would the author of Jonah guess at another title, unless it accurately reflects a lesser king within the Assyrian empire at this time?

Altogether, none of these claims demands that we accept an authorship of Jonah apart from the prophet himself, either on the grounds of style, expression, archaeology, or any other factor.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim SmithAbout Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. His wife, Kathryn, attended the Chapel from 1987-1990 while studying Secondary Education (Theater and Math) at UW-Madison. Kathryn’s father, John Meyer, was also the first man to serve as a Vicar at Chapel.

To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.

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