24 Jul 2010

Jonah #1: God’s Heart & His Struggle with Israel and Us #1: Hints for Reading

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Exegesis, Grace, Hebrew Bible, Hermeneutics, Jonah, Ministry, Preaching

Salvation is at the LORD’S discretion” (Jonah 2.9)

Jonah is one of the best known and least understood stories in the Bible. It is also one of the most profound works within the Hebrew canon. It also happens to be one of my favorite books. I hope to do a series of blogs on the book of Jonah and unworthy as I am to lay hands on this deep work I shall attempt to take Jonah seriously and rescue this work from the flannel board. What follow are some orienting and introductory perspectives for plumbing the depths of this book.

Jonah is only 48 verses long but it carries a “whale of a load.” Here are just a few observations that we can, perhaps integrate into our reading and thus hearing of the book:

First, Polyvalence probably best describes much of Jonah’s vocabulary. That is a term or a word that may have two or more possible meanings and likely we are meant to think of all them. The Gospel of John also loves this kind of stuff.

Second. There are four miracles not one: the storm sent by Yahweh (1.4) as is the Calm (1.15); the Fish (1.17) and the Gourd (4.6)

Third. Jonah is saturated with language from previous biblical stories and psalms. These echoes of the story of Israel lend support to the notion that this story is about more than just a single man. It is my conviction that Jonah is one of the last works of the Hebrew bible to be written and these echoes of the rest of the canon are deliberate and intentional on the part of the author.

Fourth. Repetition is frequent. For example Jonah is called by Yahweh to “cry” against Nineveh. That is the voice of God. The same term occurs in the form of a command again through the voice of the captain who commands Jonah to “cry” to his god. Ironically neither Yahweh nor the captain can get the runaway to cry. Ironically it is the pagans that “cry” out to the Lord (1.14).

Fifth. Did you notice the “decent” of the Dove? There is this “down, down, down” movement of Jonah the Dove. He went “down” to Joppa. Then he went “down” into the heart of the ship. And finally he goes “down” into the heart of “hell” … he is “fleeing” but even in hell he finds there is no escape (echoes of Psalm 139)

Sixth. In Hebrew the sailors simply “fear” in 1.5. Then when they learn that Jonah is a Fugitive of a deity (they are pagans remember) they have a “great fear” (1.10). Then when they witness the miraculous calm (almost instantaneous is the impression we get from the Hebrew) the sailors “fear a great fear” of Yahweh (1.16).

v.5 “they feared
v.10 “they feared a great fear
v. 16 “they feared a great fear to the LORD

Seventh. Here is a little interesting tidbit too. The nameless king calls on the people to turn away from their “evil” (3.8). When Yahweh sees their turn from their “evil” ways (3.10) he likewise turns from the “evil” he threatened them. But then 4.1 opens with a “great evil” coming upon him (most English translations are lame here). What Nineveh left behind finds root in God’s own prophet.

Eighth. Jonah knows his Bible and is completely “orthodox” in his “theology.” His theology is stated rather clinically in 1.9. His prayer in chapter 2 is paralleled in almost every line and thought from the Hebrew Psalter … just like folks who go to church all their lives know the hymnbook nearly by heart … so does Jonah. Jonah quotes Exodus 34.6-7 verbatim in 4.2-3. This is THE Hebrew creed … Jonah is sound in his theology but there is darkness in his heart.

Ninth. When we read and meditate upon Jonah’s prayer in chapter 2 do you notice something missing? Read it slowly and carefully. Stick with the story. What have we seen the sailors do and after wards the pagan city dwellers likewise do that is glaringly absent from the lips of Jonah? There is not one hint of repentance! It is not there. There is religious language in abundance for sure. But the contrast with Psalm 51 could not be more stark … I think the author intends for this starkness too.

Tenth. Jonah the Fugitive would rather be dead than serve Yahweh the King who is so easy. He attempts suicide in chapter 1 but God graciously saves him. In chapter 4 he states it would be better for him to be dead (4.3, 8). Yahweh reaches the Pagan sailors, he reaches Pagan Nineveh … but we are left biting our nails as to whether or not God ever reaches Jonah …

Prayerful reading of Jonah can open us up to the heart of God as well as the truth of regarding his people.

Bobby V

5 Responses to “Jonah #1: God’s Heart & His Struggle with Israel and Us #1: Hints for Reading”

  1. Keith Brenton Says:

    It’s always intrigued me that Ninevah’s king commands everyone – man and beast – to fast and wear sackcloth (3:6-8) … signs of penitence for sure. And that God, in the final verse of chapter 4, expresses His concern for 120,000 people … “and many cattle as well.”

  2. kingdomseeking Says:

    Thanks…I learned some things about Jonah which I did not know before. This little book is a facinating missional text.

    Grace and peace,

    K. Rex Butts

  3. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Keith that is intriguing isnt it. But as you know in the Hebraic world view salvation is far more comprehensive than in the Greco-Platonic worldview. Thus we come to expect a sort of full creational response to God’s goodness and grace. The animals are included even in the Sabbath blessing …

  4. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Rex this little gem has many surprises in it. Its profundity never ceases to amaze me …

  5. Frank Bellizzi Says:

    Bobby, at this point you’re already up to number 3 in your Jonah series. Good insights here. It’s such a shame that Jonah has become a science-versus-religion thing. We’re living through a tough time in the history of Jonah interpretation. Thanks for tugging the other way.

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