Last night, my youth guys small group started a study on the Book of Jonah. Before we started the study, I asked the youth how deep they wanted to go into the scripture. Their response came as no surprise to me; they said we want to dig into this stuff! Excited, I replied, “Challenge excepted!” So, this is where we are now. For the next couple of weeks, I will be blogging about my personal study on Jonah. I do not claim to have all the right answers, but I hope that this study will challenge and cause you to think. I will approach the text both historically and theologically (since I believe this is the best way to interpret the Bible).
The Book of Jonah, composed of four chapters and a mere 48 verses, holds one of the most well-known VBS stories. The prophet, Jonah, gets swallowed up by a giant fish (or as some like to claim, a giant whale). Unlike the other 11 Minor Prophets, who prophesy matters regarding Israel and Judah, Jonah is simply a narrative exposition of Jonah, the son of Amittai. Scholarship is divided on this matter. Historically, Jonah son of Amittai did exist. This individual came from Gath-hepher and was actually considered a “court prophet” for King Jeroboam II (2 Kings 14:25). However, scholarship calls into question whether or not the Jonah that is mentioned in the Book of Jonah actually existed. Personally, I have not done enough research to come to a definitive conclusion, but I definitely am moving more towards one direction. Phyllis Trible, in her introduction essay in The New Interpreters Bible Commentary, addresses the various proposed genres for the Book of Jonah. The two most viable options, in my opinion, claim the Book of Jonah is a parable (similar to those in Mic 2:1-5, Hab 2:6-19, etc.) or satire (though there is a serious meaning, the author of this book also uses irony, humor, and wit). So, if we approach this book from that viewpoint, I think we have to believe that Jonah is a fictitious character resembling the Jonah referenced in 2 Kings. However, this does not take away from the theological significance of the story, especially when we think of the importance of parables in the Bible.
Nevertheless, when we read the Book of Jonah we are reading a very unique Old Testament. We are reading a book that has been “swallowed” up by overly simplistic theological interpretations. Yes Jonah was swallowed by a giant maritime creature. Yes he was disobedient to God, and yes God gave him a second chance. However, I suggest there are significant details that are often overlooked that collectively give great depth to this short Old Testament book.
We all know how the story goes. God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, the great city, and Jonah flees the presence of the Lord. Ironically, he gets to Joppa and just so happened to find a ship going the exact opposite direction than where he was told to go (Tarshish). Unfortunately, our English translations of the Bible lead us away from the importance of certain words. We focus too much on finding the meaning in the text we want to hear (which is why I believe we often say we don’t get as much out of the Old Testament). So I propose that Jonah 1:1-3 serves to remind us of the importance that lies within the imperatives. The three Hebrew verbs, קוּם (arise), לֵךְ (go), וּקְרָא (and call), all are in the Qal Imperative. The Qal Imperative shows that the speaker means business. It commands the recipient of the command to go and do something immediately. Here, the speaker is God, and God forcibly speaks the imperatives to Jonah. Jonah (the metaphorical character for humanity), received an order from God. When he heard the imperative command from God, he was terrified. Why would anybody in their right mind go to Nineveh? Surely he would die! Without any hesitation, Jonah fled. He left the presence of the Lord because he was afraid of the unknown and afraid of dying.
This story sounds all too familiar. We are like Jonah in many ways. I know I am. There have been plenty of times in my life where I have heard the divine imperative from God and gone the other direction. Every time I ran, my flight was due to fear of the unknown. Ministry is a great example of this. Personally, I know I have fled God’s imperative command many times. I have turned away from opportunities to minister to others out of fear, and I procrastinated entering into church ministry out of fear. Fear is the great inhibitor. It is the great distraction.
So how do we overcome fear? How do we make God’s imperative commands exciting? I’m not sure if I have the exact answer you are looking for, but I would highly recommend not running in a direction completely opposite to where God is calling you. I must admit, the divine imperative is often frightful and will undoubtedly be uncomfortable, but in the long run, it is the best option. So I encourage you (and myself) to listen to divine imperatives in your lives
χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη (Grace and peace to you) – Michael
* Some information (which I have paraphrased in some instances) comes from The New Interpreters Bible Commentary on Jonah.