1 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” 3 But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. – Jonah 1:1-3 ESV
When most of us hear the name, Jonah, we immediately think of his encounter with the big fish. But long before Jonah found himself in the “belly of the whale,” he had a divine encounter with God Almighty. The opening line of the book describes Jonah receiving “the word of the Lord.” In this verse, the Hebrew name used of God is Yᵊhōvâ, which is sometimes translated as Jehovah. In the Hebrew Scriptures, it was written as YHWH. This is because, in its written form, ancient Hebrew did not include the vowels. Also known as the tetragrammaton, this abbreviated name of God has been the center of much debate regarding its exact pronunciation. Some argue that it should be pronounced, “Yahweh” (YAH-way), while others prefer “Yehowah,” which, in its more modernized form, became “Jehovah.” But regardless of how the word is pronounced, it’s important that we understand that YHWH is the central character of this story, not Jonah. Within the context of 48 verses, the author will mention God 39 times, using three different names in the process. And these varying names of God are directly associated with the different characters and circumstances found in the story.
For instance, YHWH (Yahweh) is used 22 times and almost exclusively in those instances when God is dealing directly with Jonah, who happens to be a Hebrew. Yet when God interacts with Gentiles in the story, the author uses the more generic name Elohim or El. He does this 13 times. Finally, there are four occasions when God is referred to as YHWH Elohim or Lord God. We see this in verse 9 of the opening chapter when Jonah tells the sailors the name of the God he worships.
For the author, these varying designations for God serve an important purpose. They help to establish the difference between God’s relationship with His chosen people and the rest of the Gentile world. As was stated in yesterday’s post, Jonah is intended to represent the Jewish people. But as the story unfolds, we will be introduced to Gentile sailors and an entire city comprised of evil Gentile Assyrians. As a Hebrew, Jonah would have had an intimate understanding of YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But the Gentile captain of the boat on which Jonah attempted to flee from God would have had little knowledge of the God of Israel. So, in verse 9, when he begs Jonah to “call out to your god!” he uses the more generic term, “Elohim.”
The entire story found in the book of Jonah is about God’s relationship with mankind. It begins with YHWH commissioning Jonah, a privileged member of the Hebrew nation. But the task Jonah is given reveals that, while YHWH is the God of Israel, He has a vested interest in all of humanity. He is YHWH, the God of Israel, and Elohim, the God of all the nations of the earth. And this small book presents a stark contrast between God’s interactions with His chosen people and the non-Israelites who share planet earth with them.
God had set the descendants of Abraham apart for a reason. He had chosen them so that they might be a light to the nations. Their unique relationship with Him was to have been a living witness to the rest of the world, illustrating how sinful, undeserving humanity might be restored to a right relationship with their creator. And throughout the book, we will see how Jonah, as the representative of Israel, interacts and interfaces with the Gentile world. He will receive a clear call that requires him to deliver a message from God to “to Nineveh, that great city” (Jonah 1:2 ESV). And when the author describes Nineveh as “evil,” his Hebrew audience would have viewed this as a flagrant understatement.
The Assyrians were known for the cruelty. In fact, they actively advertised their brutality, using it as a form of psychological warfare. Detailed descriptions of their atrocities have been found in their own records and carved into the walls of their palaces and administrative buildings. It was not uncommon for the Assyrians to practice torture on their victims that ranged from the gouging out of eyes to the cutting off of limbs. These non-lethal disfigurements were intended to strike fear into their conquered foes, eliminating any threat of insurrection. But the Assyrians were also known for their mass executions, which included the impalement of victims on large stakes. Once again, these gruesome public displays were meant to be a powerful deterrent to rebellion.
With these images in mind, consider how the original Jewish audience who heard the words of this book must have felt. Better yet, consider how Jonah, the one who received the commission to go to Nineveh must have felt. He was being sent into the belly of the beast – right into the heart of darkness. FromJonah’s perspective, there was no more wicked place on planet earth than Nineveh. And God was commanding Jonah to travel all the way to this pagan kingdom with a message of doom and gloom.
“…call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” – Jonah 1:2 ESV
Jonah seemed to know exactly what God was saying. According to 2 Kings 14:25, Jonah was a prophet of YHWH. And as a prophet, he would have been familiar with God’s views on Nineveh. Another prophet, Nahum, who happened to be Jonah’s contemporary, had issued some strong words against the Assyrian capital city. He accused them of plotting against God (Nahum 1:9, 11). He described them as vile or despicable (Nahum 1:14). He used highly inflammatory and unflattering terms to describe their insatiable desire for global domination:
What sorrow awaits Nineveh,
the city of murder and lies!
She is crammed with wealth
and is never without victims.
Hear the crack of whips,
the rumble of wheels!
Horses’ hooves pound,
and chariots clatter wildly.
See the flashing swords and glittering spears
as the charioteers charge past!
There are countless casualties,
heaps of bodies—
so many bodies that
people stumble over them.
All this because Nineveh,
the beautiful and faithless city,
mistress of deadly charms,
enticed the nations with her beauty.
She taught them all her magic,
enchanting people everywhere. – Nahum 3:1-4 NLT
Just imagine the fear that filled Jonah’s heart at the prospect of delivering God’s news of judgment to a city filled with idol-worshiping pagans who made a habit out of torturing their enemies. Everything in Jonah stood opposed to this divine assignment. He had no desire to travel into enemy territory and deliver a message that would most likely result in his death. But there is more to Jonah’s reticence than meets the eye. He is not just afraid of death. He is petrified that his message of coming judgment might produce repentance among the people of Nineveh. How do we know that? Just fast-forward to chapter four of the book. There we find Jonah expressing his displeasure to God for having spared the people of Nineveh because they had repented.
“Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people.” – Jonah 4:2 NLT
As much as Jonah may have feared the Assyrians, he had a greater fear of God showing them mercy. He knew enough about YHWH to understand that there was always the possibility of the Assyrians escaping judgment and receiving forgiveness instead. And that prospect was unacceptable to him. So, when God said, “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh” (Jonah 1:2 NLT), Jonah “got up and went in the opposite direction to get away from the Lord” (Jonah 1:3 NLT).
In essence, Jonah did what the people of Israel had been doing for generations. By running away from God’s presence, Jonah became an apostate. The Greek word apostasia, means “a defiance of an established system or authority; a rebellion; an abandonment or breach of faith.” Jonah’s determination to reject the revealed will of God was a blatant act of apostasy or rebellion. But in this story, his action is meant to reflect the heart of the people of Israel. He was acting out what the people of God had been doing for generations. They had repeatedly turned their backs on God, refusing to obey His commands and abandoning their commitment to the covenant they had ratified with Him. Jonah was a Hebrew, but also a prophet of God. As such, he had a double commission. He was a chosen member of God’s set-apart people and a divinely commissioned messenger of God’s word. But like his fellow Jews, Jonah chose to reject his calling and place his own will over that of God. He got up and went in the opposite direction. And the narrative will repeatedly describe Jonah as “going down.” He will go down to Joppa (1:3). He will go down into the boat (1:3). He will go down into the inner part of the ship (1:5). Eventually, he ends up in the belly of the fish, where he goes down to the depths of the sea. He describes himself as going “down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever” (2:6). The trajectory of Jonah’s life mirrors that of the people of Israel. Once they chose to turn away from God’s presence, their descent into immorality, idolatry, and apostasy was steadily downward.
The book of Jonah is not meant to be a moral lesson on obedience. It is a picture of the unstoppable plan of God for the redemption of the world. Despite the disobedience of Jonah, God would bring salvation to the people of Nineveh. And despite disobedient Israel, God would bring salvation to the nations of the world through His Son, Jesus Christ. This entire story is a summary of God’s grand redemptive plan for bringing the light to the nations. Israel had been commissioned by God to do just that but had failed. Jonah is being commissioned to bring light to the Ninevites, but he will do everything in his power to resist that call. And he too will fail. But God will be victorious.
Back in the book of Exodus, we have recorded the story where Moses begged God to allow him to see His glory. And in response to Moses’ request, God responded:
“I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” – Exodus 33:19 ESV
Notice closely what God said. He was going to allow Moses to see His glory, but it would be accompanied by the declaration of His name: YHWH. And the greatest lesson Moses was to learn from this experience was that YHWH, the God of Israel, was free to extend His grace and mercy to whomever He chose. Moses had not earned the right to see YHWH’s glory. Neither had the people of Israel. And Jonah, the reluctant prophet, would ultimately learn the invaluable lesson that he too was undeserving of God’s grace, mercy, and love.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.