Jonah 1:3. Now that Jonah has been instructed by God to go to rise up and go to Nineveh and cry out against it because of its great wickedness, the careful reader is set up to believe that Jonah will be on the next caravan to Nineveh. This is the chance of a lifetime for Jonah, to be the prophet who announces judgment upon the enemy nation of Assyria so that Israel may continue her prosperous expansion without fear of war.
The initial words of verse 3 echo the instructions of God in 1:2. God told Jonah to rise up, and so Jonah rose up. This echo leads the reader to initially think that Jonah is going to do what is expected—to rise up and go to Nineveh and cry out against it. Other men of God, when they were given nearly identical commands by God, rose up immediately and did what God asked. When God told Abraham to get and take his son to Moriah (Gen 22:2), the very next morning, Abraham rose early and went (Gen 22:3). When God instructed Elijah to get up and go eastward to the Brook Cherith (1 Kings 17:3), Elijah immediately got up and went (1 Kings 17:5). Such immediate and complete obedience is the prophetic precedent and Jonah is expected to follow their example.
But Jonah does the unexpected. Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish. Jonah’s actions are a shocking surprise for the reader.[ref]Allen, 176, 204.[/ref] “It is strange that a prophet of God would not follow God’s command to preach condemnation.”[ref]Hannah, 1465.[/ref]
Though a journey to Nineveh would have taken Jonah eastward, a journey to Tarshish is as far westward as Jonah can possibly go. It certainly existed, but in the minds of most Israelites, “going to Tarshish” was like saying you were traveling to the end of the world.[ref]Sasson, 79.[/ref] Tarshish was on the far western side of the Mediterranean Sea, in modern-day Spain, about 2500 miles from Joppa.[ref]Victor H. Matthews, Social World of the Hebrew Prophets (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2001), 164; Radmacher et al., eds., 1065.[/ref] Archeologists are not certain of the location of Tarshish, but this does not mean it is an invented place. In King Solomon’s day, ships going to Tarshish would not return for three years (1 Kings 10:22).[ref]Walton, 105.[/ref] It might also be significant that the author mentions Tarshish rather than just saying that Jonah fled westward. “Tarshish was famous for its ships (Ps 48:7; Isa 2:16) which carried gold, silver, iron, tin, lead, ivory, apes, and monkeys (1 Kings 10:22; Jer 10:9; Ezek 27:25). Because the ships of Tarshish carried such great riches, they became symbols of wealth, power, and pride.”[ref]J. D. Douglas, ed. The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 3 vols. vols. (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1980), III:1518.[/ref] As such, is likely that there is some symbolism involved in Jonah’s choice in boarding a ship to Tarshish.
In fleeing to Tarshish, Jonah was despising Yahweh’s honor. As with the end of verse 2, the Hebrew literally reads, “from before the face of Yahweh” and most Bible translations render this phrase as “from the presence of Yahweh.” This translation has led some commentators and Bible teachers to believe that Jonah was trying to escape Yahweh’s presence, to get to a place where God had no influence, could not see him, and could not find him.[ref]Cf. Bewer, 30; Stuart, 450.[/ref] While it is true that many deities of that time were considered “local” deities which were tied to the land and could not move, this was not true of Yahweh, the God of Israel, and there is no clear evidence anywhere in Scripture that any Hebrew person believed such an idea about God.[ref]Cain is said to have “left Yahweh’s presence” (Gen 4:16), but there is a diverse discussion on what this verse means and what Cain thought. It seems much more likely, as argued here, that Cain was dishonored by Yahweh. Just as Cain did not leave the earth when he was driven from the face of the land, so also, he was not driven away from Yahweh when he left the face of God. Instead, because of the dishonor of murdering his brother, he was no longer able to work the soil and he was no longer able to work with God. A similar approach fits all other uses of this Hebrew phrase in Scripture.[/ref] To the contrary, from the very beginning of their history as a nation, Yahweh called Abram while he was living in Ur of the Chaldeans to pack up and go to a different land, and when Abram did this, God did not stay behind in Ur, but was with Abram wherever he went (Gen 12:1-9). The God of Israel was the God who created all things, all nations, and all people. He was above all, over all, and Lord of all. No one could escape his presence (Ps 139:7-9). Jonah, being a prophet of God, would have known that he could never escape the universal presence of God (cf. 1:2, 9).[ref]Alexander, 100; Hyers, 98; D. W. B Robinson, “Jonah,” in The New Bible Commentary, ed. F. Davidson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953), 716; Gary V. Smith, The Prophets as Preachers: An Introduction to the Hebrew Prophets (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 94.[/ref] God was not a local deity from which he could escape, and Jonah knew it.
It makes much more sense to see the actions of Jonah in light of the cultural values of honor and shame. The Hebrew phrase “face of Yahweh” does not just describe the presence of God, or the idea of being “before Him.” Rather, it is a Hebrew idiom for speaking of the honor of God. In verse 2, God had called upon Jonah to defend His honor. By going the other direction toward Tarshish, Jonah was despising and refusing to defend God’s honor. In an honor-shame culture, this behavior by Jonah was shocking. It was despicable. The highest goal and priority of every single person was to defend the honor of your name, your family, your kin, your king, and your God. To fail in any of these areas was to fail at your most basic human responsibility. To fail to defend the honor of these groups was the same as adding to their shame. If you failed to defend your family’s honor, they would disown you. If you failed to defend your king’s honor, he would kill you. If you failed to defend the honor of your god, who knows what might happen to you? Such an act was so unthinkable, nobody ever did it!
But Jonah does the unthinkable. In many ways, the way that Jonah has just shamed God is worse than all the wickedness of the people of Nineveh. One could understand how they were so wicked—they did not know God; they were not His children or His people. So while their wickedness was a great challenge to God’s honor, the refusal of Jonah, a prophet of God, to defend God’s honor was an even greater affront.
The readers of Jonah at this point would be shocked. Nobody behaved this way. Nobody. Not even the worst person in Nineveh would do such a thing. Such behavior is the ultimate slanderous rejection of God. Jonah engages in open and blatant rebellion against God which would have shocked all readers of this story.[ref]Alexander, 101.[/ref] Jonah’s betrayal of God is so terrible that the author reiterates and emphasizes what he did, showing the deliberate steps Jonah took. He went down to Joppa, a seaport on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, which is the modern-day town of Jaffa. While he was there, he found a ship going to Tarshish. Since Tarshish was a Phoenician colony, and since Phoenicians were the main sailors at this time, this was likely a Phoenician ship.[ref]Radmacher et al., eds., 1065; Hannah, 1465.[/ref] Yet the mariners were probably from numerous races and religions (cf. 1:5).[ref]Robinson, 716.[/ref]
Jonah went aboard the ship and paid the fare. It is possible that rather than just paying for passage on the ship, the Hebrew term here indicates that Jonah actually hired out the ship or bought it outright.[ref]Ellison, 370; Sasson, 83-84. Sasson includes many arguments in favor of Jonah hiring the ship and crew entirely for himself.[/ref] This would have been extremely expensive, but would have guaranteed an immediate departure, which is what Jonah wanted. It may be that the sailors did not yet have all the cargo they wanted, or maybe it was the stormy part of year and the sailors were not ready to depart. Whatever the case, Jonah wanted the ship to leave immediately, and he hired out the ship to carry him to Tarshish.
Once aboard, Jonah went down into the ship. The repeated emphasis on the word down here and in verse 5 reveals the downward spiral which Jonah is on. The prayer of Jonah in chapter 2 reveals how far down he eventually went (cf. 2:6).
For the sake of emphasis and to make his point clear, the author says once again that that in doing these things, Jonah was despising Yahweh’s honor. The behavior of Jonah was so terrible and unthinkable, the author wants those who hear this story to know that they did not hear wrong.
This behavior of Jonah would raise many questions in the mind of those who heard the story. How could a prophet of God behave in such a way? Why would Jonah do this? Jonah was given a great opportunity to defend the honor of God, and in so doing, gain honor for himself. But instead, Jonah behaves in the most deviant way possible. Why? Why would he refuse the chance to go preach judgment against the enemy of Israel, and why would Jonah instead make an enemy of God? And the related question is this: what will God now do to Jonah? If God was going to destroy the Ninevites for their wickedness, even though they did not know God, how would God now punish Jonah for his shameful actions?
Other chapters from Jonah
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Also check out The translation of Jonah in the Grace English Bible
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