When Jonah, a prophet who stands before the face of Yahweh, is commissioned to cry out against the evil in Nineveh ascending before the face of Yahweh, Jonah flees from the face of Yahweh to Tarshish, the opposite direction.
Kevin Youngblood (Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy) correctly suggests Jonah 1 is a commission narrative.
Probably the most famous commission narratives in the Hebrew Bible are Moses in Exodus 3, Isaiah in Isaiah 6, or Jeremiah in Jeremiah 1. The typical pattern of such narratives is something like this: God calls people, they object or resist in some way, God renews their call with assurances, and, finally, they accept the call. This happens with Jonah except his resistance takes the form of flight rather than fight. Nevertheless, God pursues Jonah as a kind of commission renewal until Jonah accepts the call.
Instead of zapping Jonah for his refusal to obey, God pursues Jonah with disciplinary mercy.
The prophetic “word of Yahweh” comes to Jonah (Jonah 1:1), which is a standard way to talk about Hebrew prophets to whom God has given a message. The commission itself comes in the form of three imperatives:
- Arise! or Get up!
- Cry Out!
Translations often merge the first two into something like, “Go at once” (NRSV). It is an earnest call–clear, urgent, and emphatic. God is sending Jonah to Nineveh, and Jonah should go immediately. Jonah is invited into God’s mission for Nineveh. And this is more than an invitation, it is command (three imperative verbs). Jonah is commissioned as Yahweh’s representative to Nineveh.
Nineveh is not the administrative or capital city of the Empire in Jonah’s day. It would only become such under Sennacherib (704-681 B.C.E.). While this is anachronistic for post-exilic readers (a likely date for the literary work), it identifies Assyria with its most historic and prominent city within memory. Nineveh, in effect, stands for Assyria, which stands for the nations in general. Within Israel’s living memory, Nineveh is the first great city of Assyria (Genesis 10:11).
The occasion for this mission is the “evil” that ascends, like smoke from a fire, before the face (presence) of God. This evil, apparently, has become so great it demands Yahweh’s proactive attention. Jonah is sent because Yahweh’s permission of evil has limits. God permits but also eradicates evil. Yahweh had decided—with some urgency—now is the time for Nineveh to “face” Yahweh and give account of its evil.
At the same time, Nineveh—as a “great city” within the Assyrian Empire—represents all the nations. In the same way, Nineveh’s evil represents the wickedness with which the nations are saturated. And, also, Jonah’s resistance represents Israel’s own unwillingness to share God’s light with the nations.
While evil “ascends” before Yahweh’s face, Jonah “descends” away from Yahweh’s face.
When God commands, we expect to see an obedient response. But here the opposite is the case. God said, “Arise!” and Jonah “arose” (the Hebrew uses the same verb), but Jonah arose to “flee to Tarshish” rather than to “go to Nineveh.” Jonah disobeys the call and refuses the commission. Jonah concretely resists God’s call.
Quite vividly, the narrative chronicles Jonah’s flight as a descent (using the same Hebrew verb).
- He descended to Joppa (1:2).
- He descended onto the ship (1:3)
- He descended into the bowels of the ship (1:5)
- He descended into the belly of a fish (2:7)
Jonah’s flight is a downward movement. Rather than arising and ascending to the task God gave him, he descends away from God’s presence.
Why does flee to Tarshsish? The first descending step was to go to Joppa, which is movement into non-Jewish territory at the time (king of Ashkelon), and he hired a boat (he did not simply pay a fare) with a non-Jewish crew for his trip to Tarshish. Jonah is escaping from everything Jewish, including the God of Israel, Yahweh.
Tarshish (whether it is modern Gibraltar or Sicily) lies in the opposite direction of Nineveh, and it is quite a distance, perhaps a three year round trip (2 Chronicles 9:21). Whatever its exact location, it is far west (Isaiah 23:6, 10; Psalm 72:10; 48:7). Some have suggested Tarshish may have been a paradise or utopia of some kind, but I don’t think that is the point.
Rather, perhaps Jonah thought he might escape God’s presence on the sea since in Canaanite (Baal) literature Yam is the chaotic Sea god who opposes Baal. Consequently, if Jonah takes flight on the sea perhaps he escapes Yahweh’s sovereign jurisdiction.
More likely—though not excluding the above point—Jonah fled to Tarshish because, according to Isaiah 66:19, no one has yet heard a word from Yahweh there and Yahweh’s glory is unknown there. In others, he fled to a place where Yahweh is not, or at least where the “word of Yahweh” would not come to him. To put it another way, he fled to a place where the commission would not be renewed, so he might have thought.
Why Did Jonah Resist?
This is quite curious, isn’t it? Jonah, a prophet of Yahweh, refuses Yahweh’s commission. The contrast between Yahweh’s command, “Arise and go,” and Jonah’s response, “He arose and fled,” is quite startling, even astounding.
The reasons are probably quite complex. Whatever those reasons are, Jonah thinks they are compelling. He would rather flee Yahweh and die in a foreign land—even die on the sea—than to participate in God’s mission to Nineveh. That mission, to Jonah, was anathema; it was the opposite of his heart’s desire.
Later in the book, Jonah does tell us why he fled to Tarshish (4:2a):
“O Yahweh! Is not this what I said while I was still in my country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful.”
Jonah did not want God to show mercy to Nineveh. But why is Jonah opposed to mercy for the Assyrians (or the nations, for that matter)?
- Perhaps he was concerned about reputation—would Jonah be counted a traitor for helping Assyrians who previously oppressed Israel?
- Perhaps he feared retribution from his own people when he returned to Israel after visiting Nineveh.
- Perhaps he was concerned about a renewed rise of power among the Assyrians, which would result in renewed oppression of Israel.
- Perhaps he thought Assyria did not deserve mercy because they were a brutal and violent nation (from crucifixions to decapitations, enslavement of peoples, etc.).
Whatever the case, “No mercy for Nineveh!” is Jonah’s slogan. The commission exposes the heart beating in Jonah’s breast. That heart beats in many of us who feel, “he does not deserve mercy,” or “she is not worthy,” or “they must be punished!” We have all felt revenge rather than reconciliation, and sometimes prioritized retribution over mercy.
Sinclair Ferguson (Man Overboard! The Story of Jonah, 13) suggests the call is a form of divine heart surgery, to which we are all exposed when we hear God’s call on our lives.
We might wonder whether God was deliberately shining the spotlight of his Word into an area of Jonah’s life that had never been put to the test before, exposing a nerve, and then touching it to discover what response there might be….Like an instrument which can detect microscopic differences, it can penetrate in our consciences between the limits of our willingness to obey and the point at which we may turn from God’s commands.
We are all Jonah!