Reflecting on the Prophets: Jonah 1

By Bill Mefford

Each week (hopefully), I will look at a chapter in book of the Minor Prophets, moving through them chronologically. As it should be with the Prophets, I will reflect on what they are saying in their context and relate it to ours. 

"Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep." (Jonah 1:5)

Jonah's book is perhaps one of the more familiar prophetic books in Scripture because hardly anyone believes he actually got swallowed by a whale and lived to tell about it. Perhaps I am naive, but I find Jonah's calm but determined resistance to God's call on his life even more striking than the whale bit. Jonah is dead set against following God and goes to great lengths to resist, while God is equally persistent, if not more so (I mean, God does win in the end). 

One reason why Jonah is surprisingly so resistant is that God shows something of an unusual interest in the people outside the covenant community of Israel. God certainly showed intermittent interests in all of God's creation throughout the Old Testament, but this is, as far as I can recall, the first time in the Old Testament canon that we see God specifically calling for someone to go to a non-Jewish people and call for repentance. There will be other instances when God takes equal interest in the welfare of other nations as God does in Israel as we go through the prophets (Amos's book is especially notable), but here, God specifically wants Jonah to go to Nineveh. 

Instead, Jonah wants to get as far away from Nineveh - and as far away from God's call on his life - as humanly possible. It is likely that Tarshish, which was where he was heading on the boat, was a city on the Spanish coast - a considerable distance from Nineveh, which is located today in Iraq. 

Once he is on the boat heading to Tarshish, a storm gets going and the ship is tossed to and fro, so much so that even the sailors are freaking out and throwing the cargo over board. Throughout all of the chaos, Jonah is fast asleep in the bottom of the boat. Maybe Jonah is just a deep sleeper? 

Or, perhaps, Jonah is both blessed and cursed by a resounding faith in God; a faith that is grounded in Jonah's life well before he received his calling to "cry out against" Nineveh. Otherwise, Jonah would not have needed to run so far away from Nineveh. Without a pre-existing faith in God, Jonah could easily have stayed where he was and convinced himself that he was hearing things. He could have told himself that no way would God want to save such a wicked Gentile city! No way would God want to go beyond God's special covenantal relationship with Israel. 

Further, it was Jonah's resounding faith in God that allowed him to be so calm in the face of possible shipwreck, especially when the sailors were losing it. Jonah's faith gave him the reassurance to be able to tell the crew that the storm would cease once he would was thrown into the sea. And then, it was Jonah's faith that God would rescue him, even if God had to use a whale to do it. 

So, what can we learn here? Very simply, there are far too many "prophets" who are not just willing to go to a city they have no relationship with to "cry out against it," they are excited and eager to go. And there is something deeply troublesome with that. We have far too many teachers, preachers, and perhaps even "prophets" who love to rail against the sinfulness of others, and the less relationally connected they are the better. Honestly, that's not really being prophetic though. That's just abuse.

Moreover, the word of the Lord "came" to Jonah. Jonah did not wake up one day and decide to "be prophetic.," something that far too many people and especially, far too many social justice-oriented organizations and denominational committees and agencies do on a regular basis. 

Prophetic engagement, at least for Jonah in this context, was initiated by the movement of the Spirit; not something decided on by some agency while they meet in a five star hotel, eating expensive food, and striving after institutional mandates as much or more than they seek after justice. Prophetic engagement was a fulfillment, or a continuation even, of a deep and abiding faith in God. Prophetic utterance is a response to both a loving and wrathful God; a God who loves ALL of creation and who is sickened by mistreatment of the poor and abuse of the power by those in powerful positions.

Thus, if we ever want to go and cry out against the wickedness of a city maybe we should start by crying out to God. 

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