Jonah 1: Running away from God

1280px-Pieter_Lastman_-_Jonah_and_the_Whale_-_Google_Art_ProjectThis month, two of my churches are joining with hundreds of others across the country to mark Bible Month. This is a joint initiative by the Bible Society and the Methodist Church to encourage greater Biblical literacy and understanding. Each June, churches and individuals are being invited to study one book of the Bible in much greater depth than is usually possible in normal worship. Last year, we looked at the fascinating letter of James in the New Testament.

This year, we are looking at the short – but very important – book of Jonah in the Old Testament. Over three weeks, in Bible study at Barnes and in evening worship at Putney, we are looking at three aspects of this fascinating part of our scriptures:

  • week 1: ‘Jonah in the whale’ (Jonah chapters 1-2)
  • week 2: ‘Jonah in Nineveh’ (Jonah 3-4)
  • week 3: ‘Jonah in perspective’ (considering Jonah’s impact on the New Testament and its broader themes)

Inevitably, it is hard completely to separate out all these different aspects but at least it gives us a starting point!

Background

(n.b. There are lots of excellent commentaries out there about Jonah – a few recommended ones are listed below – so this is not intended to be an exhaustive introduction to every aspect of the book’s contents and history.)

Kennicott_Bible_305r.lIn the Jewish scriptures, Jonah is one of the ‘Minor Prophets’. This is not indicative of the book’s importance rather the fact that it is one of much shorter books of prophecy in the Bible, compared to, say, Isaiah or Jeremiah. Theses twelve short prophetic books are sometimes collectively referred to as the ‘Book of the Twelve’ and contains material written from 8th C BCE to c. 450 BCE. Whether or not Jonah should truly be treated as a book of prophecy is open to debate, since he barely produces a single sentence (Jonah 3:4) of what most people would consider true prophecy! In many respects, it reads much more like the life of the prophet Elijah, which we find in the books of Kings and Chronicles.

The question of when Jonah was written is also controversial. The short biographical information we gain in Jonah 1:1, tells us that this prophet Jonah was the same one we encounter in 2 Kings 14:23-27: “Jonah son of Amittai”. He was active during the reign of Jeroboam II, King of Israel, whom we can date accurately to around 786-746 BCE. Despite the bad press he receives in 2 Kings, he seems to have been quite a successful monarch, re-establishing Israel’s borders and security at a time when the major Asian superpower, Assyria, was experiencing a period of internal unrest.

However, most scholars would argue that the text we have in our Bibles was actually written down (or at least re-edited) later than this – certainly after the Israelites had returned from exile in Babylon (c. 539 BCE). They believe this for several reasons. Jonah is written in Hebrew, but just as English has changed over the years, so did ancient Hebrew, and the language here is much like later Hebrew. It contains Aramaic expressions, reflecting the popular language of the Middle East that many people actually spoke day to day (and in which Jesus and his contemporaries would later converse). The text makes mistakes about certain things that we would expect a person writing in the 8th Century BCE to have got right, notably that Nineveh was not a capital city at this time. It also seems to have been written from much more of a (southern) Judean perspective, rather than a (northern) Israeli one: for example, we would not have expected Jonah to have travelled south to have boarded a ship at Joppa, if he were travelling from Israel (1:3). Finally, the text makes a number of allusions to other Old Testament texts, especially Genesis 1-11, Exodus and the stories about Elijah, that we do not think reached their final form until later.

Taking all this into account, it seems sensible to suggest that the book we possess today may well have had its origins (perhaps an oral tradition) in the time of King Jeroboam II but that it was not finally written down until much later. This actually makes the text more interesting, arguably, as it means it should very much be read as a ‘dialogue’ with other books in our Old Testament that its final author / editor already knew about. Inspired by God, he perhaps wished to challenge some of his contemporaries’ perceptions of, and prejudices about, a number of things, not least the nature of God and the divine relationship between God, Israel and the other nations of the earth. We shall explore more of this as we go along.

The text: Jonah 1-2

As we read the text of the first half of Jonah, there is so much to explore and so much to interest the reader, that it is hard to know where to begin! Here are a few of the major points that we might wish to note:

  • irony in the text. Sadly, there can be a tendency to read the Bible in a rather ‘po-faced’ manner, thinking that it is never acceptable to smile or even raise an eyebrow at the text. This is completely wrong. There is a lot to laugh at in our Bible, not least in the Old Testament, where its writers wanted us to catch their deeper meanings. The text of Jonah is often deeply ironic and full of pathos, not least its opening sentences. We are used to hearing the “word of the Lord” come to other great prophets, like Samuel, Isaiah and Elijah (1 Kings 17), all of whom promptly obey. Instead, Jonah promptly heads off in the other direction! Throughout the book, look out for places where the author wants us to roll our eyebrows in exasperation at this poor prophetic role model!
  • a unique mission. Jonah is the only prophet in the entire Old Testament sent to a gentile town, city or nation. No other prophet is called upon to travel voluntarily across borders to proclaim God’s Word. No wonder perhaps then that he seems so unwilling to go. Elsewhere in the Bible, though, we read the solemn responsibility that prophets were given by God, and the consequences of not warning those in peril:

But if the sentinel sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any of them, they are taken away in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at the sentinel’s hand.

 So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked ones, you shall surely die’, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. (Ezekiel 33:6-8)

  • Nineveh, Joppa and Tarshish. The map opposite indicates the approximate locations of these places. Nineveh was one of the oldest and greatest cities of the ancient world, and part of numerous empires. Joppa was an important port on the coast. We are not exactly sure where Tarshish was but it may have been in southern Spain (2 Chron. 9:21). In the Bible, it often symbolised somewhere impossibly far away – the way that ‘Timbuktu’ or ‘Outer Mongolia’ sometimes functions in British speech or literature.

jonah_map

  • ups and downs. This can be hard for us to see in some modern versions of the Bible, but Kevin Youngblood’s excellent, more literal, translation of the Hebrew text allows us to see the number of ‘ups and downs’ in these chapters and their importance:
    • “Up! Go to Nineveh…” (1:1)
    • “He descended to Joppa.” (1:3)
    • “he descended into it” (1:3)
    • “he had descended into the bowels of the ship” (1:5)
    • “Up! Cry out to your god!” (1:6)
    • “You had cast me down to the deep” (2:4)
    • “the deep had enveloped me” (2:6)

‘Up’ is symbolic of God, and following God’s purposes. ‘Down’ is a rejection of God and his mission. Jonah’s disobedience leads him further and further down, and away from his maker. This will become synonymous with ‘Sheol’ – the land of the dead – in the psalm that Jonah prays in chapter 2.

  • faithful gentiles. In this opening chapter, and throughout the book, we come across gentiles who seem to know and fear the Lord more than a faithful prophet like Jonah! The helmsman’s words in 1:6 seem deliberately to echo those of God in 1:1. The mariners even do their best to save Jonah from the disaster that he has brought about (1:13-14).
  • casting lots. The Old Testament is full of prohibitions against sorcery of all sorts but intriguingly lot casting was one of very few acceptable forms of divination in ancient Israel (Prov. 16:33).
  • bible-month-2018-1-jonah-fishone god or many? The discussion on board ship during the storm accurately reflects something of what we know about ancient belief systems. It was usual for people – especially a multi-national ship’s crew – to each have their own gods, and at a time of disaster to try to find out the most powerful one who needed to be placated or worshipped. Note how Jonah has to be very specific about the exact god whom he is worshipping to identify him properly: in Hebrew, he uses the divine name revealed to Moses (Exodus 3:14) – YHWH (often written Yahweh, or in English ‘Jehovah’).
  • digging in. In the Hebrew text, the author does not use the usual word ‘to row’ in 1:13. Instead, a better translation is that the sailors “dug in”. Again, the implication being that they were digging their way to Sheol! (Amos 9:2)
  • crying out. Note that in 1:14 it is still the gentile sailors who are doing all the praying. Jonah has not spoken to God once so far, it seems!
  • a fish not a whale! While we often talk about ‘Jonah and the whale’, please note that it’s actually a fish that swallows him whole (2:1).
  • three days and nights. The time of ‘three days and nights’ is a significant one in the Old Testament, as the time it was traditionally thought it took for a soul to descend to Sheol (Hosea 6:1-2). It would of course assume an even more important resonance after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
  • a strange psalm. In 2:3, Jonah begins to pray a psalm. This is like many of the psalms that we encounter elsewhere in the Old Testament, in structure and form. It seems quite an odd break from the narrative in some respects and some commentators have wondered if it was a later addition. There is no real evidence for this, however. It also seems odd that this is a psalm of thanksgiving, rather than one of lament or a plea for forgiveness, but it clearly is meant to reflect Jonah’s relief at not drowning.
  • Sheol. From the Hebrew ‘to extinguish’ / ‘to have misfortune’, Sheol is often synonymous with death itself in the Old Testament (1 Kgs 2:6,9). It is a place of shadows and gloomy half existence in the depths of the earth (Job 11:8). Only much later in the post-Exilic and inter-testamental period would Sheol really come to mean something akin to later understandings of ‘hell’.
  • deeps and mountains. Much of Jonah’s prayer reflects ancient Israeli understandings of cosmology and the natural world: subterranean mountains, rivers flowing under the sea, etc. What is important for us to understand is that Jonah recognises how far he had gone from God: if God dwells in the Temple on the mountain of Zion, then his disobedience took him to the very depths of the sea, metaphorically.

bible-month-2018-2-jonah-ashore

  • more irony. Note the irony of 2:9-10, where Jonah boasts of his superiority over idol worshippers. Idol worshippers like the sailors from chapter one, no doubt, who prayed to God long before the prophet did! One is reminded somewhat of the prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke’s gospel (Luke 18:9-14).
  • the final insult. As a final symbol of Jonah’s humiliation, we are told that the fish vomited him back onto dry land (see Jeremiah 48:26).

 

Reflection

Personally, I believe that the Bible is worth studying for its own sake and I love the treasures you can unearth by digging a little deeper into the text. It’s important to recognise, though, that all of our knowledge needs to be applied to make it worthwhile. We will be able to do this more thoroughly when we have finished studying the text, as many of the book’s most important themes only really emerge when we can consider the story as a whole. It might be worth reflecting on some of the following questions now, though:

  1. Who comes out well of the opening chapters of Jonah? What may this teach us about those who believe they have a particular status or special knowledge in God’s creation?
  2. What does this story teach us about God’s mission for us, as individuals and as a church?
  3. If we feel separated, or distant, from God, is it entirely God’s fault?
  4. Do we sometimes need to journey to ‘rock bottom’ to find ourselves?

We will continue to reflect on many of these questions in the coming weeks.

 

Suggested commentaries

I have relied heavily on the following commentary for this series, which I found to be excellent:

The following are also available:

  • Baldwin, Joyce, ‘Jonah’ in T. E. McComiskey (ed.), The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary: Volume 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), pp.543-590
  • Limburg, James, Hosea – Micah (Atlanta, Georgia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
  • Nixon, Rosemary, The Message of Jonah (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2003)
  • Peterson, Eugene, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992).

schlanger_jonah_prison_090913_820px

“Join the hands of age and youth”

This is the sermon I preached this morning at Barnes Methodist Church. Today we were marking Methodist Homes for the Aged (MHA) Sunday, when we celebrate the wonderful work of that organisation and its work with older people – both in residential homes and in the community. We used this as an opportunity to reflect on the role of older people in our society more generally. The text was Luke 2:25-40, which tells of the infant Jesus’ encounter with two elderly prophets, Simeon and Anna, at the Temple in Jerusalem when he was brought there by his parents. 

Join the hand of friend and stranger;
join the hands of age and youth;
join the faithful and the doubter
in their common search for truth.

Those lines come from one of my favourite new hymns: Jesus calls us here to meet him. Like many in our new hymn book, it comes from two of the Iona Community’s leading musicians, John Bell and Graham Maule. I love the way that those words remind us of how diverse the followers of Jesus are – worshipping today in every language under the sun – but how we have all something so fundamental in common. Our common search for the truth in Christ.

On this MHA Sunday, as we reflect on the work of that wonderful organisation, and the role of older people in our church and society more generally, I would like us to reflect particularly on the challenge of that second line: “join the hands of age and youth”.

rembrandt_lofzang_simeon_1669This deceptively simple statement presents us, as God’s church and people, with an enormous challenge. How to bring young and old together, “in their common search for truth”. This is, of course, exactly what we see happening in the reading we have just heard from Luke’s gospel (Luke 2:25-40). An incident depicted by many great artists, including Rembrandt. The elderly prophets, Anna and Simeon, come together with the young, innocent parents, Mary and Joseph, to point the way to the ultimate revelation of God’s truth in the world: the infant Christ child. Age and youth truly joining hands to demonstrate the unending story of God’s desire for a relationship with his creation.

Sadly, God’s creation has struggled over the years to emulate this excellent example and, as in so many other fields, has too often preferred discord to accord. We cannot even seem to bring the hands of age and youth together in the praise and service of the same Jesus Christ whom Anna and Simeon welcomed into the Temple so long ago. For as long as I can recall in church life, we have been wrestling with the challenge of how we manage the different demands, needs and desires of young and old in worship. I can remember – and I am sure you can too – seemingly endless running battles and open arguments in church meetings about different preferences for music and the style of worship. The word ‘chorus’ – referring to a certain type of praise music – was tantamount to a swear word in many churches. One of my colleagues even recounted how – happily some years ago now – an unfortunate young preacher had a copy of the new hymn book, Mission Praise, physically hurled at him in the pulpit, for daring to choose a chorus from its pages! In return, many cherished and much-loved hymns, rich in theological depth and meaning, were ignored or dismissed wholesale because they were ‘old’ or ‘fuddy-duddy’. And that is only music in worship. We have not got time to discuss the arguments about style of worship, times of service, the challenges of having young children in church, pews vs. chairs, etc., etc.

One result of those discussions has been that in many cases, efforts to “join the hands of age and youth” in worship have simply ceased. Many new churches were and continue to be founded effectively for young people alone, with a particular style of worship and music, leaving other churches – many of them Methodist chapels – to become effectively bastions of older people’s worship. One District Chair indeed described ministry in parts of East Anglia as being ‘chaplain to the over 60s’!

In recent months, there have been an increasing number of news reports and studies that have highlighted a seemingly similar phenomenon in our wider society. An increasing divide between young and old, that is in danger of becoming – if it has not already become – as severe as that between different genders and ethnicities. We have seen articles about the increasing gap in wealth and prosperity between some older people and some younger people (often described as ‘millennials’); sharp differences between age groups in relation to the chance of owing their own home, their age of retirement and even their life expectancy. In turn, this has led to expressions of anger and resentment about a status quo that seems to advantage one age group over another. Resentment that has provoked intemperate name-calling and angry exchanges from both sides.

On the other side of the coin, there is real fear among many older people to whom I speak about what is often called the ‘digital divide’. Despite the prodigious number of ‘silver surfers’, many older people feel increasingly cut off from the unceasing pace of technological development, which is permanently changing the way we work and live. Cherished ways of life and institutions are being replaced daily and many older people are effectively being driven out of work by their lack of skills and their inability to match the pace of change.

Cls7vB7WkAATVNIWe see this divide too in matters of belief and outlook. This was perhaps demonstrated most palpably by the recent Brexit debate. Now, I must confess that I mention this subject with extreme hesitation because, as we all know, this particular topic is so toxic and so divisive that many of us would rather run a mile than even mention it! Whatever our personal views, though, it cannot be denied that age seemed to be an incredibly important determiner in how people voted. There were many other influences as well – where people lived in the country, gender, political background, and so on – but age seemed to be a remarkably significant factor, as this chart demonstrates.

Whatever our views on this issue – and we all are lucky enough to possess the democratic right to vote for whom or what we wish – I am sure that we all share the concern about this age-based schism within our society. From numerous conversations I have had during the campaign and since, I know the damage that this debate has done to inter-generational relations. Children and grandchildren at war with parents and grandparents over the dinner table. Families engaging in shouting matches at what were meant to be convivial gatherings. Claims and counter-claims of intolerance, arrogance and prejudice. Two years after the result, the inter-generational scars are still present in too many families.

I had a very interesting experience of this at my old church in Watford, a part of the country that voted almost exactly 50:50 in the referendum. On the Sunday after the vote, I chatted to many members of my, generally, older congregation before and after the service, who expressed a variety of views to me – fear about the future, confidence in the future, regret, and unashamed triumphalism, to name but a few. Meanwhile, I later discovered, the Sunday School teachers had had a virtual riot on their hands in the back hall, with the teenagers in particular venting genuine anger at what “those old people in there” had done to their future. There was precious little prospect of joining the hands of age and youth that day!

Sadly, there seems to have been very little work done, or even interest in, this demographic divide from our politicians – or any real sense that this is a problem at all. Yet I believe it is. It is not God’s will that his church – or indeed his creation – should be divided from one another by age. It is not God’s will that one age group should believe that it has a monopoly on the truth. It is not God’s will that differences in age should be used as yet another insult to hurl at one another, as we have so long used gender, ethnicity and sexuality. Instead, it is the example of Anna and Simeon in the Temple so long ago that is the desire of God’s heart for his creation: young and old coming together to seek a common truth, so that all may grow and flourish.

As God’s church, we need to witness to that truth, and I believe we have two particular roles to play as God’s Church on earth. First, we are meant to be a place of encounter. The aged Simeon and Anna met the infant Christ child at God’s Temple, and we need to ensure that we fulfil the same role. Like many people who grew up in church, I really enjoyed that mixture of ages around me as I grew into adulthood – it always felt like having lots of aunts and uncles, especially as we did not live near our extended family. I grew up being able to chat to people of all ages and backgrounds, and knowing that older people were genuinely interested in my life and development. There are actually precious few places in our society where that happens nowadays, and many children grow up not knowing any older people beyond their own family. This helps perpetuate the divisions in our societies, where we only meet and spend time with those of our own class, background and age: all of us living in our own, separate silos too often.

There have been numerous reports recently about successful experiments that have deliberately created places of multi-generational encounter. Nurseries in old peoples’ homes. After school clubs for teenagers run by older people. Young people who are struggling to find accommodation choosing to live with older people who have spare rooms but no company. MHA is part of some of these initiatives and is keen to bring younger people into their homes, and to create opportunities for those older people who are being supported in their own homes to have meaningful encounters with different generations.

What these schemes demonstrate is that ALL ages benefit from living regularly engaging with one another, if they are open to genuine encounter. Younger people can gain a sense of perspective and wise counsel; older folks can often gain a broadening of their horizons and a renewed interest in life. As a church here in Barnes, we are pondering our future mission and I would very much like us to consider whether this is an area in which we might like to engage: providing opportunities for different ages to come together for their mutual benefit, and to help break down some of the barriers that we have helped to create in our society.

The second thing that we can do, as God’s Church, is to be clear about how such mutual flourishing can happen and how such barriers can be broken down. And that is by pointing to the Christ child, as Simeon and Anna did, and specifically his example of sacrifice.

What makes Simeon’s encounter with Mary and Joseph in the Temple so poignant, of course, is his all-too accurate prediction of what the future holds for this tiny infant. This child is undoubtedly the salvation which God has prepared: “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (2:32). But he is also “a sign that will be opposed” (2:34) and his work of redemption will not be complete until his mother’s heart is broken by witnessing the death of her own son. The work of God cannot be completed without sacrifice and loss.

So it is for us, for our church and our society, if we wish genuinely to “join the hands of age and youth”. Healing and understanding can only come about through sacrifice and loss. By being willing to set aside some of our own pre-conceptions, our own prejudices, our own certainty in how things ‘should be done’. In church life, as in all life, if we say “it’s my way or the highway” then genuine encounter is impossible. If we create meeting places for young and old, and both groups see it as an opportunity merely to re-create the other in their own likeness, then there is no hope of reconciliation. True encounter can never be about domination and control.

age_and_youth_by_williamdaros-d658ymjIn the sacrament of holy communion, we are recalling God’s desire for genuine encounter with his most cherished creation, humanity. We are remembering how God wished to engage with his people, to break down the barriers that we had built up, and God’s desire that we should be reconciled one to another. But we recall too that that reconciliation only came about through sacrifice, by God giving up his divinity in the person of that vulnerable child from Bethlehem; of God giving up his immortality to dwell amongst us. Communion is a symbol of our desire to break down the barriers between ourselves and God, and between ourselves and one another. It is a symbol of our desire to emulate that example of sacrifice: our desire to live in harmony with all God’s creation.

In our worship as a church, in what we say and in how we treat one another, and in every aspect of our lives let us bear witness to God’s desire for a world free from division. Through encounter and sacrifice, let us strive to “join the hand of friend and stranger; join the hands of age and youth; join the faithful and the doubter” in our common search for truth. Amen.

 

 Hymn words: John L. Bell (b. 1949) and Graham Maule (b. 1958). Reproduced from Singing the Faith Electronic Words Edition, number 28. Words: From Love From Below © 1989, WGRG, Iona Community, Glasgow G2 3DH Scotland. <www.wgrg.co.uk>