Jonah: Nineveh. No, Tarshish.

This is the second post in an on-going series examining the book of Jonah. For the next couple of weeks we will release a blog post discussing a different element of truth found within the story of Jonah. Today’s post will examine the historical implications of two locations: Nineveh and Tarshish. Let’s begin!

1Now 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.’ 3But 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).

If we are honest with ourselves in our assessment of this passage, we will walk away with more questions than answers. Who is this Jonah whom God sees fit to carry His message to Nineveh? Where is Nineveh? Why did Jonah refuse to follow through with God’s command? Where is Tarshish?

In order to answer these questions, and others which might arise, we will need to take a closer look at the history and culture surrounding the writing of this book.

*In my previous blog post, Jonah: Fact or Fiction?, we looked at some of the reasons why this book could be seen as a sort of parable instead of a historical narrative. For the purposes of our remaining studies, we will examine the book as a source of historical accuracy in order to glean the full impact of Jonah’s story.

1. Who was Jonah son of Amittai?

One of the more interesting facets about popular folklore is the familiarity most people have with a given folktale. I do not use these terms to demean the accuracy of Jonah’s story, but to speak of the prevalence of his story being told. Three of the major religions in the world (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) have the story of Jonah written in its holy book. It makes sense for both Judaism and Christianity to share this similarity, but most would not know this story is shared with Islam. This is one of the reasons why culture, in general, feels so familiar with Jonah’s story. But what’s fascinating about this particular story is there is very little we actually know about Jonah.

As L.C. Allen points out (The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah, 179), everything we know about Jonah is not found in the book carrying his name. But rather, his most prolific biographical content is found in II Kings 14:25. In this verse, the author of Kings is continuing his description of the reign of Jeroboam II, which H.H. Halley dates to 793-753 B.C. (Halley’s Bible Handbook, 238), when he says this:

He restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher (ESV).

That is all we have.

Informative, isn’t it?

So, this is what we do know: Jonah was a descendant of Amittai (please don’t ask me who that dude is), he is considered a prophet by the author of Kings…

*Side note: the Bible wasn’t written by one author…a lot of skeptics and antagonists of the Bible would like you to believe you cannot use the claims of the Bible to prove the Bible. This would be true if you were trying to argue Katniss should’ve ended up with Gale based on their love for each other in the first two books. But, one, those are works of fiction. And, two, the SAME author wrote all of those books.

The Bible, however, is not the same as the Hunger Games trilogy.

There are sixty-six books which make up the Bible. There are somewhere around forty different authors. The Bible begins with the creation of all things and enters into the common era after the life of Jesus. The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of writings, some of our Biblical books included, which were found in 1947 (Halley’s Bible Handbook, 341). These writings are thought to pre-date the writers of the New Testament by some 250 years. Which means using Isaiah, a copy of which was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, to affirm Matthew, which was written well after, is perfectly reasonable. So is using Kings to talk about Jonah.

Back to Jonah.

He was from the village of Gath-hepher. According to Joshua 19:13, this village would have been a part of the tribe of Zebulun’s land in the Northwestern corner of Israel. He was also a statesman, or politician, of sorts. This is where things start to get interesting.

2. What was the world like surrounding Jonah?

In order to understand what the world was like during the life of Jonah, we need to take a VERY abbreviated look at the history of the Kings of Israel. The first king of Israel was Saul, followed by David, and then by Solomon. At this point, God allows the nation to be divided into two as a result of Solomon turning away from God (I Kings 11:9-13).

The two nations are referred to as Israel (the kings are non-descendants of David) and Judah (the kings are descendants of David). Israel takes ten of the original twelve tribes and is located to the north while Judah is comprised of only two tribes, Judah and Benjamin (I Kings 12:21), and is located to the south. To make things easy for us, here’s an easy way to remember how the nations end up: Israel is entirely evil and Judah is not quite as evil.

Nearly one hundred and forty years later, we get to the time of Jonah. Israel has been slowly fading in the hierarchy of world power. Jeroboam II is the current king of Israel and there is a new major world power, the Assyrian Empire, which has recently emerged on the scene. A number of previous Israelite kings, including the infamous Ahab, attempted to resist Assyrian power and failed in doing so. But, after the death of Adad-nirari III, the Assyrian king, the opportunity for Israelite advancement had come (Pfeiffer, Old Testament History, 333).

This brings us back to II Kings 14:25 when the borders of Israel were “restored.” Coupled by the prophecies of Jonah, Jeroboam II “brought the northern kingdom to its greatest extent (Halley’s Bible Handbook, 238).” The empires of Assyria and Syria were able to be defeated and Israel was looking like a kingdom on the rise. Despite their newfound success, the Israelites still looked to the nations outside of themselves as bitter enemies who needed to be conquered and destroyed.

One thing I forgot to mention: the capital of Assyria is Nineveh.

Yeah, that boring history lesson I just gave leads us to this point. When we examine the book of Jonah from the greater lens of world history we learn an important detail: God is calling Jonah to go to his greatest enemy and reveal their need for redemption.

3. Ok, so I get the whole Nineveh point. And I understand why Jonah wouldn’t want to go there. But, what’s up with going to Tarshish?

This one is a little bit easier to answer. Tarshish is located on the coast of Spain. In other words, in the world Jonah is living in, there is no place on earth farther away from Nineveh than Tarshish. Jonah is quite literally going to the farthest ends of the earth to avoid God’s calling.

What makes this point even more fascinating is, when we go farther into the story, we see the true purpose behind Jonah’s flight when Jonah says to God,

That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster (4:2, ESV).

Jonah reveals to God his innermost fear. A fear God, Himself, was well aware of. Jonah did not want the Assyrians, his bitter enemy, to be saved.

What a dichotomy which is the character of Jonah. On the one hand, Jonah understands the redemptive power which the God of the universe is willing to leverage towards all who are willing to accept.  On the other, Jonah is unwilling to extend the knowledge of this redemptive power to those who need it the most. He would rather them suffer the eternal punishment which we all so greatly deserve for our sins.

There are some stories in the Bible where we learn from the example set forth and we try to follow in the footsteps of Christian men and women who came before us. Then, unfortunately, there are some stories, like Jonah’s, where we see what men and women didn’t do correctly and we try to avoid their mistakes. May we not be like Jonah. Let us not run away from God because He is willing to extend mercy and grace to all who might receive Him. Instead, let us hear the message of Jesus, heed its advice, and spread this message to those who need it most…even our enemies:

…for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster (Jonah 4:2, ESV).

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