Jonah: Deep Dive Part Two

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| DR KYLE KEIMER

How do we respond to God’s call on our lives? Some of the greatest biblical characters said, “Here I am!” (Abraham (Gen 22:1, 11); Moses (Ex 3:4); Samuel (1 Sam 3:4); Isaiah (Isa 6:8)). What a response! But before we think that all these characters are models of how to respond to God with zeal, and we ponder how we can live up to them we should pause and consider what happens next in their lives. Because, unfortunately, the eagerness to serve God is often lost when He reveals what that service entails (cf. Ex 3:11; 4:10-14; Matt 19:16-30//Lk 18:18-30; in this regard the prophet Isaiah is unique because he follows up his “Here I am” with “send me!”). Probably the most ‘humorous’ response to God’s plan is that of Jonah’s flight to Jaffa—Jonah doesn’t even respond to God’s call, he just rises and flees in the direction opposite to which he is called to go (Jon 1:1-3). What are we to make of Jonah’s response? This is where we must consider the history and geography of Israel, and draw upon another famous prophet, Isaiah, to glean insight into the rationale for Jonah’s response.

2 Kgs 14:25 tells us that Jonah, the son of Amittai (cf. Jon 1:1) was from Gath-hepher, a village not far from Nazareth in Lower Galilee—Galilee is divided into an Upper Galilee and a Lower Galilee, each with its own separate dynamic. Upper Galilee only occasionally garners recognition in the Bible and is more confined than Lower Galilee. It should not, however, be assumed that Upper Galilee was a backwater. Main roads from the sites of Hazor and Dan cut across the area to Tyre, linking Israel (and all other trade from the east) with the Mediterranean Sea. Lower Galilee contains even more busy intersections. Galilee is referred to as ‘Galilee of the Nations’ in Isa 8:23[9:1] (the brackets indicate that the Hebrew text has a different versification than English translations), a term which reflects the region’s strategic location along with the presence of both north-south and east-west trade routes running through it. As a geographic region, Galilee was a melting pot of cultures and was often overrun by competing political entities. From the perspective of Israel, it is the first Israelite territory that anyone travelling from the north would encounter as they moved south.

Unfortunately for Israel, there was a group that, beginning in the 9th century BC, was expanding their empire from northern Mesopotamia (modern-day northern Iraq) with the goal of reaching Egypt. This was the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians were the most powerful empire the ancient Near East had seen, and by the 730s BC they had enlarged their territory to include all of Mesopotamia, Aram (modern-day northern and western Syria), and the region of Damascus. Assyria was the first nation to have a standing army and a cavalry, and they perfected siege warfare like no other. They were, for lack of a better term, unstoppable. And Israel was the next nation in their way.

2 Kgs 15:29 says,

“In the days of Pekah king of Israel, Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria came and captured Ijon, Abel-beth-Maacah, Janoah, Kedesh, Hazor, Gilead, and Galilee, all the land of Naphtali, and he carried the people captive to Assyria.”

Over the course of roughly twenty years, from 743 to 722 BC, the Assyrians systematically decimated Israel, until ultimately the Israelite capital city of Samaria was destroyed and the kingdom ceased to exist. The southern kingdom of Judah was also largely crushed by the Assyrian king Sennacherib’s campaign in 701 BC (though it did survive).

The Assyrian conquest of Israel is further illuminated in light of Isaiah 8:9-10, which typifies Isaiah’s response to insincere faith among the Israelites when he says (in a more amplified translation), “You, O Israel, mocked God and wanted Him to show you his plan, well, here it is. Assyria is here and you have absolutely no chance to stop them. Sound the alarm and call for help from people far away, but it won’t help you. Try and put your army in the field and battle them; you’ll lose. No council or decision you make will save you because you mocked God. Now, He is with you [Emanuel; Hebrew immanu-el, which literally means “with us is God”] (just not as you expected).”

As we return to Jonah and consider why it is that he fled from Galilee to the south, then jumped on a boat to Spain (the location typically given for ‘Tarshish’), perhaps we can understand his actions a bit better. He knew that the Assyrians came/were coming from the north (we don’t know when the book of Jonah was actually written, but the historical context inferred in the story is the 8th c. BC). The Assyrians were unstoppable. They also were known for their brutal treatment of rebellious cities and their leaders/populations (e.g., impaling people on stakes, mutilating them, flaying them alive, beheading them, etc.). It makes sense that Jonah might not respond positively to God’s call to go to their capital city of Nineveh and call them out for their sinful living. Still, God has a plan and Jonah had a part in it. And God will not be dissuaded. Eventually Jonah does go to Nineveh and preach, and low and behold everyone repents and is saved!

So how are we responding to God? Have we thought about the impact that following him can have? Are we acknowledging God’s call in own lives? Are we willing to heed that call?

Appendix:

The Galilee was the setting of Christ’s ministry. Why Jesus should chose to conduct his ministry in Galilee as opposed to any other region of the land is important for us to understand. In the Old Testament Galilee only produced one prophet, Jonah. He fled from his calling because he knew the vulnerable nature of the region and saw the impending doom at the hands of the Assyrians. Nowhere are this threat, and the tie between Galilee and Jesus more apparent, than in Isaiah 8:23[9:1]-9:1[2]:

‘In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the
land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor
the way of the sea, (the land) beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.

The geographical locations mentioned in 8:23[9:1] verse are important to consider, not only for the period in which Isaiah was writing (the 8th c. BC), but also for the period of Jesus. The ‘Land of Zebulun’ was basically the region of Lower Galilee. This was the territory allotted to the tribe of Zebulun in Josh 19:10-16. The ‘Land of Naphtali’ was most of Upper Galilee (the tribe of Asher received the western part of Upper Galilee though) according to Josh 19:32-39. The ‘Way of the Sea’ refers to the main east-west route that led from Damascus to Tyre. This was a main trade route across Upper Galilee, one that was utilized by invaders on a regular occasion. ‘Across the Jordan’ refers to the region of the Golan and Gilead. These two regions were agriculturally productive if enough work was put into the land, and they were fought over by Damascus and Israel on numerous occasions. Also, these regions were transgressed by a major north-south trade route that ran from Damascus to the Red Sea (known as the ‘King’s Highway’ in the Bible). ‘Galilee of the Nations’ refers to the Galilee in general, including territory perhaps as far south as the Jezreel Valley.

So often was Galilee invaded and attacked (i.e. humbled) that in the 2nd c. BC to 1st c. AD many of its Jewish inhabitants were toughened with a nationalistic zeal—a zeal that sought to establish military dominance over the region. Along with these ‘zealots’ were Hellenistic Jews, Greeks, and Romans—each bitter towards the other in some respect. No other region in the land experienced the diversity and staunchness that was rampant in Galilee.

It is into this land of darkness, so politically and religiously divided and focused on physical might and personal prowess that our Lord came, and His message was the antithesis to the views of popular culture. He preached humbleness, meekness, and spiritual strength. Though Galilee was the ‘toughest’ region in the land, it was into this region that Jesus went as a light to find the lost sheep of Israel. Later, the faith of His disciples was forged in the testing ground that was the ‘land of the shadow of death.’

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