The Sign of Jonah in Three Acts
The Sign of Jonah in Three Acts
Stage I: Jonah At Home
In the absence of any tangible archaeological evidence relating to Jonah, son of Amittai, I have been grasping at straws and, in desperation, publish the above artefact which is as near as I could get to the historical Jonah, namely, the seal of one of his contemporaries called Shamah. He was a minister at the court of King Jeroboam II, and that places him between the years 786 – 746 BC. His seal of office was dug up in 1904 during excavations at Megiddo in Israel. Hence its title, ‘The Megiddo Seal’.
No seal bearing the name of Jonah has as yet surfaced, and is not likely to, but his years at the court of Jeroboam, coinciding with those of Shama, are chronicled in the Second Book of Kings. I have no reason to believe that Shama the minister and Jonah the prophet ever bumped into each other, but it would be nice to think they did. They could have shared many a confidence. Jonah is mentioned by the chronicler as being concerned to encourage the king to secure the borders of his kingdom against foreigners, especially against marauders from the mighty Assyrian empire next door. Neither migrants nor mercenaries were welcome in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. (2 Kings 14.23-25).
Shamah’s seal features a fearsome image of the Lion of Judah, sporting a gaping mouth and a pretentious tail that seems to be asking a question. There is also an inscription composed in a primitive version of the Hebrew script. For the sake of our more diligent readers I have transcribed the inscription into the more familiar Hebrew script but please remember to read it from right to left! Otherwise your translation will read something like ‘Hamish McBrearty was here’.
Above the lion is the name of the proud owner of the seal, ‘Shamah’, and below, his position at the royal court as a ‘Servant of Jeroboam’.
The title ‘Servant’ refers to a minister of the king and was applied to distinguished citizens, perhaps members of the royal inner circle. Shamah obviously qualified for his own seal. In time, the title, ‘Servant’, would take on an even more prestigious meaning when it became the preferred title of the Hebrew messiah, the Servant of the Lord (Isaiah 42.1ff and frequently in the Poems of the Suffering and Glorious Servant which follow). Even today the Arabic equivalent, Abdullah, remains a popular name in some parts of the world.
Stage II: Jonah at Sea(*click above for linked article)
If we move on from King Jeroboam, his minister Shamah and the Prophet Jonah of the Book of Kings to a date some centuries later, the name of Jonah surfaces again with a whole book dedicated to his adventure at sea. In the hands of an anonymous narrator with a very fertile mind and a long reach, Jonah is plucked out of past history and enters another world. His few unguarded words are about to come home to haunt him. What follows is one of the most original and powerful products of Hebrew literature.
At first we find ourselves at home in the company of Jonah the Prophet, full of pride in our religious allegiance, able to sleep soundly at night with an easy conscience, impervious to every danger; not too bothered about others around us; conscious, in all humility, of being a cut above certain people; usually wide awake a focussed on what needs doing.
The following reflection moves on from artefacts dug up by archaeologists and tantalizing remarks by chroniclers to reflect on the second entry of Jonah onto the world stage. He finds himself now in the company of the Twelve Minor Prophets with a powerful message to deliver. He may be a minor prophet but he packs a powerful punch.
Jonah is introduced as a Prophet which, by definition, establishes him as an ambassador of God himself. When asked about his identity he is given an early opportunity to broadcast his pride in his nationality and his religion. He stuck out his chest and replied: ‘I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord God of the heavens who created both the seas and the dry land’. We can almost hear him continue under his breath ‘and you can put that in your pipe and smoke it!’ Jonah might have been asleep to the dangers around him but he was wide awake to his own importance and, by implications, to the inadequacies of the rest of mankind.
Yet, from the very outset, we begin to suspect that all is not well with friend Jonah. When instructed from on high to make for the city of Nineveh to persuade them to change their ways and get a grip on themselves, he does a runner in the opposite direction. His first descent is into the hold of the next boat for Timbuktu and into his hammock with the blankets pulled over his head.
His quick exit immediately puts us on our guard and we should not be surprised to hear that there is worse to come. From that unguarded moment of unqualified pride we observe his self-esteem sink lower and lower as his humanity falls victim to his stubborn religious bigotry. As he sank beneath the waves his spirits sank even deeper. ‘I would be better off dead than alive’. He would rather see the people of Nineveh consigned to perdition than play any part in their salvation.
When, at last, he is constrained to fulfil his vocation, he places a safe distance between himself and the city in which he had proclaimed the message of God’s redeeming love. He looks on in impotent rage to observe the inevitable outcome of God’s compassion for sinners. Seven words of warning had reversed the fortunes of a whole city, man and beast alike.
With the Ninevites’ change of heart he plunges even deeper into a mood of despondency: He appeals to God to take his life. Of course he knew that his God was ‘gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity’ (4.2). That’s what bothered him. He would rather die than live to see this happen.
Which of us would not feel sympathy as we take our leave of Jonah, a shadow of the man he once was, now reduced to despair, deprived of his few home comforts by a worm, of all things? (4.7). We leave him to unravel a mystery beyond his understanding. His privileged world had fallen apart.
In marked contrast to the descent of Jonah is the ascent of the men whom, by implication, he despised, the sailors. Their first instinct was to pray to their gods and take every measure to survive the storm at sea. For them life was always a gamble and this storm was no exception. They cast lots on the understanding that there was some mischief at work among them. Not surprisingly the lot fell on Jonah.
Here, especially, the good sailors rise even further in our estimation. They address themselves, no longer to their own gods, but to Jonah’s Lord God for pardon for the action they are about to take. They put up a prayer and toss Jonah overboard with the rest of the baggage. No great loss. An opportunistic whale takes over.
We take leave of Jonah sulking, while life goes on for the sailors as it had always done. They had just had a close shave and it was a man of religion that caused it. The denizens of Nineveh had a complete change of heart; sadly the same cannot be said of Jonah.
Stage III: Jonah the Sign
Jesus recognised in the experience of Jonah, a sign of death and resurrection:
As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale,
so will the son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
The men of Nineveh will rise at the judgement
with this generation and condemn it;
for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold,
something greater than Jonah is here. (Matthew 12.39-41).
The fate of Jonah anticipates the great Christian doctrine of death and resurrection. We have already noted the pattern of descent and ascent in the narrative. This deeper meaning of events is given a remarkable expression in the prayer of Jonah recorded in chapter 2. Narrative gives way to poetry. His prayer ‘out of the depths’ surges high above the waves to penetrate the highest heavens and ends in a perfect act of faith in God his Redeemer:
In my distress I called to the Lord,
and he answered me.
From the depths of the grave
I called for help
and you listened to my cry.
You hurled me into the deep,
into the very heart of the seas,
and the currents swirled about me;
all your waves and breakers swept over me.
I said I have been banished from your sight ;
yet I will look again to your holy temple.
The engulfing waters threatened me,
the deep surrounded me;
seaweed was wrapped around my head.
But you brought my life up from the pit
O Lord my God.
When my life was ebbing away,
I remembered you Lord,
and my prayer rose to you,
to your holy temple…
Salvation comes from the Lord
Jonah began his prophetic career as a fugitive and ends it as a sign to a sceptical world of Christian death and resurrection. Bravo Jonah!