Kendall K. Downunread,
Nov 19, 2021, 4:00:07 AM11/19/21
This sermon is illustrated with pictures, maps (including animated
maps), Bible verses and quotes from various authors. You will need my
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The book of Jonah begins with the simple statement that God communicated
with a man called Jonah - Jonah ben-Amittai.
The first mention of Jonah is in the historical record of the kings of
Judah, where we are told that Jonah predicted the success of Jeroboam
II, king of Israel. We presume that Jonah lived during or shortly before
the reign of this Jeroboam.
Gath-Hepher is a small village a couple of miles NW from Nazareth where
a mosque is claimed to mark the birth place or grave of Nabi Yunus. (It
has only recently had the domes gilded.)
Jeroboam was a strong ruler and during his reign Israel was more
prosperous than ever before. He ruled from 782-753 BC. He was also lucky
in the political circumstances of his time.
Towards the end of his reign - 760 BC - the whole of Palestine was
shaken by a massive earthquake, which may have been as much as 8.2 on
the Richter Scale.
It was such a significant event that Amos dated his vision in terms of
Three and a half centuries later Zechariah referred to that earthquake
as something that people still remembered vividly, as an ilustration of
One reason why Jeroboam was so prosperous was that Assyria was weak.
During his reign two kings, Shalmaneser IV 783-773 and Ashur-dan III
772-755 ruled in Nineveh, but the real power was held by the nobles and
the army general Shamshi-ilu.
In 765 BC, seven years after Ashur-dan came to power, Assyria was hit by
a severe plague and so severely affected that there was no campaign in
764 BC! It seems likely to me that this event predisposed the people of
Nineveh to listen to Jonah's message.
There is another possibility. In 787 BC Adad-nirari III erected a temple
in Nineveh to Nabu of Borsippa (near Babylon) and decreed that he was
the chief (or possibly, the only) god and people should worship only
him. It was a religious revolution similar to that of Akhenaton in Egypt.
Nabu was the god who invented cuneiform writing and was the scribe of
the gods, who assigned men their fates.
One Nabu statue from this period bears the inscription, "Trust in Nabu,
not in any other god." Could this short-lived change be attributed to
Jonah's preaching? The plague 22 years later a punishment for returning
to the old gods and the old ways?
Adad-nirari III did destroy Damascus, Israel's long-time rival and
enemy, thereby paving the way for the prosperity that attended Jeroboam
II, aided by the fact that subsequent Assyrian kings were weak.
After the plague, God saw that Nineveh was in a mood to listen - but
only if Jonah went immediately. Next year would be too late.
Unfortunately, the mere thought of going to Nineveh gave Jonah the
willies! He decided to go as far as possible in the opposite direction!
That meant Tarshish, on the very edge of the known world.
To find a ship heading to Tarshish Jonah had to go all the way down to
Joppa, just south of modern Tel Aviv, a distance of 55 miles as the crow
flies. He could have gone north to Tyre, but he probably shrank from
mixing with the Phoenicians and hoped to find a Jewish vessel.
There is no doubt about the location of Joppa; it is modern Jaffa, just
south of Tel Aviv. You will notice that the bay offers no shelter for
ships. All the groynes and breakwaters are modern
There are some rocks off shore, but they do not provide any shelter.
Josephus tells us that Joppa is not a good port and he also gives us an
intriguing bit of mythology!
You can see the waves breaking over the rocks in this old engraving of
Ships had to lie off-shore and passengers and goods were ferried to
shore in small boats, which were frequently upset in the surf.
I have a very old book, copiously illustrated with steel engravings,
which has this picture of passengers and goods from a "modern" steamer
being loaded into boats for the trip to shore.
Unfortunately there is no such certainty about Tarshish. The Nora Stone,
now in the National Archaeological Museum in Cagliari, Sardinia, has
been interpreted as confirming that Tarshish was on that island.
None of the individuals mentioned in the inscription are known in
history and the first line could be understood as meaning that Tarshish
was *not* in Sardinia!
Some versions of the LXX substitute Carthage (Karkhadun) for Tarshish.
Carthage was on the coast of north Africa, near the modern city of Tunis.
In its hey-day it was head of a trading empire that extended across the
whole Mediterranean from Lebanon to Spain and possibly to Cornwall. Mind
you, even if Jonah was heading for somewhere else, his ship would
probably have called in at Carthage!
The Romans destroyed Carthage pretty thoroughly and there is little left
to show its former glory.
Others have identified Tarshish as the Carthaginian settlement on the
harbour of Cadiz, not all that far from Gibraltar.
Whichever it was, however, it was about as far from Joppa - and Nineveh
- as Jonah could imagine.
It is almost certain that Jonah was on a Phoenician ship, as they were
the ones most likely to voyage to Tarshish, especially if it was either
Carthage or Cadiz. Notice that the ship had oars but no mast or sail.
Solomon mounted a trading expedition in conjunciton with Hiram, king of
Tyre, but were they ships going to Tarshish or Tarshish ships - the sort
of ships that could go to Tarshish? Certainly apes and ivory do not
sound like Spain, nor even north Africa!
There is a record of Jehoshaphat of Judah making ships of Tarshish or to
go to Tarshish, but they were built down in the Gulf of Aqaba, which
would seem to indicate that Tarshish was the same as the fabled land of
There is small archaeological evidence that Ezion Geber may be Jezirat
al-Farun, not far from Aqaba and that little bay, now comletely
land-locked, may be the port where Jehoshaphat prepared his ships.
Because he was linked with an evil king of Israel, God could not bless
the venture and the ships were wrecked before they could set sail - but
again note the indication that Tarshish was on the Red Sea.
On the other hand, it would not be possible to sail into the Red Sea
from Joppa, so I think we can exclude the land of Punt.
We are not told how far the ship had gone before the storm struck. The
implication is that it had not gone far.
Ships in those days did not go very far from land. The ship hugged the
coastline but then was caught by the wind and driven off-shore. If it
was a rowing boat (galley) it may have headed south, the shortest route
to the west.
However if the ship was sailing, the prevailing winds almost certainly
meant that it headed north and then worked its way along the south coast
of Turkey. In this case Jonah probably ended up closer to Nineveh than
when he started!
The ship may have been Phoenician, but there were traders and passengers
on board from all over the Mediterranean. In this emergency each man
called on the god with which he was most familiar.
Obviously it wasn't much use praying to the goddess of love, but even so
you were spoiled for choice. From left to right, Teshub, the Syrian
storm god, Tarhunzas, the Hittite storm god, Arpad the Mesopotamian
But everyone's favourite - and the god of the Phoenician sailors - was
Baal the Thunderer, the god who controlled the weather.
There was something about this storm that made the sailors believe it
was supernatural, but Jonah, who knew nothing about the sea, was keeping
out of the way below decks and was actually asleep.
Personally I suspect that Jonah may have been sea-sick. The captain's
obvious alarm certainly woke him up!
If this was a regular practice, it is horrifying to think how many
innocent men suffered because of a storm! But in this case the lot fell
on a man who had a guilty conscience.
The sailors were in no doubt, either because they trusted the dice or
because Jonah gave some reaction which told them he was guilty.
Jonah claimed to worship the top god - no messing about with storm god
underlings! Ea or Yah was the Creator God and stood very high in the
It is not clear when Jonah confessed what he was doing. Was it now in
response to their questions, or had he already mentioned it soon after
I wonder how Jonah felt as he said these words? Probably he couldn't
even swim, but even if he could, it was a death sentence so far from land.
You have to admire those sailors, because even though they knew that
Jonah was guilty, they tried to save his life.
Unfortunately the storm grew even worse (and notice that they didn't
have a sail, they tried to row back to land, Oars are not very efficient
in a storm as at one moment you dig your oars in deep, the next you miss
the water altogether!)
Finally, seeing no alternative but still not convinced that it was the
right thing to do, these sailors asked God to pardon them for what they
were about to do.
Just as there was something uncanny about the storm, so there was with
the sudden peace. The sailors recognised that Yahweh was indeed the
You can be sure that next time they landed in Joppa they told their
story: "You'll never guess what happened last time we came here! There
was this guy ..."
The Bible merely says that God provided - specially created? - a great fish.
This illustration from the Muslim author Jami al-Tawarikh is more
accurate than most modern artists. It was a fish, not a whale - the
invention of Western story-tellers.
The idea of a whale dies hard. In the heart of Joppa some modern artist
has erected a whale in tribute to Jonah!
I don't know whether Jonah prayed while on the ship, but now that he had
"paid" for his sin, he felt able to pray to God.
We are not told what Jonah vowed, but I am pretty sure it was a promise
to head for Nineveh as soon as he was able to do so.
According to tradition, Jonah was vomited up on this beach. The area is
called Jounieh after him. This is what it looked like in 1950.
Today the whole area has been built on and it is basically just a suburb
of Beirut! Incidentally, this picture is taken from ...
.. a shrine I always knew as "Stella Maris" but which is more properly
known as "Our Lady of Lebanon". You can get a cable car up to it, but
driving is also possible - just no parking at the top!
From below on the coast the statue used to dominate the skyline, but
now there is a new Maronite cathedral - which I have not seen but which
looks a bit of an eyesore!
I don't know why Jonah delayed setting off for Nineveh. People promise
great things when they are in trouble but when God delivers them they
forget their promises. Jonah still didn't want to go to Nineveh.
The Hebrew actually says that Nineveh was "a three days' journey", but
no one is sure what the expression means.
Nineveh was the largest city of its time, but it is only 2.85 miles from
north to sourth and 1.35 miles at its widest point. Perhaps the
expression revers to the province of Nineveh or Nineveh and its suburbs?
Or perhaps it meant that it would take three days to walk along every
street in the place! The ancient city may have been even more
higgledy-piggledy than modern Nineveh.
However there is another possibility. At this time the capital city of
the Assyrian empire was Calah, which was even larger than Nineveh. It
would be 30 years after the death of Jeroboam II that Nineveh was made
the capital city.
Calah (now known as Nimrud) is only 20 miles south of Nineveh and
someone who was unfamiliar with the geography might think that the two
cities were just suburbs of each other.
There was an even older capital, the city of Asshur, whose ruined
ziggurat is the most impressive of its remains, but that was 60 miles
from Nineveh and on the other side of the river, so I don't think it
played any part in Jonah's story.
I don't know where the 40 days came from; did God tell Jonah to say that
or was Jonah just trying to put off the evil day when nothing happened?
Having just lived through a terrible plague, the people of Nineveh
weren't about to offend any god, but particularly not Ea, the Creator God.
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, it is Enki who comes to warn Utnapishtim of
what the gods are planning and points out that he must build a boat to
excape the coming deluge. In the Assyrian language, Enki is called "Ea"
So when Jonah appears, giving a warning in the name of Ea, the people
took him seriously. Even the king sat in sackcloth and fasted.
Notice that the nobles are associated with the king in this
proclamation. Trust a weak king to try and appear strong by going
overboard and ordering that even animals are to fast and wear sackcloth!
And it worked! God did not destroy Nineveh.
This is what God said a century or so later through the prophet
Jeremiah. He will not destroy the repentant.
Of course the opposite is also true. God's promises are conditional and
if we fail to be faithful, the promises will not come true!
I like the way this author put it. If Jonah was a true prophet, even
though his prediction failed, then others who have preached the soon
return of Christ also had a message from God, even though their specific
Most evangelists would be delighted if they could convert a whole city,
but Jonah was furious.
Jonah admits that he knew what God was like - and it's all God's fault!
Instead of setting up Bible classes and showing the people of Nineveh
how to be good, Jonah goes on a massive sulk.
I have known people who behaved in the same way. God doesn't do what
they want, so they reject Him. God doesn't answer their prayers in the
way they want, so they never pray again. A loved one dies of old age and
they become bitter against God.
The nearest hills are to the east of Nineveh, about 13 miles away. Jonah
was taking no chances as he waited and hoped for disaster to fall on
In Jonah's case, his primary concern seems to be his reputation. He
wanted five stars as a successful prophet - but he had the wrong ideas
For Jonah, success meant personal kudos, being recognised as a prophet
whose predictions came true. Wealth and power would follow as people
flocked to him.
For God success meant sinners changed and saved - even if they were the
We all know the story of what happened next: Jonah left the city and sat
on a hill to see what would happen. God caused a vine to spring up and
give him shade, then the next day the vine died, which annoyed Jonah
God tries to get Jonah's priorities right.
Some have tried to use that number to estimate the population of
Nineveh, but that is to miss the point. Whether the numer is just
children or those who are morally ignorant is irrelevant.
The people of Nineveh were cruel and wicked, but God still loved them!
Jonah's reputation didn't matter; saving souls did.
We probably all recognise this building - St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow
- but we don't know about St Basil. He lived 1458-1557 and became known
as the Holy Fool.
He engaged in all sorts of eccentric behaviour, even going naked in
winter and wearing heavy chains - but he was the only one who dared to
rebuke Ivan the Terrible!
Do we ever hold back from witnessing because we are afraid of what
people will think of us or what they may do to us? Perhaps we need to be
more like St Basil and less like Jonah.