March Library Update - Jonah
The book of Jonah is only four chapters long, but there’s so much depth to this seemingly simple story. I learned this very quickly when recently I had the privilege of virtually attending a seminar on the book, led by Rev. Dr. Reed Lessing of the Center for Biblical Studies at Concordia St. Paul. Lessing is the author of the professional commentary on Jonah offered by our Synod’s publisher, Concordia Publishing House.
Here are 5 interesting takeaways from this seminar that will change how you look at the book of Jonah:
The English simply translates God’s name as the LORD in the book of Jonah. In the original Hebrew, God’s name is sometimes written more formally. There’s His personal name Yahweh, then Yahweh-Elohim (Lord God), and Ha-Elohim and Elohim (“God”) in chapter 4. This signals the distance Jonah is putting between himself and God, particularly when he is being disciplined with the worm and scorching east wind and the less personal names are used. Jonah is obstinate and actively hates his enemies, the Gentile Ninevites. His stubborn unwillingness to forgive is the greatest sin presented in the book. Jonah wants salvation only for God’s people, the Israelites. No one else!
The fare that Jonah pays for the boat when he is fleeing his task actually refers to the entire ship, not a ticket for passage as we think of today. He hired the entire ship and its crew, which is how he would have access to the innermost recesses of the boat to fall asleep. This would also have factored into the pagan sailor’s hesitation to throw Jonah overboard to calm the storm—he was their “boss!”
Noah and Jonah are the only two narratives in the Old Testament that take place on water. The story connects in subtle ways to the story of Noah in Genesis through key details and phrases. For example: Jonah’s name means “Dove.” Just as Noah sent out a dove twice to see if the floodwaters were receding, Jonah was sent out twice by God on his mission to preach to the Ninevites. Similarly, as God flooded the earth because of violence committed by men and destroyed them all in judgment, violence is also the sin that the Ninevites recognize as their own and repent of—and are spared from destruction. Finally, a vessel (an ark for Noah, a fish for Jonah) save both from the deep waters.
These allusions to Genesis pushes the story of salvation back to the first covenant made between God and all descendants of Noah, not merely to the covenant God makes with Israel in Exodus, where Jonah sees his people’s history begin (which is his problem in excluding the Ninevites from salvation and wanting them to perish). The descendant of Noah’s son Ham includes Nimrod who built Nineveh, the city God spares, making it clear that non-Israelites are under the umbrella of this covenant. All nations are included in salvation, just like Revelation says when it mentions “all nations” will be included before the throne of heaven (see also Romans 3:29).
While Jonah waited outside the city hoping for its destruction, “the Lord God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort.” (NIV). A better translation for understanding what God is trying to do here is that God provided the vine because he is “saving Jonah from his evil.” Talking to Jonah about his hardened heart hasn’t worked, so God uses the vine to further preach to Jonah, who cares more about the fate of the vine than flesh-and-blood humans who might perish.
By the end of the story, the only person who doesn’t repent of his evil is God’s own prophet, Jonah! Instead, the sailors on the way to Tarshish and the Ninevites are the ones who have unexpectedly turned away from evil. And these are non-Israelites! The book of Jonah is full of these ironies. For example, the unbelieving ship captain has to urge a believing Israelite – Jonah – to pray! (1:5) And Jonah’s anger over the conversion of Nineveh (4:1) occurs precisely when God turns his anger away (3:10).
There is much more to dive into in the book of Jonah, such as its literary structure and meaningful use of words, and how God uses his creation to work with His people and deliver his grace (seen climatically in the person of Jesus, and also in the sacraments of Baptism and Communion.)
This was my first time doing a seminar and it was very engaging and worthwhile. There are more courses like these from the Center for Biblical Studies. For lay people, there will be a course on Financial Management (2 Corinthians 8-9) on August 25 and a seminar on the book of Revelation next March. Go to www.csp.edu/center-for-biblical-studies to register in-person or online for a small fee.
Lessing is also the author of a new book in our church library called Overcoming Life’s Sorrows: Learning from Jeremiah. Books can be checked out for 2 months using the checkout card in the back of the book. Stop by the bookshelf next to the colorful children’s bookshelves past the Fellowship Hall for the newest books!