Here are some items from last Sunday’s church activities. The pastor started a series on the Book of Jonah. Both the service and the Sunday school class are about that throughout January.
A. The youth pastor talked about how, even when we try to flee from God and disobey him, God does not forsake us. God is always there, trying to bring us back.
B. The topic of God’s omnipresence came up in the service and the Sunday school class. Jonah 1:3 states that Jonah fled from the presence of the LORD. Presumably, that meant that Jonah fled from Jerusalem, where God was believed to reside. Yet, Jonah still has a sense that God is omnipresent, for Jonah testifies to the sailors that God created the sea and dry land (Jonah 1:9); God, even far from Jerusalem, could therefore cause the storm that is afflicting Jonah and his crew. The pastor attributed this inconsistency within Jonah to Jonah being simultaneously a saint and a sinner: he believed he was fleeing from God, yet he also realized that he could never do so. Someone in the class suggested that perhaps Jonah did not believe he was fleeing from God, but Jonah hoped that God would forget about him or pick someone else for the mission.
C. Related to (B.), the pastor said that, in the Hebrew mindset, the city and the sea were not places to find God. Cities, in the Book of Genesis, were founded by the wicked Cain and Nimrod; the Israelites were closer to God in the wilderness, before they settled. The sea was a symbol of chaos and there were not many Hebrew seafarers because nobody knew what could happen out there. Yet, in the Book of Jonah, God is found in a city and at sea.
D. Jonah took a ship to Tarshish, and the pastor went through three options about the identity of Tarshish. First, it could be Spain. Spain had a Phoenician/Carthaginian colony with a name that was similar to Tarshish. According to Plato, at the pillars of Hercules at Gibraltar, a sign states that there is nothing more beyond. Jonah, in this scenario, sought to flee to the edge of the world. Second, it could be Sardinia, which is off the coast of Africa. People bought tin there to make bronze, and, in Egyptian, Sardinia sounds like Tarshish. Third, it could be Tarsus, in Turkey, from which St. Paul originated. Tarshish in Genesis 10:4 and I Chronicles 1:7 appears to be juxtaposed with Greece (Javan) and Crete (the Kittim), and Tarsus is on the way to Greece. The Egyptians traded a lot with Tarsus because it was rich in ore. The pastor thought Tarsus was the most likely candidate, but he likes the interpretation that it is Spain because it resonates with his own past experience of fleeing as far away as he could to escape God’s calling on his life.
E. The pastor drew parallels between the story in Jonah and the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32. In both, a man flees faraway, and someone is unwilling to accept another person’s repentance. Both also end with an open question: we are not told how Jonah responds to God’s point about God’s concern for the people of Nineveh, nor are we told how the older brother responds to his father’s point about the lost son being found.
F. The pastor also drew parallels between the story of Jonah and the story in Mark 4 and Matthew 8 about Jesus being asleep in the boat. Jonah slept in the boat during a storm, as did Jesus, and both are asked why they are sleeping. Both woke up and offered a solution (calming the storm) in which they submitted to God and identified God. In Jonah, the God of Israel is shown to be God; in Mark and Matthew, Jesus shows he is God.
G. The cuneiform for “Nineveh” has a house with a fish inside it, so some have suggested that the patron goddess of Nineveh was a fish.
H. Nineveh in the Book of Jonah is said to be a three days’ journey in breadth, but archaeologists say that Nineveh was not that big. The pastor said that it may have been that big if one counts the surrounding suburbs.
I. Jesus in Matthew 12:39-40 likens Jonah being in the belly of the fish with Jesus being three days and three nights in the tomb. The pastor interpreted this in light of the new life that Romans 6 associates with Jesus’s death and resurrection, a new life that entails God forgiving people of their sins. Indeed, that is what happens in the Book of Jonah: the Ninevites are forgiven by God and given a chance to start anew.
J. We had brief discussions at our tables. Apparently, this is a new thing we will be doing. It is not my cup of tea, but people made good points. Someone at our table, a pastor, discussed forgiveness. He said that he doubts that Jonah had to become friends with the Ninevites after their repentance, since his wounds may have been deep. Still, the possibility for friendship is there, as the Ninevites followed God and went a new path.