Saturday, October 03, 2020

Mining the Minors: Jonah (2)

Our Bibles do not tell us who wrote the book of Jonah. Tradition has it the account was written by Jonah himself.

Alternatively, similarities in the narratives lead some Bible scholars to conclude the story of Jonah was written sometime in the 8th century BC by men from the same group of Hebrew scribes credited with assembling 1 and 2 Kings from a variety of other documents; documents like the “Chronicles of Samuel the Seer”, the “Chronicles of Nathan the Prophet”, the “Chronicles of Gad the Seer”, the “Prophecy of Ahijah the Shilonite”, the “Visions of Iddo the Seer”, the “Chronicles of Shemaiah the Prophet”, the “Chronicles of Jehu the Son of Hanani”, the “Story of the Book of the Kings”, and so on. These earlier documentary sources, which may or may not have been inspired by God in their entirety, later served to provide the Spirit-led editors of Kings and Chronicles with the historical details from which they drew the spiritual lessons with which we are familiar.

Still other scholars assign a post-exilic date to the book of Jonah, which is by no means impossible. Other books of the Bible were compiled or written at later dates under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit with the use of existing historical records and oral history, and there are no internal claims in Jonah with respect to date or authorship to refute this theory.

A Historical Jonah

The prophet Jonah is treated as historical not just by the Lord Jesus in the New Testament, but by the writers of Old Testament history. It is thought that Jonah prophesied in Israel between 800 and 750 BC, give or take, making him among the earliest of what we call the Minor Prophets (hence the name of this series).

We know Jonah must have ministered to the divided nation of Israel during and/or prior to the reign of the wicked king Jeroboam II, because 2 Kings 14 tells us that King Jeroboam “restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher.” This territory along the northern border of Israel had previously been lost to the Arameans. During Jonah’s lifetime, the Assyrian Empire had already begun its ascension to the world stage. As Assyria’s power grew, Aram’s control of the region diminished, allowing Jeroboam to retake the lost territory as Jonah had foretold.

Jonah’s Prophetic Ministry

So then, in 2 Kings we discover that Jonah had a prophetic ministry that went beyond a single call from God to preach repentance to a wicked foreign nation. God had also given his servant the gift of predicting the future. Interestingly, the book of Jonah itself contains no spectacular predictions. Jonah gives a rather unspecific warning of coming judgment … which ends up not coming true. (He also successfully predicts, if only to himself, how God will deal with Nineveh if the city repents, but other than that, nada.)

So Jonah doesn’t predict a whole lot in the book of Jonah. But the writers of 2 Kings acknowledge there were times when Jonah’s predictions were proven correct, and it was to Jonah that God gave the knowledge that a fairly specific section of the border of Israel would one day be restored, which, as any good prophet would do, he passed on. This “word of the Lord” became general knowledge in Israel, such that when the border of Israel was restored from Lebo-hamath to the Sea of the Arabah, the people would know that God had made this possible, even though it was accomplished during the reign of a wicked king.

Sometimes God does that. He blesses people who don’t deserve it, and whose leaders definitely don’t deserve it. We could use some of that today. God did it in this case, and Jonah was the instrument through which his word came.

The Prophet from Gath-hepher

We also learn in 2 Kings that Jonah was from the town of Gath-hepher. That is another fact we don’t find in the book of Jonah. You may remember that in the gospel of John, the sect of the Pharisees give their fellow Pharisee Nicodemus a rough time. Nicodemus appeals to them to give Jesus a hearing to see what he has to say, and to judge him by his actions. Their response is scornful. They say to him, “Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.”

As it turns out, they were not correct in that: the prophet Jonah actually hailed from the town of Gath-hepher, which is about two miles from Nazareth in what would later be called the region of Galilee. But perhaps we are being too hard on the Pharisees, who were far from historically illiterate. What they may have been trying to argue is not that no Old Testament prophet had ever come out of Galilee, but that there was no place in God’s word where it was foretold that Messiah, or any other great prophet, was to come from Galilee as part of God’s future dealings with Israel. Galilee wasn’t a place for which the Pharisees had high regard, and they based their disdain in part on their reading of the Hebrew scriptures, which did not lead them to expect great things from that part of the country.

If Jonah came from Gath-hepher, it is highly probable he was from the tribe of Zebulun. If you go to that area today, apparently the locals will point you to the tomb of Jonah. Gath-hepher was on the border between Zebulun and Naphtali in the far north of Israel, less than 50 miles from the border Israel shared with the nation of Aram. In times of war, Gath-hepher and the villages around it were more exposed to raids and invasions from neighboring nations than some of the better-protected larger cities of the south, which may serve to account for the chip Jonah had on his shoulder about foreigners. He had probably seen some terrible things.

A Chip on the Shoulder

In fact, 2 Kings refers to the suffering of Israelites at the hands of foreigners during the reign of Jeroboam this way:
“The Lord saw that the affliction of Israel was very bitter, for there was none left, bond or free, and there was none to help Israel.”
It was for this reason that the Lord took pity on Israel during the reign of Jeroboam. It certainly had nothing to do with their king. But while this description provides adequate biblical context for Jonah’s unusual reaction to God’s instructions in the first few verses of the book, it is nowhere near so vivid a description of Assyrian atrocities as we find elsewhere in the literature of antiquity.

From the first chapter of Tobit:
“I saw the dead body of any of my people thrown out behind the wall of Nineveh, I would bury it. I also buried any whom King Sennacherib put to death when he came fleeing from Judea ... For in his anger he put to death many Israelites; but I would secretly remove the bodies and bury them ... Then all my property was confiscated; nothing was left to me that was not taken into the royal treasury.”
Assyrian Atrocities in History

There’s plenty more. From an article entitled “Terrorists of the Ancient World”:
“Assyrian national history, as preserved for us in its cuneiform inscriptions and images on walls and floors of palaces and temples, and on clay and alabaster tablets, prisms and cylinders consists mainly of military campaigns and battles. It is perhaps the most gory and bloodthirsty of history known. And from its beginning, Assyria was a strong military power bent on conquest. Any country or people group that opposed their rule was punished with the destruction of their cities and the devastation of their fields and orchards. They were to be feared, with good cause.”
From the writings of Albert Kirk Grayson, this translation of a record of Assyrian conquest:
“In strife and conflict I besieged [and] conquered the city. I felled 3000 of their fighting men with the sword ... I captured many troops alive: I cut off some of their arms [and] hands; I cut off others their noses, ears [and] extremities. I gouged out the eyes of many troops. I made one pile of the living [and] one of heads. I hung their heads on trees around the city.”
And finally, from the book of Nahum:
“Woe to the bloody city, all full of lies and plunder — no end to the prey! The crack of the whip, and rumble of the wheel, galloping horse and bounding chariot! Horsemen charging, flashing sword and glittering spear, hosts of slain, heaps of corpses, dead bodies without end — they stumble over the bodies! And all for the countless whorings of the prostitute, graceful and of deadly charms, who betrays nations with her whorings, and peoples with her charms.”
This was Nineveh a few hundred years later on. Not a desirable bunch. Apparently Jonah’s preaching only produced repentance in the short term.

At any rate, the point is that if Jonah hated Assyrians, he had compelling reasons to do so. Anybody would.

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