Saturday, October 17, 2020

Mining the Minors: Jonah (4)

All names have some level of significance to the people who bear them, though you may feel free to disagree if you have been afflicted with parents who think calling a child Apple or Moon Unit is a bright idea. Thankfully those folks are comparatively rare.

In ancient languages, most names were not simply a pleasing combination of vowels and consonants chosen by moms and dads who were stuck for a name they could agree on; they also signified something else. The Lord renamed at least one of his disciples, and he did not do so without purpose. The name Simon, which means “to hear”, was changed to Peter, meaning a rock or stone. Much is said about that renaming in religious circles, not all of it accurate, but it is certain that the change was significant both to the Lord and to Peter. It redefined who he was.

Not all names are equally significant, however. Even if a name had special meaning for the people who conferred it or the person who received it, that meaning may not be transmitted with perfect precision to readers of every subsequent generation, since they must cross the inevitable gaps in culture, language, time and place.

Still, if nothing else, at bare minimum a name serves to distinguish one person from another. That feature can be useful.

Jonah 1:1 — What’s in a Name?
“Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai …”
Older commentaries will tell you the Hebrew name Jonah means “dove”. The name Amittai also has an established meaning, which is “my truth”. All the same, I am disinclined to make much of such things where the Holy Spirit does not specifically draw our attention to them. Some names are just … names. Not knowing Jonah beyond what is written in these four chapters about him, it is difficult to find anything particularly dove-like in his character or ministry unless we degenerate into wild conjecture. And while Jonah eventually brought the truth about Nineveh’s standing before God home to its people, it’s hard to see how his father’s given name would factor into that.

In fact, I suspect the primary purpose of recording Jonah’s father’s name here, as with many other similar cases in scripture, is that it serves as a disambiguator, which is to say that it distinguishes this Jonah from all the other Hebrew ‘Jonahs’ with which he might otherwise be inadvertently conflated. It is quite unlikely there were multiple persons of note in Israel’s history who bore both these names, and the fact that one such person is mentioned in 2 Kings, and is also called a prophet, serves to ground the book of Jonah firmly in Israelite history. This is a story about a real person who lived and died at a specific time and place. His tale certainly has fantastical elements which give rise to debate about whether it is accurate in all its details, but the writers of scripture give us no reason to think Jonah the man is either fiction or parable.

So if the reference to Amittai does nothing else, at least it historicizes Jonah.

Jonah 1:2 — A Mission to Nineveh
“… saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.’ ”
That Great City

A quick internet search tells us Nineveh was an ancient Mesopotamian city that served as the capital of the Neo-Assyrian empire. It was located on the east side of the Tigris River in what is now Iraq, right across from modern-day Mosul. Tertius Chandler’s population estimates, which are based on an examination of factors like the size of Nineveh’s military, travel estimates and the number of food wagons required to service the city, indicate that around 668 BC, when this story takes place, Nineveh was the largest city in the world, and that it held that title for at least fifty years. Its remains cover an area of almost 1,900 acres. Scholars estimate that between 100,000 and 150,000 people lived within its walls. In Jonah’s day, the city was surrounded by a massive stone and mudbrick rampart 12 kilometers long punctuated by fifteen great gates, most of which were named for local “gods”. The stones in the rampart wall were carved with battle scenes, bull and lion hunts, and prominently featured impalings.

Unsurprisingly, all these historical findings turn out to be remarkably congruent with the statements about Nineveh found in the book of Jonah. Nineveh was indeed a great city … and a wicked city, a center of commerce that united the ancient East and West.

Call Out Against It

The Hebrew word translated “call out against it” means to proclaim. The same word is used multiple times in the early chapters of Genesis when God announces that the light is to be called day and the darkness night; or when Adam names first the animals and then his own wife; or when Cain gives a name to the city he has built. It refers to an official announcement or public declaration. Jonah’s task was to go to Nineveh and name its evil for what it was to anyone who might listen.

It’s interesting to consider the difference between how man views the work of his own hands and how God views it. Nineveh looks most impressive to the student of history: the teeming capital city of the world’s most dominant empire of its day, remarkable for its landmarks, wealth, size and accomplishments. Nineveh’s architecture was renowned. Its rulers and those in their retinues likely conceived of themselves as some of the most sophisticated and cosmopolitan people alive. But God saw all too clearly the depravity, violence and bloodlust behind a thin veneer of organized urbanity, and he sent Jonah to put a name to the evil of Nineveh’s inhabitants and proclaim that God had ordained its end.

Their Evil Has Come Up Before Me

God being God, it is impossible to conceive of any evil act on earth of which he is unaware, even at the very moment when it occurs. So then, it is not as if Nineveh’s wickedness was a surprise to God. The Lord always knew what these people had done and everything of which they were capable. Had he wanted to, God could have erupted in judgment at any moment without warning against the people of Nineveh and been fully justified in doing so. But that is not the way God characteristically operates. And it’s a very good thing he doesn’t. If God’s judgments on the sins of men in this life were comprehensive in their scope and instantaneous in their response, how many of us would still be here?

But scripture indicates there is an orderly process to God’s direct acts of punishment. The Lord has a long history of dealing with what we might call ‘official complaints’ at carefully selected times once some kind of threshold of cumulative awfulness is reached. Abel’s blood filed the first major complaint about sin, and God responding by sentencing his murderer to a life of wandering. The exceptional wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah caused a great outcry against the cities that drew God’s attention and resulted in a deliberate, measured and near-complete annihilation. The iniquity of the Amorites reached some sort of threshold only God could measure, after which it required payback, but God would not deal directly with them until that time.

So then, there are times when evil “comes up” before God’s court and God must metaphorically put on his judge’s robes and assess extreme sin its inevitable penalty in the here and now. Nineveh’s wickedness had reached that point.

God said it, and Jonah agreed in his heart … perhaps a little too vehemently.

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