Saturday, October 24, 2020

Mining the Minors: Jonah (5)

The Hebrew word translated “presence” is literally “face” or “countenance”. It appears in every book from Genesis through Malachi, over 2,000 times in total. When used of God, as in “the presence of the Lord”, it refers to any location in which God chooses to present himself to human beings or any location in which he is said to make his residence.

That phrase “presence of the Lord” is used three times in the book of Jonah, all in this first chapter.

Jonah 1:3 — To Tarshish by Sea
“But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.”
Rising and Fleeing

Distressed at God’s command, Jonah rose to flee from the presence of the Lord. The phrase “rise and flee” is also a familiar expression. Rebekah counseled Jacob to “rise and flee” before Esau might take his life. David “rose and fled” more than once: first from Saul; later, and much more tragically, from his own son. Jeroboam rose and fled from Solomon, who at that point in his life had more in common with Saul than with his own father.

But Jonah is the first and only man in scripture to rise and flee from the presence of the Lord as if fleeing from an enemy, when he had no reason at the time to fear God’s personal judgment. After all, it is God’s enemies who traditionally rise up and flee, not his spokesmen and his servants. But perhaps Jonah’s strategy was not quite as daft as it initially seems.

I should probably explain that. Several commentators quote the Psalms in discussion of this verse. David writes, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” The question is of course rhetorical. God is everywhere. You cannot effectively flee from his presence, as Psalm 139 sets out at length. So then, on one level, Jonah knew that rising and fleeing from God was absurd. A devout man, he could probably quote the words David had penned verbatim, and he understood their spiritual import as well as any man in Israel, maybe better.

The Presence of the Lord

And yet there is a sense in which the “presence of the Lord” has reference to a specific place, as opposed to everywhere.
  • Adam and Eve hid from the presence of the Lord because God was at the time making himself known to them in some more intimate and personal form, as opposed to a cloud or a whirlwind or a pillar of fire: he was walking in Eden in the cool of the day. Even an Almighty Spirit may express himself locally rather than globally if he so chooses.
  • It is written that Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and settled east of Eden, in the land of Nod. Of course Cain surely knew there was nowhere God could not find him, but perhaps he hoped to be free of God’s direct influence on his life by getting away from other human beings.
  • The outcry against Sodom came into the presence of the Lord. Until then, the Sodomites had done as they pleased for years on end. After that, not so much.
  • The trees in the forest sing in the presence of the Lord, said David, when he had placed the ark of the covenant in a tent and brought it among the people. He wasn’t wrong: the Lord was present among his people in Israel in some genuine and specific way in which he wasn’t present elsewhere at the time, notwithstanding the fact that he is always, inescapably everywhere.
And from Solomon’s time on, we find the presence of the Lord in his temple in Jerusalem, at least until the tenth chapter of Ezekiel.

Out from the Presence

So then, there is a scriptural sense in which God’s presence cannot be escaped; yet there is also a very scriptural sense in which it can, provided God allows it. We are not told where Jonah was when the word of the Lord came to him. It is not outside the realm of possibility that the phrase “presence of the Lord” in the book of Jonah has in view the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, though Jonah was an Israelite and Jerusalem was miles away from his home, and in another nation. Jonah certainly makes reference to God’s “holy temple” in his prayer in chapter 2. Alternatively, perhaps the prophet was simply recognizing that even in their low condition, God still remained among his people in Israel in a sense in which he could not be said to be present among the nations.

Either way, Jonah was not a complete idiot to flee, and he was not unaware that God was able to seek him out and compel him to do his bidding should he decide to do so. His heart was simply not in the task he had been assigned. It went very much against his inclinations, as he explains in a later chapter. In rising and fleeing from the place where he had most recently encountered the Lord, he perhaps hoped that God would find someone else to do the job, or, like Cain, simply leave him alone and allow him to go his way.

Tarshish

Why exactly Jonah chose Tarshish the scriptures do not tell us. For one thing, it is not entirely clear to us today exactly where he was going. The Jewish Encyclopedia says Tarshish “denotes a country; indeed, it is mentioned as a maritime country lying in the remotest region of the earth.” The Targum of Jonathan identifies Tarshish with Carthage. Josephus suggests Tarsus in Cilicia is meant. Others place Tarsus on the Phoenician coast; still others locate it as Tartessus in Spain, or even Britain.

Jonah’s intended destination turns out to be moot in any case; the prophet never got there. But what seems evident is that he was attempting to get as far away as possible from the job God had assigned him. Nineveh was north and east of Israel. The fact that Jonah took a ship from the port city of Joppa suggests he had to be going west, and probably as far west as humanly possible, which makes Spain a plausible choice.

Missing the Point

What Jonah did not stop to consider is this: God was not simply interested in saving Nineveh from destruction. In fact, Nineveh was doomed in the long run, as the historical record (not to mention the prophecy of Nahum) establishes beyond reasonable doubt. So God was not simply going through the motions of sending a warning to its people through one of his prophets so that he could make a note to himself that he had done everything possible to encourage the Ninevites to repent before summarily wiping them off the face of the earth.

God does not merely check boxes. Our heavenly Father is relational, not just a looming legal presence dispensing justice as required. He wants to be known and understood. The Lord had a relationship with Jonah that was somewhat deficient at Jonah’s end, and he fully intended to teach his servant more about himself.

A little distance was not about to put God off his task.

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