Originally published in Issue #22 on August 27, 2021
The book of Jonah is very short, but I believe that it is one of the greatest pieces of writing in scripture. The literary design is perfect, the words are carefully repeated to drive points home, and the number of themes packed into 48 verses is extraordinary.
Verse one introduces us to our prophet in the standard prophetic form: “The word of the Lord came to…” (Joel 1:1, Micah 1:1, etc.). Then we meet Jonah, son of Amittai, or if you are a Hebrew: Dove, the son of Faithfulness. Names have importance in Hebrew culture and scripture, and Jonah’s may foreshadow his character in this book. Hosea 7:11 compares Israel to a dove, silly and without sense. The reference to his father, the faithful one, is probably ironic, as irony permeates this story from front to back.
Wasting no time, God tells Jonah to get up because Ninevah’s evil has come up before him (Jonah 1:3). Jonah then goes down to Joppa, and went down into the ship, to go to Tarshish “from the Lord’s face.” If you think the author may be playing with the words up and down, well, you would be right. These keywords will be a primary theme throughout the first half of the book.
Another question rears its head: why is Jonah running? The book doesn’t tell us yet, though an ancient Israelite might have a guess: the Assyrians (which Ninevah was the capital of) were a very powerful, very evil enemy of Israel. Asking Jonah to go there may have been perceived as a death sentence. We will come to Jonah’s reasons for refusing in more detail in a later issue.
Down, Down, Down
Jonah goes down to Joppa, then down into the ship, sailing for Tarshish, probably a city in modern-day Spain that was as close to the “edge of the world” as an Israelite knew. Ninevah, of course, was to the east of Israel.
So God hurls a storm at Jonah’s ship, but Jonah slumbers as God tries to rouse him. Finally, a pagan captain of the ship speaks the same words that God spoke to Jonah in verse two: “Get up!” What ends up happening to Jonah? He ends up going down again, thrown off the ship.
Jonah and the Deep
From the belly of the fish, Jonah prays to God. As he was drowning in the waves, he prayed to God for salvation and he was saved by being swallowed by the fish. Jonah's prayer is full of important imagery, but I want to focus on the up and down imagery in this piece.
Let’s take a look at the places where up and down imagery is used in this prayer and see if we can glean some insights. Up and down imagery is highlighted.
I called to the LORD in my distress,
and he answered me.
I cried out for help from deep inside Sheol;
you heard my voice.
When you threw me into the depths,
into the heart of the seas,
the current overcame me.
All your breakers and your billows swept over me.
And I said, “I have been banished
from your sight,
yet I will look once more
toward your holy temple.”
The water engulfed me up to the neck;
the watery depths overcame me;
seaweed was wrapped around my head.
I sank to the foundations of the mountains,
the earth’s gates shut behind me forever!
Then you raised my life from the Pit, LORD my God!
As my life was fading away,
I remembered the LORD,
and my prayer came to you,
to your holy temple.
— Jonah 2:2-7 (CSB)
That’s a lot of up and down imagery! It’s not all explicitly up and down, but it’s “deep,” “over,” “engulfed,” “sank,” "raised," and so on. If Jonah reached the foundations of the mountains, he must have gone a long way down!
A Primer on Biblical Cosmology
This isn’t an article explaining Biblical cosmology, but a brief overview will help us understand how this imagery would resonate with an Israelite or their neighbors 2,800 years ago.
Like the book of Jonah, the six days of creation in Genesis 1 are split in half, then each half may be split three ways (in Ch. 1-2 of Jonah: Jonah hears from God, goes to pagans, then talks to God, then he does it again in Ch. 3-4).
On the first three days of Genesis, God separates and orders the three realms of creation: the heavens, the waters above and below, and the dry land. As you can see in the rendering above, God’s heavenly temple is pictured as resting above the watery expanse, which in turn rests on the tips of the mountains (Psalm 75:3, Job 26:11).
The waters below (“the deep”) are an analogical representation of the chaos preceding creation (Genesis 1:2). Within or beneath the watery deep, at the roots of the mountains, resides “Sheol,” the grave, where the dead reside.
Back to Jonah
When we have this context for Jonah’s poetic prayer, the imagery he uses starts to make more sense. When he entered the waters, he entered the most dangerous place for a human being. We are not fish. The dry land was formed on day three of creation for us to live. The waters are the dangerous chaos out of which God formed the world for us (Genesis 1:2).
Jonah has completely lost control of the situation. He couldn’t fight the waters on his own power, God had to intervene and provide him salvation. He sank to Sheol, the foundations of the mountains. He was as good as dead. That is when, finally, he looks to God’s holy temple. Jonah doesn’t mean he faced Jerusalem. He looked up. Finally, he looked up.
God called to him to get up and do as he asked, the pagan sailors told him to get up and call on his God, but it took a near-death experience for him to finally lift his eyes to heaven to pray to Yahweh.
What about Me? What about You?
Jonah is a mirror. We laugh at Jonah’s arrogance and stupidity, yet when the mirror turns on us, it’s suddenly less funny. How many of us have run from the clear teaching of God and gone down, down, down. How many of us had to reach the pit, the watery chaotic depths of our own sin, maybe even to death's door, to finally wake up?
Let us not be like Jonah. Turn your eyes upon Jesus, and look full in his wonderful, terrible, not safe, but loving and good face for salvation.