A Special Summer Addition By David Faulkner
Just about everybody knows the story of Jonah and the Whale. (Actually it was a “large fish,” not a whale and we are told that the Lord had prepared it specially for Jonah; Jonah 1:17.) Once Jonah decided he would do what God wanted him to do, the fish spit him out and he became a successful evangelist. That’s the part of the story everybody knows. But there’s more to the little book than that. Jonah may be a minor prophet, but his story sheds some interesting light on the choices we face today.
Jonah lived around 800 B.C. He was mostly active in the northern kingdom (Israel) during a period of great stability. Israel’s king at the time was Jereboam II, who reigned for 38 years. Though both Israel and Judah had been buffeted by wars with Aram (Syria), both were enjoying a respite. Azariah (Uzziah) was king of Judah for 52 years at about the same time. Jonah is mentioned in II Kinds 14:25 as predicting the expansion of Israel’s territory which took place under Jereboam II.
There was a long period in the Fertile Crescent and along the Mediterranean coastline when the region was not dominated by a major empire. It was this power vacuum that David and Solomon had sought to fill by the creation of their empire. But those two kings and their empire were now 200 years in the past, their kingdom was divided, and, worse, a new power was rising in the north that would once again unite the Fertile Crescent under one king. The empire that was growing was known as Assyria. It’s armies were among the most cruel ever to march across the face of the earth. Its capital was Nineveh, the very place Jonah was commanded to go.
I was always taught that Jonah fled from God in exactly the opposite direction than the one God wanted him to take. Actually Nineveh was north and Jonah went west. In fact he went about as far west as it was possible to go. Tarshish was, as far as we know, somewhere along the eastern coast of Spain, still on the Mediterranean, but not all that far from the Pillars of Hercules and the seemingly endless swells of the Atlantic.
Israel certainly possessed no ships that sailed that far. Navigation on the Mediterranean was controlled by the Phoenician, the people of two major cities, Tyre and Sidon, located north of Israel on the Lebanese coast. These folks traded all over the Mediterranean world and had established trading ports in various places, including Carthage in North Africa (present-day Tunisia), and all the way over in Spain at Tarshish. The Mediterranean was really a kind of Phoenician lake as the Minoan civilization on Crete was a thing of the distant past, Troy had fallen and Rome, if it existed at all, was no more than a village nestled along the banks of the Tiber. But for all the Phoenician’ skill in navigation, sailing was still a very dubious enterprise and, had I been Jonah, I think I’d have tried to escape on dry land.
Again, I was always taught that Jonah headed for Tarshish because it was about the most distant place he could imagine. But according to pastor and teacher Eugene Peterson there was another reason–Tarshish was on the very edge of the known world. As such, for the enterprising soul looking for excitement, Tarshish was the edge of adventure. It was the most exciting place on earth at the time. These days humanity seems to have lost its zest for exploration. Unless we can find some way to overcome the vast distances of space and travel to the planets and stars, we will probably not get that zest back. As the settlement nearest the edges of the known world, Tarshish was also the place of greatest freedom, greatest excitement, and greatest opportunity.
From Tarshish you could go up the Spanish coast or into the Iberian peninsula. Perhaps you could travel into the forests of Gaul (France) or journey as far as the Alps, then the highest mountains known to anyone in that part of the world. Better still, you might be asked to sail on an even greater adventure, out into the Atlantic, perhaps all the way to the Tin Islands (Britain). All that may not seem like much to us, but for Jonah it was a big thing. In Tarshish he could be his own man and do what he wanted without having to worry about being sent to a very hostile city to proclaim to its people a message they didn’t want to hear.
Even if we’ve lost our zest for exploration everybody wants, from time to time, to be someplace more exciting than they are. Eugene Peterson himself, though he had a successful and fulfilling ministry, remarked that he had twice bought a ticket for Tarshish, a place where there would be more excitement, more people, a more prestigious ministry. But twice the Lord stopped him from going. He finally did move on to other things, like creating his biblical paraphrase The Message, but only after he officially retired from the ministry.
It’s easy, especially when we’re young, to want to be where the action is. Everybody, even the most sedate and laid back among us has yearned for Tarshish at some time or another. After all, Tarshish can mean more than just adventure. It can mean prestige or fame or almost anything we might yearn for when God has us doing something else. If the main lesson of Jonah 1 is that we should do the will of God even when it’s unpleasant, the underlaying lesson is not to long for Tarshish, whatever our Tarshish happens to be. All such longing is likely to do is cause us not to do the thing God wants us to do now, even if it’s reading another long, boring book or writing another paper when there’s something fun going on we’d rather do. Paul put it another way. He wrote, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation,” (Philippians 4:12). God calls a few of us to do really exciting, noteworthy things. Most of us He calls to do ordinary, everyday things. Can we be content with that, or do we insist on joining Jonah on the long trip to Tarshish?