2 King 14:25 He was the one
who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Sea of the Arabah, in accordance with the word of
the LORD, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher. (NIV)
I am Yunas, which means "Dove" in the Assyrian language. As often happens,
suppose my name gives title to the purpose of my soul. I did not know that when I was
younger; I thought that my purpose in life was to restore to Israel the lands which were
taken by the Assyrians in their hunger to establish a great empire.
I am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham the father, a believer of the true
only God. My name, as given to me in the Hebrew language, is Jonah. You may have
heard a story about my being swallowed whole by a great fish and spit out on the shore
three days later. It is the story most people ask about when they hear my Hebrew
name. They always want to know if it happened. And I tell them, "I don't know, but it is
But I get ahead of myself. As a young boy, growing up in Gath-Hepher, I heard
all of the stories of David, the great king; how he first became known among men
because he defeated the giant Goliath, who was also from Gath, when it was a city of
the Philistines; how David was a man very close to God, a man who forged our nation
with his skills as a warrior. I often imagined David talking with God, and wondered what
it would be like to have God actually speak to me, to tell me exactly what He wanted me
I knew that if I ever heard words directly from God's mouth that I would do
anything He asked. I longed to be a man such as David and, failing that, imagined that I
might be a prophet, giving direction to soldiers and kings which would guarantee their
success. I imagined myself as God's tool in restoring our nation to its former greatness.
My grandfather remembered when the nation was divided after the death of King
Solomon. His son Rehoboam spoke so harshly to the northern tribes, threatening to put
them under harsh slavery, that they rebelled and created a separate kingdom. The
fortunes of both have declined since that time. The desire for power and the exercise of
one's own will are powerful forces, not easily resisted, as I came to learn.
Not only was our country torn by internal strife; the Assyrians, unsatisfied with
regions surrounding their capital city of Nineveh, that abomination to God founded by
the son of Cush, were attacking our outlying lands and occupying them. I was sure that
we only had to call upon God and move against them in faith, and our status among
nations would be returned to its former greatness.
When I had grown to an age well into manhood, I was still convinced that Israel
would be great if only we would act in faith. I asked for an audience with Jeroboam, son
of Jeoash, known as Jeroboam the Second. I told him that God wanted Israel to take
back the lands lost to the Assyrians. He thought I was a prophet, perhaps because I
was telling him what he wanted to hear, or perhaps because it was true -- I don't know.
In any case, he did what I suggested and won back the land.
I was convinced that I must indeed be a prophet, whom God would use to work
out His will for Israel. I was sure that God had spoken through me and to me. Then He
Looking back on my life, I realize that bar mitzvah is an event of great contrasts.
On the one hand, it is a day looked forward to by every boy with great expectation: the
day on which he will become a man, the event which signals to him and to the world that
he has arrived at his appointed place . . . the end of his dependence on others. On the
other hand, it is only a beginning -- not even "the beginning," just a beginning among a
lifetime of other beginnings.
Still it is that place in a man's life when other men can now admit to him that
know little and are unsure of so many things. Thinking he is about to become
independent, the boy steps into manhood to find that he is both more depended upon
than he could have imagined, and more dependent than ever before. If he is fortunate,
he will find the training of his youth has provided him a place to begin his dialogue with
God. If not, it is certain that events will bring him to that place where the dialogue can
no longer be avoided.
I fear my years of late youth and early manhood more closely resembled those of
the patriarch Joseph than those of David the shepherd-king. I was full of myself. My
conversation with God was mostly a monologue in which I told Him what, I was sure, He
wanted me to do. If He did speak to me in those years, and there is considerable doubt,
my opinions were so strong that it is unlikely indeed that I heard His voice, let alone his
intent. I was without doubt that my destiny was tied to Nineveh, that God would use me
to foretell its destruction, thereby assuring the resurrection of Israel.
Jonah 1:1 The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai:
Then God spoke, and would not allow me to misunderstand. "The Ninevites
know Me not. I charge you to go to them that I might spare their city." I could not
believe my ears! The God of Israel was asking me to introduce Him to the greatest
enemy of His people so that He might spare them from destruction! I could not do it.
Jonah 1:3 But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for
Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard
and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the LORD. (NIV)
My father was a wealthy man, a merchant who traded all over the world. I knew
that there were many places where the God of the Hebrews was not known. I also
knew many ways to travel, so that by caravan or by ship I could quickly be away from
Gath Hepher. I followed the small river from our town down to the sea, and then
followed the coast until I came to the seaport at Joppa. I soon found a merchant ship
bound for Tarshish, a city where many gods were known. Surely there I could escape
this unthinkable duty.
It was a good ship, and the sailors were obviously experienced seamen.
Everything was stowed neatly and well fastened down. The cargo hold was full, but
there was plenty of room for passengers and crew just below the main deck. On this
trip, however, I was to be the only passenger. I had sailed once or twice before on
business for my father, so I was familiar enough to get easily settled. There were strong
hooks fixed into the beams of the ship so that a net-like hammock tied out of cords could
be stretched between two of them, providing a place to sleep that would stay upright
even as the ship rolled with the waves. There were also places where belongings could
be stored so that they would not shift about as the ship moved through the water. The
accommodations were more than adequate for me, especially since I had brought little
more than the clothes I wore and some gold coins with which to pay for my passage.
Within a few hours the ship was ready for sea, and when the tide rose the master
ordered the sailors to row out of the harbor and set the sail. We had a good wind from
behind us, and because it was summer and he expected good weather, the master set
his course to cross directly over the great sea to Tarshish. As the horizon rose up to
swallow the last view of Joppa, I began to relax. Perhaps I had been wrong in thinking
God had spoken to me. After all, what I thought I had heard made no sense; was not
Yahweh the God of Israel? Why would He want me to aid those who intended to
destroy my country? It was only reasonable that I had been mistaken. I would complete
this trip to Tarshish, and in a few months I would return to my father's house. In a short
while, everything would be as it had been.
Then, without warning, the sky darkened, the wind grew stronger, and the waves
increased in size so that when we were in a trough the crests on both sides of us looked
higher than the mast of the ship. The ship, laden as it was with cargo, began to run its
prow into the sides of the waves and water would wash down the decks, some of it
running into the open hatches. The master, fearing that the ship would capsize, ordered
the crew to throw the cargo overboard to lighten the ship.
The sail was lowered and the crew tried to row the ship back toward Joppa, but
the wind was so strong that they could make no headway against it, so they turned
again toward the open sea and let the ship run. The sailors all began to pray earnestly
to their various gods.
I had gone below, not wanting to believe that my God was here, yet fearing that
He was the cause of this life-threatening storm. While below, all awareness of the ship
and the storm departed from me. I was surrounded by bright light, so strong that it hurt
to see, but closing my eyes did not lessen its brightness. There was one there with me
shaped like a man, and brighter than the light, but the light did not come from him; it
seemed to come from everywhere. There was a voice (but whether it came from the
bright one I could not tell) saying, "I require that you speak of Me to the Ninevites."
I was frightened, angry, confused and a whole collection of other emotions all at
the same time. Was the Creator of all things using His creation to pursue me? Was
there nowhere that I could hide from Him? Was this bright light a pure representation of
His power directed toward me? Who was the man-shaped one I saw in the middle of
Was it not enough that He was putting me in danger by bringing this storm? Must
He turn my whole world upside down? Hadn't I spoken on His behalf so that His nation
could regain the land He had given? Wasn't I the one most aware of who were His
enemies? Why was He asking me to do this thing? "I require that you speak of Me to
Jonah 1:5 All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his
own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay
down and fell into a deep sleep. (NIV)
Then I was aware that the captain was shaking me, as though I had been asleep.
He asked if I was not aware that the sailors were all praying for salvation from the storm.
He wanted me to come up on deck also, and pray to my God.
Jonah 1:7 Then the sailors said to each other, "Come, let
us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity." They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah.
When we reached the deck, the sailors were casting lots because, they said, they
thought perhaps that the storm had been caused by the god of one of us. The lot fell on me.
As they looked at me, I saw fear, curiosity, wonder and awe in their eyes, but
malice. They wished me no harm; they wished only that they might be spared from
whatever pursued me.
"Is it so?" one of them asked.
"Yes," I answered. "I am a Hebrew, and the God of my people has
that I go to Nineveh. I do not want to go and was trying to run away. This storm has
been sent to stop me."
They asked what they should do and I told them they should throw me overboard,
so that the storm would not harm them. To my dismay, they decided to take me back to
Joppa. They felt that if the reason for the storm were to keep me from running away,
then surely it would stop if they took me in the direction I was destined to go. I felt
trapped. My God had enlisted the aid of infidels to force me to do this repulsive task.
But I was wrong, and so were the sailors. The storm did not cease, it only grew
stronger. Then I knew that He was angry with me beyond forgiveness. He no longer
wanted me to finish the task He had given me. He had unjustly judged me and wanted
my death. I had merely acted according to all I had ever learned; refusing to aid His
enemies, I had taken action to avoid doing so. Now He wanted my life! If that were so,
so be it. Life could no longer, it seemed, have any meaning to me. I told the captain to
throw me overboard; then I would die and the storm would stop. They would be safe.
Jonah 1:15 Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and
the raging sea grew calm. (NIV)
Then they did something amazing to me. One of them said he wished to speak
to the God of the Hebrew Jonah. He said that they did not wish me any harm and
prayed that God would not hold them responsible for what might become of me, but that
they dared not disobey a God who could cause such a storm; they threw me into the
Jonah 1:17 But the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah,
and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights. (NIV)
The ship was quickly blown away from where I landed in the water, but even as
we drifted apart the sky began to clear, the wind died down, and I could hear the sailors
praising the God of the Hebrews. Then, as though some giant hand had grasped me
around the body, I felt myself being pulled under the water.
Whether I was living the next events in the spirit or in the flesh I do not know.
might have been somehow transported to the court arena, or have been taken there
only in the spirit, or it might have been a dream. Whatever happened, I experienced the
truth. I was in a huge arena, the floor on which I was standing was flat and circular. In
front of me was a large dais with a throne on it. One was seated on the throne, but I
could not see who it was. It might have been the same one who was in the light on
board the ship, but I don't think so.
The dais took up about a quarter of the circle I was standing in. The remaining
three quarters of the circle were surrounded by rows of seats, arranged in a huge bowl
shape, which were occupied by thousands of people, some of whom I knew, and others
who seemed somehow familiar but I could not place exactly. No one was speaking;
there was a deathly hush over the entire arena. I waited for the one on the throne to
speak; it seemed that hours passed, yet it might have been only an instant.
Jonah 2:1 From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD his
Then, somehow, without being told I knew I was required to speak first. I thought
I must be expected to defend myself. How do you defend yourself when you know you
are not defensible? If you have not done what is required of you, you challenge the
requirement. Yahweh is, after all, the God of Israel, not the God of Israel's enemies.
The Assyrians wish to destroy us and we must defeat them. I should not be sent to
identify their misconduct. What if they repented? Would God not then forgive them, as
is His nature?
I had called upon God to give us victory over our enemies, and He had directed
me to go to them with a message of reconciliation. Furthermore, He had put innocent
sailors in jeopardy (notice how I conveniently dropped the issue of whose God He is
when it meets my purpose) in order to bring me here to condemn me. Why was I not
just let alone to run away from His command? It was, after all, His reputation that I was
concerned about. Did He want the world to think that the God of Israel was weak?
What would happen to His people then? I was being condemned for doing what was
I do not know how long I spoke. Suddenly I was aware that I had said the same
things over and over, without stopping. Then I did stop, and just waited. The silence
returned for a time, then the crowd began to speak all at once. Some were saying I
should be forgiven my transgression, others were saying I was as bad or worse than the
Assyrians, and still others were saying that what had happened was all their fault, that
they should be the ones punished.
Then, the one on the throne spoke and all else was silent. What was said was
not directed at them, but to me. They might have continued talking for all I know; I could
not hear them or anything else but the voice. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever
heard. The voice was rich and soothing, with a quality that reminded me of my mother
when I was frightened as a child and she was comforting me. If I could not have
understood the words I would still have felt taken into a place of love and care. Without
having understood a single word I would have known that I was safe, as only the soul
touched by God can know safety.
I cannot recall the words . . . perhaps there were none, but I know what I was
meant to understand from what was said to me: had I not wanted to serve God, I would
not have been pursued. It was precisely because I had dreamed all of my life of being
God's chosen man that I must go to Nineveh. The sailors had seen in me the mark that
I had chosen, identifying me as one dedicated to the service of Yahweh. I need not
understand what was about to happen or why, but I did need to fulfill that purpose I had
selected for myself. I must be true to that purpose, even if I did not understand it.
Jonah 2:10 And the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah
onto dry land. (NIV)
I had thought I was about to die, to be separated forever from the God whom I
serve. The ocean had swallowed me; I was drawn into its depths to be locked forever in
isolation. But I found myself in the temple of the very God from whom I fled, once again
to know His love. To know that I serve a God Who seeks men out even in the deepest
and darkest places, compelling them to come to Him not by His might, but by His love! I
could have only one response: I would do, as I had vowed, whatever He asked. Then I
was on the shore.
Jonah 3:3 Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh.
Now Nineveh was a very important city-- a visit required three days. (NIV)
The trip to Nineveh was uneventful. I hired passage with a caravan to cross the
desert. I could not have made the trip alone; the need for water and food place a great
burden on a single traveler. In addition, the desert paths are the environment of thieves
and bandits. If I were ever to get to Nineveh I would need help. It is funny that I
understood this, but did not see in it the lesson God was teaching me.
I spoke little with my traveling companions. The trip went by without my even
noticing the landscape as the camel moved along in its rhythmic gait, feeling much like a
ship at sea. I was deep in my own thoughts. I strove to understand my mission. I still
could not conceive of a reason why God would send me to preach repentance to the
enemies of His chosen people.
Then an idea grew out of my deepest thoughts. God was going to use me to
announce destruction to the Assyrians; having heard the condemnation of their godless
acts, they would refuse to change and be destroyed on the spot. Surly I had been
chosen to make the judgement and announce the impending doom. I began to
anticipate my arrival at Nineveh.
After traveling for forty days I saw the outposts of that great city. Nineveh
spreads out between the rivers which, in addition to water, provide it natural protection,
so large that it takes three days to travel from its outer borders to the palace at its
Jonah 3:4 On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He
proclaimed: "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned." (NIV)
As I walked, I spoke the message of repentance given me by the spirit of God.
did not expect the response my message brought. I had expected, at least, to be
ignored or laughed at, and more likely to be cursed, or maybe even stoned by the
crowds. But they repented! They dressed in humble clothing and adopted attitudes of
regret. What is more, my message spread ahead of me, so that by the time I reached
the palace, the king had donned sack cloth and covered himself with ashes, and had
instructed that everyone in the city should do the same.
Jonah 4:5 Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the
city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. (NIV)
I left the city. I found a place outside where I could watch, and I waited in
I shouted at God that I had run away in the first place because I knew He was the God
of forgiveness and that if the Ninevites repented, He would forgive. He had set me to
the task of redemption, and I had chosen the role of judge and executioner of Israel's
enemies. I said I did not want to be the one who helped Him adopt a new people.
Jonah 4:9 But God said to Jonah, "Do you have a right
to be angry about the vine?" "I do," he said. "I am angry enough to die." (NIV)
Then He spoke. This time the voice was powerful and masculine. This was the
warrior God I was hearing from, but His words were not about war. He said that His
promise to Abraham was that His descendants would be a blessing to all other nations,
not by making them slaves, but by making them His heirs, even as Israel is His heir.
Abraham was promised greatness and that his descendants would be as numerous as
the sands of the sea. Greatness did not mean power in the sense of nations; it was not
the ability to control others, but the capability to achieve one's purpose even when
opposed by others, not through their destruction, but in spite of whatever they might do.
For Him to love all of His creation did not mean that He loved me less. In fact,
loving me first He made it possible for me to love Him, of course, and others as well, on
His behalf and from myself. He offered me the opportunity to let go of all my rights and
possessions, and become like Him. I did not feel at all like Him.
Then they came, a few of the residents of this area near the outskirts of the
They were frightened, unsure and curious. They brought food and drink to offer me. I
did not know what to think, but I was thirsty and weak from hunger so I took what they
offered. I must have been nearly delirious, because I cannot remember much of what
happened for the next few days. I woke up in a small but pleasant house to the sound
of children laughing.
I had forgotten that kind of laughter, the kind that is spontaneous and delighted
with what has just happened, as though it had been arranged just for the one laughing.
Mostly children laugh in this way; adults are far too aware of the dangers and difficulties
of life. But this laughter was being shared by adults and children alike.
A young man came into the room where I had been sleeping. He was smiling and
graceful in his motion. He looked at me with such kindness that I could not help but like
him at once. I asked about the laughter. He said that having been given the reprieve
which I had made possible, they all found life delightful. They had laughed more in the
last few days than he remembered in his whole life. He though perhaps this God of
mine must be the God of laughter, would I please tell him more of this God of the Jews?
So it began. From that one happy, friendly young man, I started the journey of
getting to know the Ninevites. It happened, not because I had a vision of doing great
things in the name of my God, but in the little events of living life one day at a time. I
learned that you do not get to know a people as a nation, but that the people who are
the nation are quite different from what appears as the nation from the outside. You can
never know a people, but you can know individuals and by knowing them learn to
understand them as a people.
The people of Nineveh wanted to know more about the God I had spoken of, and
why He had not destroyed them. I have been trying to answer that question for thirty
years now. What they know of Him is founded on their knowing and trusting me, which I
find is an awesome responsibility. Yet He seems to prefer to risk His reputation by
letting men represent Him. Even when we fail, the process brings us closer to Him, and
therefore more able to represent Him. I have succeeded entirely because of Him, yet
He has left it to be my success.
Through both the "failures" and the "successes" I have been
learning about God.
My best answers to my friends in Nineveh have come from my own experiences in
wanting to serve Him, and in trying to escape from Him. The lesson I failed to learn in
the desert is becoming clear to me. He created us because He wanted us; not just
Jews, but Assyrians, Philistines and all other peoples. His desire for us is not the desire
of a collector, but of a lover. He does not want to possess, but to know intimately.
Many people, when they hear of what happened to me, think it is about how God
has corrected my disobedience. Others think it is intended to show that God ultimately
wants all nations to follow His way. Some are only able to notice the miraculous acto of
God in saving me from the sea. To me it is about God's relentless love for me. His
desire for me is not just to have me as a committed follower - He had that - but to fulfill
the desires of my heart. He knows that I am only really happy when I am being what He
made me to be.
A marvelous thing is happening. It started because I wanted to serve God, even
though I had totally wrong ideas of what that meant. All He has done toward me has
helped me to develop a way of serving Him, and more; He is taking me into Himself,
without ending my uniqueness. I am not learning to subject my will to Him, I am learning
that when my will truly represents who He created me to be, it also represents His will.
When I love others, I am acting out what I was created to be. Each of us may do it
differently but loving is what makes us all one in Him.
I have come to love the people of Nineveh. There is still much here that I am
disturbed by. The new king has begun to speak about adding the lands of Israel to his
kingdom. There will most certainly be a war. But I cannot leave the people whom I love.
The king of Assyria and his armies may be the enemies of God's people, but the people
of Nineveh are surely loved by God, just as they are loved by me.
I expect to live out the days of my flesh here, and then to meet the One
Who loves me and compels me to love others. That, of course, is the whole point of my
story. The truth is that God is more than just loving, He is love. That is to say, you
cannot separate Him from the characteristic of love; to do so would be to lose Him
completely. In Hebrew the word cHECED (loving kindness) more than describes Him;
sometimes we use it simply to mean Him. He is not just the God of love, He is Love.
When we love, He is truly in us and we are in Him.
Archelogist digging in Iraq near the junction of
the Tigres and Euphrades rivers have found an ancient city thought to be Nineva. Near the center of the city is
a monumental mound which they believe to be the burial place of Ynas.
The last paragraph of this story is meant to iluminate
the following passage from Matthew:
Matt 12:39 He answered, "A wicked and adulterous generation
asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. (NIV)