Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh” . . . . 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 on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.
Jonah 1:1-3 (ESV, emphasis mine)
I enjoy the story of Jonah. Sometimes those of us who grew up knowing the story (and having no qualms with the feasibility of the giant fish) dismiss the book in our post-elementary school Bible studies – Nineveh, check. Thrown into a raging sea, check. Giant fish, check.
Presto. Jonah is vomited up and decides to obey.
It has all the necessary parts of a lesson against disobedience. But Jonah exists for more than adding oomph to your parental threats (Better go to your room. Wouldn’t want to be eaten by a fish, would we?).
My husband Josh (the barefoot grad student) once taught a whole summer’s worth of Bible studies on the book of Jonah, and one of my religion professors did a word study on fear in Jonah (yare, used six times in the first chapter). If I ever have a boy child I may name him Jonah. I’m thinking about it. I probably have at least a decade to decide.
Jonah’s great. He’s so dramatic (I am angry enough to die). He’s so incredibly human. While he’s got seaweed on his head he sings the praises of his redemptive God, but post-vomiting, in Nineveh, he can’t handle God’s redemption of people who are extra evil. He’s so like us and we are so unlike God.
Many Bible studies on Jonah focus on Nineveh. They ask us to detect our Ninevehs, to face our fears, to avoid the whole boat-fish extravaganza, to set up camp under our proverbial vines and not throw a tantrum while we wait for Providence to fill in the gaps.
Sailing for Tarshish is wrong because it’s not Nineveh.
I wonder what would have happened if Jehovah had let Jonah sail all the way to Tarshish – let him set up camp, buy a house, start a family, have a comfy job and cable and a 401k. There would be no storm, just the slow deterioration of joy and peace and the haunting thought that maybe there could have been something more.
And then it wouldn’t matter that in Tarshish they have air conditioning —
and people like you, and your values match everyone else’s, and you like the food.
In Tarshish there’s color TV, and the in-laws approve of your job. In Tarshish nobody wonders if you’re on the right path because, duh, you have money and there’s no better sign of being on track than that. You’re the person praised for your generosity, the person whom radio announcers are always thinking of during pledge drives, the person who can save whole villages with half of this week’s paycheck.
What would it matter if you missed it?
You couldn’t handle the years in the desert, so you bailed. You couldn’t take one more packet of Ramen, so you applied for that soul killing job that demanded so much of you that you couldn’t do what you were made to do. You couldn’t handle one more speech about duty, retirement, or baby funds, so you gave up the one duty that’s supposed to surpass them all – and make the rest of them mean something.
So if you’re like me, in your proverbial Joppa, turning the coins over in your hand and weighing your options, just give it up. You’ve asked six thousand questions and you know what you’re supposed to do.
If you’re in Tarshish, the point is that there’s always grace and twenty-third chances.*
And if you’re en route to Tarshish – your giant mistake – haul yourself overboard. In the choice between Tarshish and the storm, personally I’d go for the storm.
* The difference between Jonah’s story and ours is that we’re in different Testaments. We’re post-Pentecost, which means God’s always with you, and you didn’t flee God’s presence, even if you fled his plan. [Insert 2,000 years of Christian scholarship here]