DIG: Why Tarshish? Why do you think he disobeyed the LORD and ran away? How will God, who is concerned about the great nations of the earth, react to the rebellion of one individual? What will happen to the one who tries to escape one’s calling by running away from ADONAI? How does that compare to how other prophets responded (see First Kings 17:1-6; Jeremiah 1:4-10)? Do you think Jonah was aware of the problems his decision would cause other people? What was he thinking when he left? What does scene one as a whole say about God?
REFLECT: Have you ever felt justified in choosing not to obey HaShem? Where can you escape Him (see Psalm 139:7-12)? Where do you go that’s in the opposite direction from where God wants you to go? Are you an inside runner? What keeps you from doing something you believe the LORD is calling you to do? On the other hand, how do you feel when you know you have responded to ADONAI’s call?
The structure of this verse makes its own contribution to the message, and the key to the structure is the repetition of the words Tarshish (three times), from the presence of the LORD (twice), and went down (twice). The name Tarshish is especially relevant at the beginning, middle, and end of the verse. The chiastic structure forms an ABC-CBA pattern and is appropriate to convey the deliberate purpose with which Jonah reacts.
A to run away to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD
B went down to the city of Joppa
C found a ship that was going to the city of Tarshish
C and paid for the trip
B went down into the ship
A to go to Tarshish, intending to run away from the presence the LORD25
Commentary on scene one: But Jonah got up to run away to Tarshish (1:3a). If you drew a straight line away from Nineveh, that’s the direction Jonah was headed. The delightful cat and mouse game now begins, so we should pause on the word But. Throughout the book (1:3, 1:4, 1:17, 4:1, 4:7), there is a constant dialogue between Yonah and God, often with action and counteraction, like a chess game. This is the first But and the first counteraction because Jonah doesn’t have the power to directly countermand the Grandmaster. Yonah did indeed get up (1:2a) as commanded; however, he got up to run away to Tarshish. Tarshish is generally recognized to be the Greek city of Tartessos, a Phoenician colony in Southern Spain. It was at the far end of the Mediterranean Sea, and about the farthest away that he could get.”26 Once he began running his descent would take him down a slippery slope culminating with his drowning to death at the bottom of the sea in chapter two.
. . . from the presence of the LORD . . . This means that Jonah was heading in the exact opposite direction from Nineveh. He was trying to flee from the presence of ADONAI. As a prophet of God, Jonah clearly knew that YHVH is omnipresent, and there was no way of escaping from His omnipresence. But the presence spoken of here is not the omnipresence of God; rather, Yonah was fleeing from the Shechinah glory, which is the visible, localized presence of the LORD, residing within the Most Holy Place in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Shechinah glory was in the Land and Jonah was trying to flee out of the northern Kingdom to Tarshish and away from this presence of God.27
. . . from the presence of the LORD . . . Here is the first irony, repeated later in this verse. Yonah cannot possibly run away from ADONAI, as David reminds us: Where can I go from Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence? If I go up to the heavens, You are there; if I make my bed in the depths, You are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there Your right hand will hold me (Psalm 139:7-10). The reluctant prophet mistakenly thought that a little bit of geographical separation could put some distance between himself and the Grandmaster. There are echoes, too, of Adam and Eve naively hiding from the presence of the LORD (Genesis 3:8 CJB). It didn’t work for them in the Garden and it wouldn’t work for Yonah on the ship. All we know at present about Jonah’s motivation is to get away from the presence of the LORD. He skillfully keeps that question unanswered until 4:2, holding us in suspense and arousing our active participation in solving the mystery.28
. . . and went down to the city of Joppa where he could find docking facilities for the long-distance “Tarshish ships,” which were the equivalent of our long-distance ocean liners of today, traveling as they did to the western Mediterranean. It has been estimated that their journey via many ports of call could have taken as long as a year, so when Jonah paid for the trip he was likely to have parted with a considerable sum of money. The reluctant prophet had to have his own way and pit himself against the Almighty, whatever the cost.
. . . Joppa is Jaffa, a large port where Jonah can be sure of two things – anonymity and the chance to get on a ship bound for somewhere, anywhere other than Nineveh. He sulked around the docks, having already descended into a totally alien culture, moving among people he had never met and never wanted to meet. The place was brimming with pagan sailors, all Gentiles. In a strange way, however, Yonah welcomed all the people, the sights and smells because they provided a distraction for him. He was getting away from it all.
The small nation of Phoenicia, a small strip of coastal land in what is now Lebanon, had become a great and prosperous nation because of the maritime commerce they developed. Also, it is often said that they invented alphabetic writing, which soon replaced pictographic, cuneiform, and hieroglyphic writing. They were descendants of Ham and had two great cities, Tyre and Sidon, which anchored their sea trade.
Despite their very small homeland, the Phoenicians were indisputably the leading mariners of the ancient world. There is much evidence that they not only sailed on the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, but eventually all over the Mediterranean world and down the coast of Africa, even navigating around the tip of Africa and reaching the ports of India. Thus they had trading centers all over the known world. Tarshish was undoubtedly one of these.29
. . . where he found a ship that was going to the city of Tarshish about 2,500 miles west of Joppa (1:3b). So Jonah found his ship that he thought was going to take him somewhere over the rainbow. When he got on board, however, he instantly created a new and very uneasy fellowship . . . a single believer on a ship of pagans.30
While you might not have gone to such extremes to run from God externally, we’ve all run at one time or another in ways less noticeable. It’s far more simple and discreet to run away internally, isn’t it? We head to Tarshish in our hearts so we can pretend we’re obeying God.
We run mentally when we detach our thought life by building up callousness displayed by the attitude we show in others. We can even run spiritually, merely going through the motions while having no fellowship with Him. We can even run from ADONAI’s directives even while we are engrossed in them.
We can be living life and yet be on the run from the LORD, rebelliously pulling away from His will all the while. We can pack our internal bags just as quickly as Yonah packed his and be on our way headed in the opposite direction of God’s will. But we must be careful. What’s on the inside will eventually show up on the outside.31
Jonah paid for the trip, literally paid her price. Although the Hebrew word for ship is feminine, one would expect the text to say paid his price, which is what the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the TaNaKh) has. Jewish commentators say, the phrase: paid her price refers to the cost of the whole ship, for, according to medieval rabbinic interpretations, Jonah was rich. Consequently, the Jewish exegetical tradition has it that Yonah hired the entire ship and its crew in his haste to escape God. So the rebel prophet must have sold his home and left everything behind. It was as if he said, “Forget the cabin fare, I’ll take the whole ship, so long as we can leave right now!”32
Reflection on what scene one as a whole says about ADONAI: And went down into the ship, planning to go to Tarshish, intending to run away from the presence the LORD (1:3c). Jonah continues his descent. He has been told to get up and go east. But Yonah has gone down and gone west. From God’s perspective, He goes down to Joppa, down into the ship, down into the sea (2:3), down into the great whale (1:17), down to the roots of the mountains (2:6), before being vomited up (2:10). Psychologically and spiritually he had gone down in a far more significant way, as we shall see in chapter 2.33
Jonah’s experience may be helpful to you if you’re having a hard time and question if you’re in God’s will. I can’t tell you one way or another. But I can say this, the fact that you’re having a difficult time is not proof that you’re out of God’s will. More accurately, it may be proof that you’re in God’s will. If you’re having it too easy and things are breaking just right for you in every direction, and if that alone is what you’re using to determine if you’re in God’s will, then, like Yonah, you could be in for a surprise.
Let’s look carefully at the wayward prophet’s situation. Here is a man who hears God’s calling but takes off in the opposite direction. There is no doubt he’s out of the LORD’s will. He goes down to Joppa and when he gets there he has no problems. He finds a ship. He buys a ticket. He gets on board the ship and he goes to sleep. Smooth sailing.
How many believers think that just because they’re going through a rough time means they’re out of God’s will? Conversely, when their lives seem as if its smooth sailing they believe they’re in the will of God. Have you ever wondered why there are so many problems trying to get to shul on Shabbat, or church on Sunday? Read the Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. It may be that the devil and his minions are working overtime because you’re drawing too close to the Lord. Believe you me, when you’re up over your eyebrows in sin, the devil leaves you alone. Just because you are having trouble doesn’t mean you are out of His will.
Everything seemed so easy for Jonah. But down through the centuries God’s men and women have not found the going so easy. Adoniram Judson and his wife Ann didn’t find the going so easy when they left for India in 1812. Shortly after they arrived they were ordered by the government to return to America, so the Judsons moved their missionary work to Burma, located between India and China. They settled in Rangoon, the principal seaport of Burma and began learning the language. They quickly realized that it would be very difficult to preach God’s Word in a language lacking the words for God, heaven, and eternity, but nevertheless they proceeded to translate the Scriptures into the Burmese language. They began with the book of Yonah, which was especially attractive to the Burmese mind.
Ann soon adopted the Burmese dress with its light tunic of bright-colored gauze and a skirt of bright silk, slit at the ankle. A dedicated missionary, Ann formed a society of native women who met together on Sundays to pray and read the Scriptures and conducted classes for women. Her greatest contribution to the cause of women and missions was her inspirational writing. She wrote enthralling stories of life on the mission field and the struggles she faced, predominantly when her husband was confined to Burmese prison for nearly two years. She also wrote tragic descriptions of child marriages, female infanticide, and the trials of the Burmese women who had virtually no rights except what rights their husbands allowed them. Ann felt that even worse than the ill treatment of women was their ignorance. Burmese women were not taught and they spent their days in idleness. She worked to remedy this situation and enlisted the help of women back home.
As with many missionaries, Ann suffered from poor health on the mission field. She served for thirteen years in Burma before she died at the age of 37 on October 24, 1826. She was buried at Amherst under a tree while her Burmese converts wept over her grave. In the decades after her death numerous biographies and biographical sketches were written about Ann and she became a role model for all young women of faith.
Yonah, however,was having no such problems. He was on his ship and as it slipped away, I imagine that he stood on the deck, smiling as the shoreline faded into the distance. He probably thought to himself: What a wonderful trip this is going to be. But we’ll find that the closet prophet wasn’t going to have it quite that easy.34