theology of space in jonah

Theology of Space in Jonah

 

This past Sunday we hosted a Children’s Worker Training at church. In the training, Pastor Gary provided a sample lesson on Jonah 1. As we all reflected on Jonah fleeing from God by heading away from Nineveh, I noticed how much detail the author of Jonah puts into the narrative, especially in terms of space and location. After doing some more reading1 I realized that much of the movement in space in Jonah is communicating some powerful theological truths.

Falling from God

In Jonah 1:1–2, God commands Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach against it. This is a command for Jonah to physically travel there, heading north and then east from Israel to arrive in the Assyrian capital. Instead, Jonah heads west to Joppa, where he finds a ship that will carry him farther west to Tarshish2. But notice also that Jonah travels down; twice in Jonah 1:3 the text says Jonah went down—first to Joppa and then to the boat.

Once on the boat heading west, a giant storm strikes the boat, terrifying the hardened sailors. Yet Jonah was not among them, as he was sleeping in the hold. Once again, the text describes Jonah as moving downward “into the inner part of the ship” (Jonah 1:5). The Phoenician captain orders Jonah to arise and to worship his god, but Jonah believes it is futile. Instead, Jonah orders the sailors to throw him overboard into the deep of the Mediterranean. When they do this in Jonah 1:15, Jonah is again falling deeper into the earth, away from the presence of God.

Crying from the Depths

While in the watery deeps, as far as he could physically go, Jonah was rescued. A giant fish—appointed by God—swallowed Jonah and kept him for three days. In the midst of this behemoth rescuer, Jonah finally prays for the first time in this book. Spanning most of Jonah 2, this prayer is rich in spatial language. Jonah notes that God sent him to the depths—to the very roots of the mountains (Jonah 2:6). Yet from the depths God hears Jonah’s cry and rescues him from the same depths.

In this prayer, Jonah is no longer fleeing God, but is in communion with Him. In the depths of the sea, Jonah finds a divinely appointed place of worship. From this organic temple/method of deliverance, Jonah’s prayer is heard in God’s heavenly temple (verse 7), and God provides the salvation he needs (verse 9).

Also worth noting in Jonah 2 is the lone line of narrative at the end. In verse 10, the narrator says that the fish vomited Jonah out “upon the dry land.” Keeping with the movements in the rest of the book, Jonah is no longer descending into earth. Instead, in one mighty belch he finds himself in the same space he was in Jonah 1:1—on dry land and about to hear from God.

Towards the Center of It All

God repeats his command for Jonah to go to Nineveh in Jonah 3:2; the wording is nearly identical to Jonah 1:2. Only this time, Jonah listens. Rather than running from Nineveh, Jonah heads directly towards it. Jonah arrives in Nineveh, and begins to venture into the city, preaching his message of condemnation as he goes3. Jonah—or at least the message that Jonah brought—eventually arrived in the center of Nineveh, where the king of Nineveh ruled. His response to this message echoed the response of the entire city: repentance and begging God for mercy (Jonah 3:7–9).

Arise and Judge

In Jonah 4 the narrative focus returns to Jonah. He is very angry that Nineveh repented and God relented (4:1). In verse 5, the text describes Jonah as traveling further east; he wants to get a good vantage point from where he hopes to watch Nineveh’s destruction.

While I couldn’t find any evidence in commentaries, I wonder if the author intended for verse 5 to read as if Jonah climbed an elevation to view Nineveh’s destruction. Viewing from an elevation—even if just a hill or slight rise to the east of the city—would have given him a better view of the anticipated destruction. Moreover, in continuation of the role of space in this book, it would serve as further movement by Jonah. In this case, he would have risen above the city; having served as judge and found the city guilty (4:2), he now awaited the carrying out of the sentence.

Using a divinely-appointed plant, worm, and wind, God yet again demonstrated to Jonah that divine compassion and love exceeds human understanding of justice and revenge. Even though Jonah fought to change the situation, God would have mercy on the repentant Gentiles.

Reflection

In the first half of the book, Jonah tries to flee the presence of the Lord. Not only does he run in the opposite direction from Nineveh, he also descends deeper and deeper into the earth. With the ancient worldview believing that God lived in the physical heavens above, Jonah’s journey down to the sea, into the hold of the ship, and into the sea can be seen as Jonah trying to get as far away from God’s presence as physically possible.

Yet Jonah found that was impossible. In the depths of the sea, God was there—and He rescued him! Jonah discovers the truth found in the Psalter:

Where shall I go from your Spirit?

Or where shall I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there!

If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! (Psalm 139:7–8)

Later, we find out why Jonah is fleeing God: he knows that if Nineveh will repent, God will forgive them; Jonah thinks they deserve judgment and not mercy. In this way, Jonah tries to take the place of God, climbing to a vantage point to watch the hoped-for destruction. But this turns into another lesson for Jonah, as God uses the plant to show how much he cares for Nineveh.


  1. After the training, of course. 

  2. The identity of Tarshish is unknown; it would have been west on the Mediterranean.  

  3. While Nineveh was a great city, it was not so massive to take 3 days to travel. The ancient walled city was only 1–3 miles in breadth. Likely the narrator is referring to the cities and towns in the Nineveh region—what we would now call the Greater Metropolitan Area. Another compelling explanation for why Jonah’s journey took so long is because he preached his message to every home he encountered, jumping into his prophetic role with gusto. 

Brandon Schmidt

I am Brandon Schmidt: writer, husband, father, brother, reader, and laugher.

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