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A creative way of telling the story of Jonah. It makes no claim to be "inspired" or a substitute for the authoritatve account in the book of Jonah as found  in the Bible  that bears his name. It is offered as a means of tedlling his story in a creative way.

 

A ONE-WAY TICKET TO TARSHISH

(JOURNEYING WITH JONAH)

Chapter 1

Where in the world is Tarshish? And why would anyone want to go down to their travel agent and request a ticket to go to the armpit of the then-known world?

A lot of people had heard about Tarshish. It had a reputation akin to that originally held by places like Devil’s Island in its founding days. It was the place to which you went if you wanted to get lost and stay lost

So it was that on this day that a reasonably well-dressed man walked into the travel agent and asked for a ticket to Tarshish. The salesman stood motionless. “To where?”  he said. The traveller was aware that the ticket person was looking him up and down - like a scanner looking for some explanation that might reveal the motivation behind this strange request. “Tarshish?”

“That’s right, Tarshish.” 

 “Have you ever been to Tarshish “

“Not yet but I understand it’s where you go to get away from it all”.

 Well, you certainly got that right.

“Are you going to sell me a ticket to Tarshish or not?”

“I just can’t help but wonder who you are what it is you are trying to leave behind. You don’t look much like the others who go there”.

Look! If I tell you why I want to go to Tarshish, will you sell me that ticket?

“You have a deal!!”

I’m a prophet of the Lord God of Israel, the maker of the heavens and the oceans. He gave me a mission and a message for the people of Nineveh whom I consider to be our  traditional enemy and  a people to be  unworthy of such mercy.

So I am not going to Nineveh. I’m going to Tarshish. I am putting as much distance between myself and him as I possibly can. There, satisfied?

The ticket person was so still that he may as well have been carved out of stone. Jonah waved his hand in front of what appeared to be the lifeless eyes of the man on the other side of the counter. “Are you OK?”

The salesman eventually spoke

“You’re running from the presence of the Lord and you want to know if I am I OK?”  Now the pale-looking ticket seller had only one thing on his mind. He wanted to put as much distance between himself and Jonah as possible. His mind went back to that last storm when that other traveller was struck by lightning. If Jonah’s disobedience produced a similar response….yikes!!

“See that boat at the end of pier 6 with the red flag? He’s going to set sail for Tarshish within the hour. Get down there and don’t bother coming back here.

Jonah could tell that the Captain was also eying him up and down wondering who or what was motivating his passenger to go to Tarshish? He pointed to the back of the boat and told Jonah to stay out of sight until they reached Tar shish.

Well, so far so good. Jonah’s disobedience (he’d probably call it “initiative”) had resulted in no reaction from the Lord God whose prophet he was. I mean, let’s face it. The mission to Nineveh and the message he was given to deliver could be applicable to any number of people and places – including Tarshish….especially Tarshish!!

Jonah was becoming a devotee of what he called ‘alternate obedience’ – substituting his own message for God’s, re-locating his geographical position from the one God had chosen for him to the one he preferred

The Captain seemed more settled a few hours into the journey and he agreed to let Jonah come up onto The Bridge. It was a half-moon night and it was a case of “steady as she goes”

Jonah kept to himself. The Hebrew people were not good sailors, another good reason to stay out of the way. But Jonah was a focus of fascination for the Captain. He had often taken unwilling passengers – usually under armed escort – to this God-forsaken location but he couldn’t remember the last time someone actually bought a ticket of their own free will.

Jonah couldn’t help but sense the same “scanning” awareness that he felt back at the travel agency. Word had spread quickly among the crew. The content also grew leaving the truth struggling for breath. The rumour mill was at full capacity!

Jonah could hear the Captain clear his throat and Jonah tried to guess what the first question might be……

What was that?

Oh, nothing more than a flash of lightening way out on the horizon. A couple more spots of rain. Now the Captain shuffled uncomfortably in his seat.

That last flash was much closer than the one before

The Captain was not a happy man

A ONE-WAY TICKET TO TARSHISH

Chapter 2

 

Oh a couple of drops of rain and a subtle shift in wind directions……………We noted in chapter 1 that the Hebrew people were not noted for their sailing skills. Even so, Jonah detected a changing mood among the crew members.

Within minutes the perfect sailing conditions had deteriorated into a life-threatening storm. Jonah may not have been a sailor but he could smell fear a mile away and these crew members were afraid – a fear that could move them from “Panic stations” to “Abandon ship” in a matter of moments.

It was the Captain who first saw the connection between the severity of the approaching storm and this mysterious passenger wanting to go to Tarshish. For all his years of experience, there was something about this storm that was very different. It was like it had a personality. The ship’s log was damaged but some extracts were salvaged

“Fearing for their lives, the crew prayed desperately to their various gods for help and they threw the cargo overboard to lighten the ship. But all this time the mystery passenger was sound asleep down in the hold of the ship.

Somehow the Captain thought this was a good time to ask the questions he should have asked before he let the man with the ticket to Tarshish on to his ship! Surely anyone purchasing such a ticket would have aroused the curiosity of the authorities to challenge the destination and motivation of the ticket holder!!

The Captain went down to where Jonah was asleep. “How can you sleep at a time like this?” he shouted. “Get up and pray to your god! Maybe he will pay attention to us and spare our lives.”

The panic level on the ship was just about off the scale! Then the Captain had an idea.

Desperate measures for desperate times. Well, it was better than no idea at all. Maybe? What else could they possibly do? It’s one thing to toss a coin at the beginning of a football match to see who will have first use of the ball. It’s another to toss a coin to see who is at fault when death is staring them in the face. “Casting lots” was pretty much the equivalent in Jonah’s day. So the crew cast lots to see which of them had offended the gods and caused the terrible storm.

I’ve got no idea how they did this but whatever was involved, it worked. When they did this, the lots identified Jonah as the culprit.  

He knew he was “found out” long before he ever reached Tarshish. His carefully honed plan of secrecy, anonymity had come adrift – literally.  The sailors were terrified when they heard that Jonah was running away from the LORD.

“Oh, why did you do it?” they groaned. And since the storm was getting worse all the time, they asked him, “What should we do to you to stop this storm?”.
 

We don’t live easily with unanswered questions and Jonah now confronted more questions than answers!

“Why has this awful storm come down on us?” the crew demanded. “Who are you? What is your line of work? What country are you from? What is your nationality?”
Jonah answered, “I am a Hebrew, and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven who made the sea and the land”.

Now there is something here that the reader needs to understand at this point. In the polytheistic cultures that prevailed right across the then-known world, it was believed that different gods possessed varying degrees of power and authority in the natural world and in the spiritual world as well. The Hebrew people worshipped one God i.e. they were monotheistic and the reputation of the Hebrew God was awesome. Events like the crossing of the Red Sea and the destruction of Jericho would have been very much part of the annuls of history.

So the reaction of the mariners is no surprise. They have been unwittingly involved in Jonah’s disobedience. It’s no wonder they prayed as they did. The sailors were terrified when they heard that Jonah was running away from the LORD. “Oh, why did you do it?” they groaned.

Fearing for their lives, the desperate sailors shouted to their gods for help and threw the cargo overboard to lighten the ship.

And since the storm was getting worse all the time, they asked him, “What should we do to you to stop this storm?”

They were not expecting his reply
“Throw me into the sea,” Jonah said, “and it will become calm again”. Jonah’s answer was unwelcome and unacceptable…. initially. Instead the sailors rowed even harder to get the ship to the land. But the stormy sea was too violent for them, and they couldn’t make it. They had tried everything humanly possible but without success.

The only remaining possibility was the one proposed by Jonah.  Then they cried out to the LORD, Jonah’s God. “Remember that he is your prophet, not ours

“O LORD,” they pleaded, “don’t make us die for this man’s sin. And don’t hold us responsible for his death. Then the sailors picked Jonah up and threw him into the raging sea, and the storm stopped at once! The sailors were awestruck by the LORD’s great power.
 

It’s almost impossible to help people who have bought a one-way Ticket to Tarshish, people who are determined to get lost in the crowds. I know we often use Jonah as an example of bad things happening to people who are, for no other reason than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes that is the only reason.

I get the impression that Jonah fully expected that he would die in the next few minutes. He watched the ship pull away from him and…….what was happening on the ship? There was another shift of mood on the part of the crew.

When they threw Jonah overboard, there was no sense of celebration. Imminent annihilation?  Possibly. The crew were relatively quiet. But suddenly they have become quite animated. They are calling out to him. There is much arm waving. As best Jonah could tell they seemed to be drawing his attention to something in the water behind him

He turned. The water was very clear despite the severity of the storm. Too clear, in fact! And that shadow was moving in his direction.

 

A ONE-WAY TICKET TO TARSHISH

CHAPTER 3

Why all the commotion on the ship? The crew had evicted the object of the storm’s wrath. Jonah was now trying to keep his head above water. We have already noted that the Hebrew people were not good sailors, they weren’t much better at swimming….. despite a rumour that would surface 700 years later about one of their own actually walking on water!!

In response to the strange behaviour of the crew who were greatly agitated about something, Jonah turned. The water was clear. Very clear. And so was the shadow. Now he began to understand why the ship’s crew were so animated. The shadow was huge, active and moving towards Jonah

He heard himself say, “I don’t know what that is but anything that size can’t be good!

When the ship finally docked at Tarshish all the talk was about “that storm”. But the crew could only talk about Jonah. This story spread quickly and grew larger with the telling but the details of what happened to Jonah were the primary focus of the many possibilities and the only thing these many stories had in common is that they had nothing in common.  

“It was a whale, I tell you!”  “A whale? Don’t be so daft! When was the last time you saw a whale in these waters?” After all was said and done, the crew members with some commitment to honesty emphatically refused to vote for any one story as though it contained the whole truth. The truth lay in various accounts and probably would never be known in its detail and timing.

As much as anyone could say was this: “None of us were close enough to describe the creature. Jonah was attacked and devoured by a “great fish” which may not have been a whale. And that’s what happens when you try and flee from the call of God on your life”.

It was a very sobering experience. Strangely, the event that exposed and disciplined Jonah was the same as that which led to the sailors’ salvation.

Tarshish was not a place big on law and order. But what few records were left simply read” A great fish swallowed Jonah.

End of story? Not quite.

The great fish had trouble digesting its dinner! It seems it has eaten something that didn’t agree with it!! Of course, everyone assumed, understandably, that Jonah was dead. Given his surroundings, Jonah probably wished he was dead.

The account of what claims to be God’s dealing with Jonah has stretched our sense of credulity to breaking point by the end of chapter 1. I mean, a storm with a personality? Please, give me a break.

Maybe the story is more of a living parable in which the various characters represent different aspects of truth.

Now, we are asked to believe that a man can be swallowed by a huge fish (that’s not so hard to believe) and is able to exist in that environment for three days and three nights. Now that’s a hard call! Think of the gastric juices! Think of the smell! Think of what else might have been for breakfast that day! It all would have been in total darkness.

My question is this Do I want to win the debate or do I want to encounter the truth? If it is literally true – an historical event featuring real smelly people – or a parable-like story – what are we meant to learn? But if it is a ‘story’ the same questions still apply. The truth is no less the truth because it comes another way.

Anyway, we resume the narrative of Jonah being in the belly of the great fish - be that literal or folklore

 

 

A ONE-WAY TICKET TO TARSHISH

Chapter 4

“Hello. Is there anybody else here? Hello” No sound whatsoever. No, that is not true. Jonah could hear noise but chose to ignore it because he had never heard sounds like these before. Nobody had. Pitch black. Oh, what was that just touching me! There was one thing worse than the noise. The smell. Then there was the heat!

Wait! The gastronomical activity seemed to be building. Maybe the foreign object that the great fish had swallowed was, at last, to be liberated from its cruel prison.

Sure enough, critical mass is reached and the Lord ordered the fish to spit Jonah out on to the beach”.

This moment of ultimate indignity marks the turning point in the story. Suddenly we are back at the beginning.

 At this time, Jonah was filled with uncertainty. He had broken faith with his God.  But God, in His Mercy and Grace, recommissioned Jonah. However, Jonah felt an unexpected disappointment as he received his re-commissioning . Nothing had changed.

Then the LORD spoke to Jonah a second time:
Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh, and deliver the message I have given you.”

 This time Jonah obeyed the LORD’s command and went to Nineveh. But he did so reluctantly. We will learn why shortly.

As he mused about these things, he realised that the response of the Ninevites was none of his business. How they responded was between them and the Lord God. Jonah’s part was to deliver the message. Nothing more. Nothing less. Nothing else. But as he entered the town on that first day, he had another ally that he hadn’t counted on. Something that gave him an edge. Something that caught the attention of the crowds. Something that he didn’t have when the mission and message were first given to him.

His appearance!

He had been bleached white in the belly of the great fish!! Among a people who were noted for their dark skin

A ONE-WAY TICKET TO TARSHISH

Chapter 5

It has to be said that reluctance is probably a more desirable response than disobedience. But we have to fit “disappointment” in there somewhere. It’s true that the purpose of God was to be fulfilled through the prophet. But Jonah wanted his mission and his message to be a failure. He wanted judgement to fall on the evil city of Nineveh. He didn’t want them to repent. Somehow he knew that if he preached and gave them the option of repentance instead of judgment, they would repent, from the least to the greatest.

It is entirely possible that he had been bleached white in the belly of the great fish?! If not bleached, maybe some other impact of a caustic nature. Among a people who were noted for their dark skin, Jonah stood in stark contrast. His “albino” appearance would have, to say the least, attracted the attention of the inhabitants of that great city of Nineveh. One can only imagine the kind of stories that gathered around this man (if that’s all he was). It takes only a little imagination to see how quickly some treated him as a god of some kind.

We have no way of knowing how many of the 40 days were spent before repentance was forth-coming. Jonah’s message and mission would have made the headlines of the Nineveh Gazette in fairly quick time, one would imagine. Things are not looking good so far as Jonah’s desire for failure is concerned.

The headlines in the newspaper told the story. The city wide crusade was an unbelievable success. Billy Graham would have sent Jonah a text message congratulating him. 120,000 converts expressing repentance and the whole city led by their king turned away from their evil ways.

 

 A ONE WAY TICKET TO TARSHISH

Chapter 6

  Jonah was angry. In fact Jonah was furious. It’s now that we learn the reasoning behind Jonah’s rushed trip to Tarshish. It wasn’t so much him going to Tarshish that was the problem; it was that he didn’t go to Nineveh. We noted in a previous chapter that Jonah was into “alternate obedience”. He presumed to ignore what his God had said, substitute his own alternative plan and carry that through to completion.

His initial disobedience was only marginally worse than his reluctant obedience.

It is about now that Jonah must have lost his mind. He has already experienced the response of the Lord to disobedience in the form of that storm, being thrown overboard and the ‘great fish’ episode. The Lord confronts Jonah’s anger and Jonah doesn’t hold back.

In summary, Jonah acknowledged his anger. Now he explains why he headed for Tarshish and not Nineveh.

“Didn’t I say to you before ever I left home that you would do this? I knew you were a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn away from destroying people”. Just kill me now, Lord. I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen.

Here is yet another reason for his attitude. Prophets are either proved authentic or exposed as frauds by what happens or doesn’t happen as a result of their prophecy. It seems that Jonah has an issue with pride and his position as a prophet. So intense is his racial bigotry and his occupational pride that he is willing to pay the ultimate price. In fact, he asks for death.

The very outcome he should have welcomed made him very, very angry. But there is one further experience awaiting him that is designed to confront Jonah with the vast distance between his heart and the heart of his God so far as Nineveh is concerned.


4  But the LORD replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah 4:4 (NIV)

Jonah delivered what was an ultimatum to the Lord his God. Everything is put on the line. It sounds something like this:

“It’s your will against mine. I’m very angry so this is all or nothing. I’ve told you what I think. Nineveh should be destroyed. So now I’m going out of town to a high vantage point and I am going to watch what you do and how you treat my convictions and desires. If you don’t destroy that city, then destroy me!”

The God who arranged a life-threatening storm and a great fish, now causes a leafy plant to grow up in what appears to be a supernatural manner. It provides shade for Jonah. One minute Jonah is very angry with God and the next minute he is very thankful for this relief from the sun.  But then the Lord took the plant away via a rather hungry worm that devoured the plant in record time leaving Jonah unprotected and again in a life-threatening situation.

Jonah’s gratitude for the provision of the plant gives way to anger (again!). And God challenges his right to be angry about the demise of the plant. Jonah is one angry prophet.

Now comes the whole point of this drama.

So why did I start to tell this story in the first place. Well, it’s a story that demonstrates the heart of the Lord God as well as the human heart. As a result of God’s initiative a whole city is turned back from going over the cliff. What eventually happened to Jonah, we know not. Did he respond to God’s exposure of his racial bigotry? We know not. What we do know is the story finished with the Lord God asking His Prophet a question that, at the time of going to press, had not been answered. We left a request on Jonah’s answering machine asking him to contact us but he is apparently unavailable at this time.

The question, as we understand it is,

“Nineveh has 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?”

 

 

 

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