JONAH 1 Joppa, which means "beautiful," was located on the Mediterranean coast at Jaffa, just south of modern Tel Aviv. It was the only natural harbor between Acco and Egypt. Timber from Lebanon passed through this seaport on its way to Jerusalem for use in the construction of the temples built by Solomon (2Ch 2:16), and Zerubbabel (Ezr 3:7). The prophet Jonah departed from Joppa in an attempt to flee God's call to go to Nineveh., The Danites had earlier received this city as part of their tribal allotment (Jos 19:46) but had moved north to Laish because of their inability to gain control of their allotted territory.

One of the few port cities on the coast of the Holy Land, Joppa was a city that attracted kings from the entire region. It is mentioned frequently in ancient sources, which attest to the wide variety of powers that controlled the city:

  • The Egyptian Harris Papyrus describes how the city was taken by Thutmose III (fifteenth century B.c.), who, in a Trojan-horse maneuver, sent the city's ruler a gift of baskets in which were hidden his soldiers.

  • The city is also mentioned in two of the Amarna Letters (fourteenth century B.c.), which indicate that Joppa was an Egyptian stronghold during the Eighteenth Dynasty.

  • Egyptian dominance evidently continued into the Nineteenth Dynasty; stone door jambs excavated in Joppa were inscribed with the name and titles of Rameses II (thirteenth century B.c.).

  • In light of its location on the northern edge of Philistine territory, a Philistine presence is to be expected after the twelfth century B.C., and indeed Philistine pottery from the eleventh century B.C. has been unearthed there.

  • The city was evidently under Israelite jurisdiction during the Solomonic period (2Ch 2:16) and perhaps again under the dynasty of Omri, although available sources do not explicitly claim Israelite control during either of these periods.

  • The city was also conquered by the Assyrians. Sennacherib (in his "prism stele") lists Joppa among the cities he captured during his 701 B.C. campaign.

  • Joppa remained a prized city during the Persian period. A sarcophagus inscription of Eshmunezer, king of the Phoenician city of Sidon, reveals that Joppa, through a donation of the Persian king, was subject to Phoenician authority. Eshmunezer claims that the "Lord of Kings" (the Persian ruler) conferred upon him control of Dor and Joppa,"which are in the plain of Sharon," as a reward for his faithful service.

  • The Phoenicians were not always loyal to Persia, however, and in the fourth century B.C. they engaged in a rebellion against Persian rule. Artaxerxes III destroyed Sidon in 358 B.C./ and Joppa became liberated from Phoenician rule.

  • Soon afterward, however, Joppa came under the control of a series of Greek rulers. Two coins of Alexander the Great, who entered this region around 332 B.C., have been uncovered there.The city did enjoy a degree of independence under the Ptolemaic Greek rulers of Egypt.

  • Joppa was conquered by the Jewish Hasmonean ruler Simon Maccabeus around 144 B.C. This was a matter of great importance to the Jewish state, as it offered an outlet to the sea.The Hasmonean Alexander Jannaeus struck a large quantity of coins stamped with an anchor on one side to celebrate Jewish control over the city.

  • Roman rule began with the conquests of Pompey the Great (64 B.c.). Judea thus lost control of Joppa, but Augustus placed it under the authority of Herod in approximately 30 B.C.8

As the port city of Judea, Joppa was important to the New Testament church. It was in Joppa that the apostle Peter raised Tabitha from the dead (Ac 9:36-43), experienced his vision indicating that God would accept the faith of Gentiles and subsequently preached the gospel to Cornelius (Ac 10).

Seafaring in the Ancient World

JONAH 2 Seafaring in the ancient Near East extends back well into the third millennium B.C., a period during which Egyptian sources refer to the "Byblos ship" (a term that signified any large, seafaring vessel). Such ships carried the valuable cedars of Lebanon and other prized timber from the northern Levant (Syria-Palestine) to Egypt) During the second millennium B.C. Ugaritic letters also report seafaring trade along coastal Canaan.? A shipwrecked vessel from around 1300 B.C. near Uluburun, Turkey, managed to preserve its cargo of olives, pomegranates, figs, various spices and nuts.Twelfth-century B.c. pictures from Mendinet Habu carved into the temple of the Egyptian pharaoh Rameses III depict the naval battle between the Egyptians and the Sea Peoples, a mysterious new emigrant group who brought with them naval technology that revolutionized seafaring in the Near East.

The Phoenicians were especially great naval innovators, building a maritime trading empire that extended west to Carthage and beyond.3 Two eighth-century Phoenician shipwrecked crafts laden with wine amphorae have been located in the Mediterranean, approximately 31 miles (50 km) from Ashkelon. The Bible also speaks of Phoenician maritime skill in 1 Kings 9:26 — 28, where Solomon is said to have established a fleet at Ezion Geber, on the shore of the Red Sea, staffed by Phoenician sailors to make the run to Ophir for the gold trade. It is clear that seafaring already boasted a long history by the time of Jonah.

Joppa, on the Mediterranean coast, was one of the major seaports in the region during Jonah's day. Ships of Tarshish were heavy, seagoing vessels perhaps named for a geographical location or for their metallurgical cargo. Scholars once speculated that ships of this time hugged the coast and did not venture into deeper waters, but this is no longer believed to have been the case; the ship Jonah took was probably capable of going far out to sea.The most likely geographical candidates for Tarshish are Tartessus in south-western Spain or Tarsus in southeastern Asia Minor . Despite this ambiguity, it is clear that Jonah knew he could flee west from Joppa aboard a ship. Yet he would soon discover that not even these mighty vessels and their advanced Phoenician technology could separate the Lord's prophet from the God of Israel.

The Historicity of the Book of Jonah

JONAH 3 There is no question that Jonah was a historical person; he is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25, where he is said to have predicted the expansion of Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II. The fact that Jonah was cited for having made a prediction of military success suggests that he was one of the more nationalistic and militaristic prophets, perhaps not too different from Zedekiah, whom the prophet Micaiah opposed in 1 Kings 22.This, in itself, however, sheds no light on whether the book of Jonah is a factual, historical account. If it is pure fiction, its author could have used this prophet as a character because he wanted to make a point about divine compassion: God, in showing mercy to the Ninevites, humbled this angry, super-patriotic prophet. Arguments against reading Jonah as history are as follows:

    • Jonah 3:9 is similar to Joel 2:14, suggesting that Jonah was a late work, written long after the lifetime of the historical prophet.

    • The story of Jonah's being swallowed alive by a "great fish" seems too far-fetched to be believable.

    • Jonah's psalm (ch. 2) makes no sense in context.The prophet is depicted as praising God for his salvation while still inside the fish.

    • The account lacks evidence of a real understanding of Nineveh and its history. For example,the author greatly exaggerated the city's size in claiming that it would require three days to cross it on foot (3:3).

    • There is no historical record that Nineveh experienced a mass revival or conversion (ch. 3).

It is possible, however, to convincingly address these arguments:

      • It is notoriously difficult to prove which Old Testament text is original when two books contain similar wording. There would he no way in this case to determine whether Jonah or Joel was original or whether the authors of both were merely employing common language.

      • The story of the great fish is miraculous only in the sense that God supernaturally provided a whale to swallow Jonah.There are three critical issues here:

      • The great fish may indeed have been a large whale, which would not normally have been found in the eastern Mediterranean, but the provision of the whale so far from its usual habitat is the miraculous part of the account.

      • The word for"belly" (a term used in some translations, though not in the Nix) in Hebrew is imprecise and does not necessarily mean "stomach." Jonah may have been in the oral cavity of a large-mouthed whale.

      • A whale, being a mammal, is a warm-blooded air breather that periodically resurfaces for air. It therefore would have provided Jonah with oxygen, while its body heat would have prevented the prophet from being overcome with hypothermia.

      • The psalm of Jonah 2 is intelligible if we reconstruct events as follows: (1) Jonah, cast overboard during a storm and unable to swim,sank immediately (2:6).(2) A whale scooped him up and carried him to the surface, allowing him to breathe.(3) When the whale kept Jonah near the surface, the prophet recognized God's provision and was able to praise him.

      • Jonah 3:3 says literally that Nineveh was a"three-day walk," a possible reference to walking straight across the middle of the city or around its perimeter. But Jonah was required to walk to every neighborhood and proclaim his message of warning.

      • The Ninevites' repentance by no means indicates that they became worshipers of Yahweh or converted to the Israelites' religion but suggests that they ritually asked God to spare them.Historically, this was a short-lived event—unlikely to have shown up in the city's annals.

Those who regard Jonah as postexilic fiction typically view the work as a counter to the nationalistic zeal of Ezra and Nehemiah. The book presents pagans as ready to repent (chs.1 and 3) and portrays the Israelite prophet as disobedient, angry and vengeful.There is no doubt that the book of Jonah makes the point that God is compassionate to all people and cares about the Gentiles just as he does about Israel. It is unnecessary, however, to take it to be a postexilic work or a critique of Ezra and Nehemiah. If, as suggested above, Jonah was a nationalistic prophet along the lines of Zedekiah in 1 Kings 22, the events he experienced and the book itself were a corrective to this misguided zeal. God is, as Jonah himself confessed, the maker both of the sea and of the dry land (Jnh 1:9), and he does not play favorites in the manner Jonah would have liked.

Where was Tarshish?

JONAH 4 It is impossible to say with certainty where Tarshish was located. What is known is that Nineveh was to the east' and that Jonah was trying to get as far as possible from Nineveh by boarding a ship and sailing westward. If Tarshish were a specific port, it certainly would have been located somewhere along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, as may be suggested by several Old Testament texts (Ps 48:7; Isa 23:6; Eze 27:25) and by an inscription of Esarhaddon of Assyria. Many suggest that it was a city associated with mining and metallurgy, since the name Tarshish may be derived from a word referring to smelting or refining (see also Eze 27:12). Places that could satisfy these requirements include:

  • Tartessus in southwestern Spain. This would be appropriate to the story, for it would have been difficult to sail any farther from Nineveh.

  • The island of Sardinia. A ninth-century B.C. Phoenician inscription suggests the possible presence of Tarshish there.

  • Carthage in North Africa ("Map 14").This is supported by the Septuagint version of Ezekiel 27:12, which identifies Carthage with Tarshish (but there was also a Carthage in Spain).

  • Tarsus in Anatolia (modern Turkey).This city would later become the hometown of Paul.

Some scholars, however, believe that the term "Tarshish" refers not to a specific location but simply to the"open sea." If this is the case, the author's intent may have been sim-ply to describe Jonah as going off to sea.2 The church father Jerome, in his commentary on Jonah, accepted this interpretation. Regardless of the intended destination of the ship Jonah boarded, it is obvious that the reluctant prophet sought to sail in the opposite direction from the destination to which God was calling him.