Tag Archives: Moses

Jonah, a Whale of a Tale of Covenant Israel

Jonah is one of the best loved stories in the entire Bible. The key word that previous sentence is “stories.” It does not say that Jonah is one of the best loved prophets, but one of the best loved stories. That is because Jonah is rarely thought of as a prophet, though he was. In fact, he was one of the twelve Minor Prophets. Yet as Douglas Stuart pointed out, “In the case of Jonah, only five Hebrew words that he preached to the people of Assyria are preserved, those that are translated as, “Forty days from now Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jon 3:4).[1] When Big Idea made their first feature film, they did not go with Amos or Micah or even Malachi. Their first feature film was Jonah, having asparaguses (or are they green onions?) singing about how God is the God of second chances.[2] No video of a little girl telling the story of Hosea went viral; no, it was the story of Jonah.[3]

Jonah, unlike the rest of the Minor Prophets (or even the Major Prophets, with the exception of Daniel) has a way of capturing the attention of the reader. “[O]f the prophetic books, none other is so dominantly biographical and so minimally reflective of a prophet’s preached words.”[4] In other words, Jonah is a story about the prophet himself. Unlike the other prophets, Jonah does not sound “preachy” or “prophetic,” instead it is a narrative of history; it is a story. Feinberg comments,

Some question has arisen concerning the book because it does contain history and narrative to the practical exclusion of prophecy or prediction. There is an absence of the usual prophetic discourse. But there are those who realize that the book is among the prophets, not because of the historical events it records, but because the transactions in it are prophecies themselves.[5]

Whereas Isaiah would give a direct prophecy about the coming Messiah (Isaiah 7:14, 9:6-7, 53) or Micah would tell of his birthplace (Mic 5:2), Jonah displays it with his own life. Thus one can read that in the midst of the sea, salvation was found when Jonah was swallowed by a fish. “And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights,” (Jon 1:17, ESV). Salvation in the belly of the fish is likened to the salvation that would be found in the belly of the earth. “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth,” (Matthew 12:40, ESV). Though Jonah never explicitly stated this fact would occur, in God’s providence one could say it was indeed a prophecy.

Ezekiel gives vivid descriptions of the cherubim as God’s chariot (Ezek 1:1), he is simply describing it so that one can imagine it. He describes its look, how it moves, and its purpose. One can envision such a thing in the minds eye, and some have even put it onto canvas. Jonah however is still different than this. His story is being told as a way of capturing the imagination, not only for information’s sake, but for life-change and understanding. “Jonah is not a sentimental story, nor is it a humorous one. It is told without embellishment but with an emphasis on engaging the imagination. When a hearer or reader can visualize a scene at each point, the impact of a story is always strong.”[6] Hosea comes the closest of the Minor Prophets (or even the Latter Prophets, which does not include Daniel) to do this kind of impact for the modern-day reader, yet only in the first few chapters of his book and even then it was riddled with a direct prophetic message. Surely the prophecies of Jeremiah had a strong impact on the hearers in his day. Nahum’s prophecies against Nineveh a century later would evoke great emotion among the Jews of his day. Yet Jonah’s story and prophecy goes the distance unlike any other book because it doesn’t feel like one is being preached to, even though he is. Though similar to the art of telling a parable, Jonah is not a parable.

Parables are brief (not four chapters long), normally containing a single scene or two, make comparison to people or things outside the story who are the real focus, and end with a punch line that draws the hearer up short as it teaches a lesson, the reader hopefully seeing a personally relevant truth in the story. And parables have anonymous figures as their characters. The book of Jonah manifests some of these characteristics but manifests none of them exactly.[7]

On top of Jonah’s narrative, what makes Jonah so interesting and compelling is that whether the reader realizes it or not, Jonah retells the story of Israel with some twists. Like Moses, Jonah is sent to far away land to speak with the leader of the land and his subjects. Like Moses, Jonah is resistant to go. This was not just the leader of any land, but a leader of a land and people who terrorized, subjugated, and harmed the people of God. Yet unlike Moses, Jonah was not going to tell the King of Nineveh (Assyria) to let the Hebrews go. Instead, he went to tell him of their own impending doom, what Moses eventually spoke in his own right to Pharaoh. The story deviates when the King of Nineveh calls for fasting, repentance, and the wearing of sackcloth (Jon 3:7-9). Pharaoh did nothing of the sort, leading one to understand God’s truth to Moses and Paul’s explanation to the Romans. “For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion. . .So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills,” (Romans 9:15, 18, ESV). Pharaoh’s heart was hardened whereas the King of Nineveh’s heart was broken.

There was a forty-day period of trial, repentance, or one could say cleansing. Like the Israelites who spent forty years in the wilderness, wandering until the last of the disobedient generation died, thus going through trials, repentance, and a cleansing, so the people of Nineveh were given the same opportunity. “Forty is the number employed in Scripture in relation to testing,”[8] as Feinberg rightly pointed out. Thus Nineveh came out having passed the test, cleansing themselves (as humanly possible) of their sin. They believed God and God spared their lives, infuriating Jonah in the process. “I knew that you were a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster,” (Jon 4:2c, ESV). How would he know that except that it was revealed to Moses in Exodus 34 and so repeated throughout Israel’s history?

What Jonah had missed was that his story, intertwined with Nineveh’s story, was Israel’s story. God called Jonah and Israel. Jonah was to represent God to the pagan nation just as Israel to those surrounding her. Jonah flees from God going “down” further and further and refusing to heed his calling (down to Joppa, down into the boat, down into the sea). Israel had done the same centuries before. Yet in Jonah’s rebellion, he was saved from an unlikely source, just as Israel had been time and time again. The very grace and mercy of God that caused him to be slow of anger and relenting from disaster against Nineveh had been the same grace and mercy shown to Israel for centuries. Could Jonah and the Israelites see beyond Nineveh to their own hearts? Could they see that God would be willing to forgive and relent disaster if they would only turn? They could not see it. They could not see that God was a God of the covenant made on Mt. Sinai. They could not see that they were headed straight into judgment. They could not see their need to repent and return to the covenant that God had graciously made with them. It is almost poetic that the story of Jonah ends the way it does. One is left wondering about Jonah’s future, even as one wondered what would happen to Israel.

[1] Douglas Stuart, “Jonah, the Book of” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 456.

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YeOnADmkD74 (as of 4/3/19)

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z4VrujheblY (as of 4/3/19)

[4] Stuart, “Jonah” DOT, 457.

[5] Charles Lee Feinberg, The Minor Prophets, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1976), 133-134.

[6] Stuart, “Jonah,” DOT, 459.

[7] Ibid., 458.

[8] Feinberg, The Minor Prophets, 145.

God’s Covenant Within the Pentateuch

Like most Baptists, I grew up with Dispensational Theology as the only theology. I had never even heard of Covenantal Theology. I was intrigued with the books of Clarence Larkin and J. Dwight Pentecost. It was all I knew; and I consumed the theology. Initially, it was all about the end-times; after all, what else was there? We could be raptured at any moment! Yet, as I went into young adulthood, I realized there was more. It was a whole way of reading the Bible, of understanding the text, especially the covenants and how God related with humanity–but predominately, still the end-times (for me personally). Here is my confession: As I was reading The Left Behind series, I began to have my doubts about the eschatology of the Dispensational Theology. I knew what I was reading was fiction, but as I was growing in my studies of the rest of Scripture, I could not jive what I was reading in that series with what the Bible was saying. At that point I went on a theological journey and discovered Covenant Theology. I read books like Far As the Curse is Found by Michael Williams. I read the covenants for what they were,  without preconceived ideas (at least tried), and discovered that they read differently than I was ever taught. Williams (following McWilliams) would argue that there was an Adamic Covenant but rather than it being a covenant of works, it was indeed a covenant of grace. “Adam was required to obey the covenant instruction not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and Adam’s failure to obey would bring sin and death. But the sufficient condition for the covenant and Adam’s life within it was the father and kingly favor of God. What I am suggesting here is that life in covenant relationship with God was something that Adam enjoyed by God’s grace” (Michael D. Williams, Far As the Curse is Found, (Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2005), 72). The sign (and blessing) within the Adamic Covenant (as all covenants have their signatures) was the tree of life itself (ibid., 51). Being a covenant of grace did not necessitate it to be an everlasting or unconditional covenant however. Upon Adam’s fall, the tree of life (sign/blessing) was forbidden and eventually removed, only to reappear in Revelation 22 when all things are restored and even made greater. I bring this part up simply because Alexander and Baker seemed to dismiss entirely the idea of an Adamic Covenant (Alexander and Baker, Dictionary: Pentateuch, 141-142), but instead wrote and argued against a creation covenant (Ibid., 139-143).

From here one would go to the Noahic Covenant, which as indicated by Alexander and Baker, was a retelling of the creation story (Ibid., 323-324), which would give credibility to a covenant with Adam. If Noah–the one from whom all life would come–received a covenant, would not the original one from whom all life would come also have received a covenant, even if not explicitly laid out? It would seem, at minimum, plausible. The Noahic Covenant was, like the Adamic, a covenant of grace. It’s sign and blessing was that of a rainbow. Unlike Adam’s covenant, this one is eternal. “God promises here are not contingent upon human response or behavior,” (Ibid., 140). However, like the Adamic, there are calls to obedience: no eating of blood, multiply and fill the earth (subdue it). “Thus, the primary obligation imposed on humanity is that of fulfilling the role appointed by God in the beginning,” (Ibid.).

Both Williams (p. 100) and Alexander and Baker (p. 143) would agree that the Abrahamic Covenant builds off the Noahic and the Mosaic/Sinaitic builds from the Abrahamic. One of the issues that I struggled with long ago was that of the Abrahamic Covenant not truly being a covenant of grace since to be part of the covenant one, if he were male, must be circumcised. If he was not, he was cut off from the people and the covenant. If, according to Alexander and Baker, God was narrowing the focus from filling the earth to simply making a nation that would bring blessing to the earth (Ibid., 356), this would seem to make perfect sense. God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants cannot be circumvented by allowing anyone to come in anytime they please, nor allowing anyone to stay in when they will not abide. Whether one sees Genesis’s chapters 12, 15, and 17 as one covenant expansion or as separate covenants, chapter 17 ultimately includes all the substance of the previous two (seed, land, and blessing), and incorporates circumcision as both a sign and blessing.  The sign to remind the male of God’s promises and a blessing for without it all the promises would be removed as he would be cut off. Thus, while the Abrahamic Covenant was one of grace in the same manner as the Adamic and Noahic (no one compelled God to make a covenant, but He did so out of grace), it was not unconditional, and so not in any real way, eternal (according to man’s standard).

It is not difficult, therefore, to see how the Mosaic Covenant is an extension or expansion of the Abrahamic. In one sense, one could say that it was a reissuance of Abraham’s to the entire nation, however in another sense, the Mosaic is better thought of as being encompassed within the Abrahamic (Ibid., 150). The sign of the Mosaic Covenant (as well as its blessing) is that of the Sabbath rest, not only Saturdays, but any and all Sabbaths. “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I the LORD, sanctify you,” (Ex 31:13, ESV; italics mine). Once again, to break the Sabbath is cause for being cut off from the covenant and thus the blessing. The Sabbath blessing was not the only blessing, but it was a sign of the blessed rest in God. One should not forget that according to 2 Chronicles 36:20-21, the Israelites were taken into Babylon so that the land could enjoy its Sabbaths that the people never kept; thus, not keeping the sign and so not keeping the blessings, but rather being cut off.

What is interesting is that Alexander and Baker only mention the Suzerain treaty in passing.  Williams (citing G. E. Mendenhall) notes six components of such a treaty paralleling with Exodus:

  1. Preamble – Ex. 20:2 “I am the LORD your God”
  2. Historical Prologue – Ex. 20:2 “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”
  3. Covenant Stipulations – Ex. 20:3-17 (The Ten Commandments)
  4. Public reading of the document – Ex. 24:1-11
  5. Deposit of the tablets – Ex. 25:16 (often 2 copies were made, 1 for the king and 1 for the vassal, leaving the possibility that the two tablets in Moses’s hands were identical copies rather than 5 to 5 or 4 to 6 commandments on each)
  6. Giving of blessings/cursings depending on adherence – the rest of the Old Testament (but predicted in Deuteronomy 28-30)
    (Williams, Far As the Curse is Found, 141-142)

Williams also pointed out that in giving this covenant, Israel was agreeing to have God as their King and they would be His servants (vassals – a kingdom of priests and holy nation). At the same time, God covenanted with the people to “fulfill his promised role as covenant overlord to his people,” (Ibid., 143).

Taking all this information together, one may define covenant as an initiative by a loving and gracious God to an undeserving people to show that love and grace through blessings, protection, and discipline. Each covenant goes deeper and wider, becoming deeply rich in its implications and widely spread encompassing 2 persons, then 8, then a nation, finding its ultimate and truest form in Jesus Christ given to all who believe.

Once again, you get to enjoy what I am studying in my Old Testament Survey class. Feel free to respond. I’d love to hear from you, even if it is about covenants.