The Jonah Fable

For Old Testament, we students reflect weekly on “some topic, aspect or concept” from the volumes and volumes of assigned reading. I am limited to one single-spaced page each week, and in every case I’ve been forced to cut myself off from writing. So read knowing that my thoughts are manifold!

If you are interested in more selections from my School of Theology Coursework, follow the link to the category of SOT Coursework. I have also set up a new category for these Old Testament reflection papers called OT Weeklies. If all goes well, each new reflection paper will be posted automatically at 2:00 p.m. each Monday, when my Old Testament class convenes.

What follows is my reflection paper from the week of January 31. Enjoy!

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For the modern critical scholar, both the book and the person of Jonah are difficult to date, relate, and investigate for a variety of reasons. The contents of the book of Jonah do not exactly lend historical credence to its narrative elements, perhaps leading to a suggestion that the text was intended solely as moral literature. A clue useful in pinning down the prophet is offered outside of the book bearing his name, as Old Testament readers also find Jonah delivering a message of expansion from Yahweh to King Jeroboam, son of Joash. Speaking of King Jeroboam II, the 2 Kings texts reads, “He restored the border of Israel from Lebohamath as far as the sea of the Arabah, according to the word of [Yahweh], the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher” (2 Kgs 14:25 NRSV). So how does an easily forgettable character, known only for prophesying to an unfavorable king of Israel, end up famous for a strange amphibious encounter to possibly being mentioned within Jesus’ ministry for his σημεῖον, or sign (Mt 16:4)? In his examination of the Jonah narrative’s insight into Old Testament Israel’s conception of mission, Daniel C. Timmer wonders aloud if the surviving literature is “as much a rogue as its main character, playing havoc with the theological expectations of the canonical reader.”[1] As this reflection paper explores, very little of the “rogue” Jonah narrative follows a “normal” or “expected” path.

Jonah and the "Great Fish"
Here’s a rendering of what probably didn’t ever happen.

Careful readers are immediately confronted with the amount of liberties taken within the text, from the points at which it simply lacks specificity to instances of abject hyperbole. For example, J. Gordon McConville writes that Jonah’s depiction of Nineveh’s size hardly matches current archaeological observations, and, moreover, that the literature is unlikely to reflect the actual system of government within the city.[2] So while the original author of Jonah would have undoubtedly known about Nineveh, a sense of distance from the city—both in proximity and theology—accompanies the text. Meanwhile, a number of other details range from improbable to outrageous, including Jonah’s manic depressive behavior, the suggestion of knee-jerk city-wide repentance, to even pondering the anatomical features and requirements of a fish great enough to swallow a man. Finally, one has to wonder at the gullibility of the Ninevites. In his supposed travels through the town’s streets, Jonah was hardly specific about the prophecy he received or even the one from whom it had been received, and yet the inhabitants of Nineveh either follow the king’s lead in mourning and fasting or beat him entirely to the punch. The king’s speech suggests that Jonah may have even obscured the name of Yahweh as he prophesied, as the generic ‘elohim is used: “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind” (Jon 3:9 NRSV).

Perhaps the most significant unexpected element of the narrative is the repentance of Nineveh, which was acceptable to Yahweh and qualified Jonah as “the most successful evangelist in history,” per Victor H. Matthews.[3] Given that the historicity of the Jonah story is deeply in question, the temporal salvation of Nineveh would have been a lesson to the author’s first audience, and it may have been as shocking as the Beatitudes or the parable of the Good Samaritan were to those gathered around Jesus. As Matthews and McConville document, Jonah reads as a coming out party for universalism, or the availability of Yahweh to people groups beyond Israel, though it should stand equally as a caution against both evading the call of God and expecting certain outcomes from one’s ministry. Despite the problems that pervade Jonah, the inherent theological lessons are not diminished by the possibility of pure literary origin.


[1] Daniel C. Timmer, “Jonah and Mission: Missiological Dichotomy, Biblical Theology, and the Via Tertia,” Westminster Theological Journal 70, no. 1 (Spring 2008), 160.

[2] J. Gordon McConville, A Guide to the Prophets, vol. 4 of Exploring the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 186.

[3] Victor H. Matthews, Social World of the Hebrew Prophets (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2001), 165.

War of Words: Sennacherib vs. Yahweh

For Old Testament, we students reflect weekly on “some topic, aspect or concept” from the volumes and volumes of assigned reading. I am limited to one single-spaced page each week, and in every case I’ve been forced to cut myself off from writing. So read knowing that my thoughts are manifold!

If you are interested in more selections from my School of Theology Coursework, follow the link to the category of SOT Coursework. I have also set up a new category for these Old Testament reflection papers called OT Weeklies. If all goes well, each new reflection paper will be posted automatically at 2:00 p.m. each Monday, when my Old Testament class convenes.

What follows is my reflection paper from the week of December 13. Enjoy!

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To take advantage of the plethora of idle time spent traveling from Indianapolis to Anderson (and back) each weekday, I have listened to a public library edition of our assigned biblical readings on compact discs for the last two weeks. During this time, no passage has been narrated quite as powerfully as 2 Kings 18-20, wherein Sennacherib of Assyria, through his field commander the Rabshakeh, and Yahweh, through Isaiah, engage in a grandiose war of words. Their back-and-forth taunts and jabs touch on a number of topics: the awesome destructive power of the Assyrian army—and, especially, the gods it has overrun—the doom that awaits a rebellious and weakened Jerusalem, and the bodily by-products its citizenry will be left to consume, followed by Yahweh’s preordination of events and his response to the chest-beating “rage” and “insolence” of Sennacherib (2 Kgs 19:28 NIV). But upon further study, the true beauty of these accounts lies not in their narration, but their deeper exegetical analysis.

To be sure, scholars are befuddled by a number of questions that have arisen from investigating the chapters at hand. For example, it is likely that some liberty has been taken with the timeline of the pericope,[1] and the ebb and flow of messengers and their orations may actually be a marriage of multiple textual traditions.[2] While these problems are decidedly beyond the scope of this reflection paper, it is unavoidable that the Rabshakeh’s speech makes no sense in the context of the passages that immediately precede it, wherein Hezekiah won Sennacherib’s withdrawal from Lachish for an unfathomable sum of, literally, tons of gold and silver (2 Kgs 18:13-16). Miano asks, “Why would Sennacherib send his officials to demand unconditional surrender immediately after Hezekiah made peace with him by way of a substantial tribute?”[3]

That question cannot be sufficiently answered without the escape of an incomplete redaction. Such a conclusion might also add perspective to the narrative’s transition from a broad introductory statement about the fourteenth year of Hezekiah to an inordinate focus on individual speeches. Of this “disproportionate” use of direct address, Fewell notes, “Not only do the character’s speeches contain information crucial to the story, but also the tones of the speeches communicate certain dynamics that could not have been captured by straight narration.”[4] In this light, the Rabshakeh’s comments are nothing short of brilliant, serving to demoralize, humiliate and pierce the people of Jerusalem to the point of capitulation. Indeed, Eliakim, Shebna and Joah deliver the message to Hezekiah with torn clothes, as a sign of extreme sadness or mourning, and Hezekiah describes it to Isaiah as “a day of distress and rebuke and disgrace” (2 Kgs 19:3 NIV).

But perhaps these chapters are constructed in this manner to demonstrate the fallacy of taunting Yahweh, who comes to display his authority and supremacy over Sennacherib. Whereas the Rabshakeh contends that Yahweh is on the side of Assyria (2 Kgs 18:25), the prophecy of Isaiah mirrors and reflects the taunts lobbed against both Yahweh and his people. Yahweh appears to be against anyone who proudly proclaims that they have personally accomplished this or that (2 Kgs 19:23-28; Dt 8:10-20), and therefore “becomes the taunter, the threatener, the punisher and the destroyer.”[5] As Isaiah writes, “Assyria will fall by a sword that is not of man; a sword, not of mortals, will devour them. . . . at sight of the battle standard their commanders will panic” (Is 31:8-9 NIV). Apparently, the Rabshakeh’s ability to craft his message with harsh and prideful language is ultimately the undoing of Assyria, which begs the question: Did Babylon learn a lesson from the Rabshakeh and refrain from taunting Yahweh more than a century later?


[1] David Miano, “What Happened in the Fourteenth Year of Hezekiah?” in Milk and Honey: Essays on Ancient Israel and the Bible, ed. Sarah Malena and David Miano (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2007), 113.

[2] Ibid., 114-122.

[3] Ibid., 119.

[4] Danna Nolan Fewell, “Sennacherib’s Defeat: Words at War in 2 Kings 18.13-19.37,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 34 (Fall 1986), 80.

[5] Ibid., 82.

History as Lesson in the Books of Kings

For Old Testament, we students reflect weekly on “some topic, aspect or concept” from the volumes and volumes of assigned reading. I am limited to one single-spaced page each week, and in every case I’ve been forced to cut myself off from writing. So read knowing that my thoughts are manifold!

If you are interested in more selections from my School of Theology Coursework, follow the link to the category of SOT Coursework. I have also set up a new category for these Old Testament reflection papers called OT Weeklies. If all goes well, each new reflection paper will be posted automatically at 2:00 p.m. each Monday, when my Old Testament class convenes.

What follows is my reflection paper from the week of December 6. Enjoy!

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As we begin to conclude this semester’s brisk survey of the Old Testament from Genesis to the fall of the divided kingdoms, I have gained a deeper appreciation of the narrative that Jesus understood. Throughout this study, I have learned to draw more intentionally from the Hebrew Scriptures to comprehend Jesus’ place in the history of Israel, a process sure to continue into the semester to come. But these books are not just a grand prologue to Jesus’ ministry; rather, they are an elaborate history of Yahweh and his revelation to a chosen people who so often failed to worship him authentically and exclusively. While they may be stepping-stones to Jesus, it is important for the modern church to realize that these Scriptures are also preserved for purposes far greater than the trampling of our feet during the walk of faith. It is from this perspective that I look to the book of 2 Kings—writings chiefly concerned with the demise of Israel and Judah and their latter leaders—for three ever-significant theological themes.

2 Kings 4 profiles Elisha’s relationship with a “well-to-do woman” of Shunem (2 Kgs 4:8 NIV), to whom he prophesies that a son will be born almost as a gift in exchange for her hospitality. Some years later the son died after experiencing head pains, and the unnamed woman wishes to plead for help from Elisha. The Shunammite’s husband questions her immediacy, saying, “Why go to him today? . . . It’s not the New Moon or the Sabbath” (2 Kgs 4:23 NIV). This man seems rooted in a perspective that also plagues modern believers, namely that our accessibility to God is somehow heightened on Sundays and while sitting in church pews. Knowing that Elisha and Yahweh would be available any day of the week, the Shunammite woman possesses a deeper understanding of this divine truth that we should also not forsake.

Naaman, a Syrian army official of Aram, was granted success from Yahweh and “was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy” (2 Kgs 5:1 NIV). Seeking a cure to his skin disease, Naaman eventually found himself at the doorstep to Elisha’s abode. Elisha’s messenger gave apparently unfavorable advice, as Naaman would say, “I though that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy” (2 Kgs 5:11 NIV). Naaman found as many who lift prayers and requests to God often do: sometimes the answers we receive are not the answers we want to hear. But even in a round-about way, God’s wisdom prevails; the simple cleansing procedure cured Naaman’s leprous skin.

In the following chapter, a woman approaches King Jehoram of Israel with a heart-breaking story about a hungry acquaintance whose persuasion drove her to cannibalism, an act that was not reciprocated with the sacrifice of the persuasive woman’s son (2 Kgs 6:26-33). Jehoram offers no resolution to the woman’s plea. In effect, the pericope “honors a prophet and assesses a king while ignoring or condemning the desperate situation of two women and their children.”[1] Jehoram, bent on blaming Yahweh—and, by association, his leading prophet—reacts by calling for Elisha’s head. The shocking story is an unfortunate example that some will reject God at every available opportunity, often blaming him and his followers for their problems.

These three theologically insightful themes demonstrate that 2 Kings is more than simple, skip-able historical account of the royal houses of Israel and Judah. Instead, the text is certainly “alive” and worthy of study by modern Christians on its own merits. While believers most often find themselves concerned with the gospels and Pauline epistles, as disciples we should take heart that Jesus himself found inspiration from 1 and 2 Kings, even to the point of inciting a riot at the Nazarene synagogue over comparisons to the works of Elijah and Elisha (Lk 4:24-30). Indeed, the good news—the εὐαγγέλιον—of the books of Kings warrants preaching today. Those who withhold such knowledge are like the lepers of 2 Kings 7, who lamented, “We’re not doing right. This is a day of good news and we are keeping it to ourselves” (2 Kgs 7:9 NIV).


[1] Gina Hens-Piazza, “Forms of Violence and the Violence of Forms: Two Cannibal Mothers Before a King,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 14, no. 2 (Fall 1998), 91-104.

The “New” Elijah: Jesus or John the Baptist?

For Old Testament, we students reflect weekly on “some topic, aspect or concept” from the volumes and volumes of assigned reading. I am limited to one single-spaced page each week, and in every case I’ve been forced to cut myself off from writing. So read knowing that my thoughts are manifold!

If you are interested in more selections from my School of Theology Coursework, follow the link to the category of SOT Coursework. I have also set up a new category for these Old Testament reflection papers called OT Weeklies. If all goes well, each new reflection paper will be posted automatically at 2:00 p.m. each Monday, when my Old Testament class convenes.

What follows is my reflection paper from the week of November 29. Enjoy!

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For a biblical character so significant and beloved, Elijah first appears on the scene rather inconspicuously. The author does not provide any background information on the Tishbite; instead, it is enough to present him as the major prophet who will rebuke Ahab, Jezebel, and eventually, the Baals. Elijah’s minor meteorology prophecy to open 1 Kings 17 foreshadows both the miraculous events that occur later in his career and the monsoon of allusions to him that saturate the four canonical gospel accounts. To properly contextualize the 27 explicit gospel references to Elijah, however,[1] the Christian reader must be alerted to the ending of Malachi and the Old Testament, wherein the day of the Lord is prognosticated. Within a lengthy discourse, Yahweh explains, “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes” (Mal 4:5 NIV). Failure to accept this Elijah—who was initially expected to be the Tishbite prophet himself rather than a new incarnation[2]—would result in a curse upon the land (Mal 4:6). This begs several questions: Did Elijah return, and if so, in the person of whom?

If we accept the overwhelming volume of New Testament references to Elijah as an indication that he did return from heaven, it is prudent to first consider John the Baptist as the new Elijah. Both John and Elijah were said to have dressed in clothing made of animal hair, with leather belts around their waists (2 Kgs 1:8; Mk 1:6). While this does not seem all that unique given the lack of Ralph Lauren and Express for Men in biblical times, consider that the Greek terminology for “leather belt” in Mark—σώνην δερματίνην—is used in the Septuagint only to describe the clothing of Elijah.[3] But even more than attire, Mark’s introductory description of John the Baptist may be another clue. In opening his gospel by quoting Malachi, the Markan writer reiterates that an ἄγγελος will prepare the Messiah’s way. While both Mark and Matthew overwhelmingly use ἄγγελος to refer to a heavenly host rather than an earthly messenger,[4] John the Baptist is unanimously interpreted in the Markan prologue as a “messenger” (Mk 1:2 NIV, NASB, NKJV, NRSV, ASV). It is necessary to at least picture the angelic version of ἄγγελος, for if Elijah himself was to return, would he not do so as an angel? This view of John the Baptist might align with Jesus’ own perspective on the matter: “And if you are willing to accept it, [John the Baptist] is the Elijah who was to come” (Mt 11:14).

As in most reflections upon topics related to the historical Jesus, the answer to the aforementioned questions may depend upon one’s preferred gospel. For example, the Lukan account “removed Elijah traits associated with John the Baptist so that [Luke] could attach them instead to Jesus.”[5] It is understandable that Luke would prefer to make the direct connection from Elijah to Jesus: both were game-changers for Israel, revolutionary prophets with supernatural abilities—especially the uncanny ability to heal. The Elijah story was especially powerful for Luke, given that in his account alone, Jesus cites the pericope of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath just before being rejected in the Nazarene synagogue (Lk 4:24-30). Jesus, however, is better understood as the Elisha to John the Baptist’s Elijah. Just as Elisha served for a period of time as Elijah’s disciple, modern scholars commonly accept Jesus as a disciple of John the Baptist, with the baptism event central to Jesus’ allegiance to John.[6] This is proposed not as a means to suggest the inferiority of Jesus, but rather to investigate the historical relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist. In reality, Jesus supersedes Elijah, Elisha, John and all other prophets. That Jesus needed a preparatory ἄγγελος does not diminish his status.


[1] Christine E. Joynes, “The Returned Elijah? John the Baptist’s Angelic Identity in the Gospel of Mark,” Scottish Journal of Theology 58, vol. 4 (2005), 456.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 460.

[4] Ibid., 464.

[5] Ibid., 459.

[6] William B. Badke, “Was Jesus a Disciple of John?” The Evangelical Quarterly 62, vol. 3 (1990), 198.

Rehoboam, Not LeBron James, in “The Decision”

For Old Testament, we students reflect weekly on “some topic, aspect or concept” from the volumes and volumes of assigned reading. I am limited to one single-spaced page each week, and in every case I’ve been forced to cut myself off from writing. So read knowing that my thoughts are manifold!

If you are interested in more selections from my School of Theology Coursework, follow the link to the category of SOT Coursework. I have also set up a new category for these Old Testament reflection papers called OT Weeklies. If all goes well, each new reflection paper will be posted automatically at 2:00 p.m. each Monday, when my Old Testament class convenes.

What follows is my reflection paper from the week of November 22. Enjoy!

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Shortly after he ventured to Shechem to ceremoniously assume the kingship, the newly anointed Rehoboam was saddled with what might well be referred to as “The Decision.” Jeroboam and a massive throng representing the tribes of Israel approached Rehoboam with a plea: reverse your father’s oppressive policies against us, or we will permanently leave your service (1 Kgs 12:3-4). John Bright notes, “As their price for accepting him they demanded that the heavy burdens imposed by Solomon, particularly the corvée, be abated.”[1] Rehoboam’s response would impact the next several centuries of Israelite history, and in buying three days to determine the proper course of action, he must have uniquely understood this. This reflection paper will examine the follies associated with Rehoboam’s response to the assembly of Israel.

For such a momentous a decision, it is only natural that Rehoboam would consult the wisdom of those around him. But in his first—and most overlooked—folly, Rehoboam fails to call on Yahweh for guidance. Instead, the king immediately turns his ears toward “the elders who had served his father Solomon” (1 Kgs 12:6 NIV), who sensibly advise the freshly minted monarch that a down payment of goodwill would be rewarded throughout Rehoboam’s lifetime. At the same time, Rehoboam’s inner circle of friends “who had grown up with him” were also lending their two cents (1 Kgs 12:8 NIV). In an obvious affront to Yahweh and the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt, their ill-contrived response of increased ruthlessness and oppression even included a possible penis joke (1 Kgs 12:10-11).[2]

After three days had passed, Rehoboam reconvened with Jeroboam and a hopeful group of Israelites. Our only surviving account of the event is found in Bible, but had the news media also been present, I believe they would have covered the decision with scathing reviews like those that followed a more recent highly publicized and dramatized “Decision.” As it turns out, the parallels between high-profile choices of Rehoboam and LeBron James are numerous:

  • “His bumbling buddy . . . had walked him into the public execution of his legacy.”[3]
  • “‘The whole idea that he makes his own decisions, that [bleep] went out the window with this. . . . Someday, he’s going to look back at this and not believe that he let those kids . . . talk him into doing this.’”[4]
  • “He can never completely rebuild what he let his cast of buddies talk him into losing.”[5]
  • “‘He did this because he can. He’s the king, and he rubbed it in everyone’s face.’”[6]

Inherently, James may have wanted to remain dedicated to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, the team that drafted him first overall in 2003 and the town that witnessed his rise as a high school basketball star. He probably knew the correct decision to make—decency and loyalty over the foolish counsel of his buddies—but instead, James chose a heartbreaking and self-absorbed spectacle, increased earnings potential and a party lifestyle that only the Miami Heat and South Beach could provide. If only King James knew about the follies of King Rehoboam, perhaps he would not have allowed his inner circle of lifelong-friends-turned-business-managers to make a primetime television drama of his first foray into NBA free agency.

In all likelihood, Rehoboam was not stupid, but his decision leaves us with no contrary evidence. Like LeBron James three millennia later, Rehoboam’s reliance on his peers caused uproarious reactions and now serves as an astute warning against rejecting the wisdom of elders.


[1] John Bright, A History of Israel, 4th ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 230.

[2] Victor P. Hamilton, Handbook on the Historical Books (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 418.

[3] Adrian Wojnarowski, “Easy come, easy go for King James,” Yahoo! Sports, http://sports.yahoo.com/nba/news?slug=aw-lebrondecision070910 (accessed November 21, 2010).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Don Ohlmeyer, “The ‘Decision’ dilemma,” ESPN, http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/columns/story?columnist=ohlmeyer_don&id=5397113 (accessed November 21, 2010).