During the reign of King Jeroboam II (793-753 BC), a Northern Kingdom prophet named Jonah was called by God to “announce the Lord’s judgment” (Jonah 1:1-2) to the Assyrians. God commanded him to go to Assyria’s capital, the city of Nineveh to preach against its wickedness and convince the people to repent. The heart of the Assyrian empire was located around 500 miles northeast of Gath-Hepher, Jonah’s hometown in the Galilean region. (For a better picture of Bible events and location, refer to the Holy Land Map in conjunction with this article.)
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It was clear from the start that Jonah was unwilling to go to Nineveh because the Bible did not mince words with his response to God’s command: he ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish (Jonah 1:3). Jonah was understandably resentful about preaching repentance to the Assyrians, so he headed to the port city of Joppa to catch a ship bound for Tarshish. Joppa (modern Jaffa) was a harbor city located far west of Jonah’s village of Gath-Hepher. While the modern location of the famed city of Tarshish is still being disputed (according to the Septuagint and Vulgate translations of the Bible, Tarshish was another name for the city of Carthage while historian Flavius Josephus asserted that it was the Anatolian city of Tarsus).
There is a modern argument, however, that Jonah did not go directly to the port city of Joppa so that he could escape from the presence of God. It was said that he travelled to the city of Joppa to put himself out of God’s reach—which made sense only if God’s power was limited by location (Joppa was a Philistine territory at that time). Perhaps Jonah took the attempt to escape one step further by passing through at least four to five ports to shake off God’s presence. Clever or not, Jonah sent a clear message to God that there was no way he would willingly go to Nineveh.
This theory, however, is not without its issues. First, Jonah’s hometown of Gath-Hepher was located in the Northern Kingdom. The only significant ports that lay between the town of Gath-Hepher and the Philistine port in Joppa were Acco (modern Acre) to the northwest and Dor to the west. If Jonah, however, was based in Samaria (and not in his hometown) during the reign of King Jeroboam II, there were no other ports of considerable size and importance near the capital for one of the most famous escapees in history to take refuge in except for Joppa.
God’s omniscience and omnipresence also hindered the theory that Jonah passed through at least four to five ports to shake off His presence. The Lord was with Abraham as he travelled from Harran down to Canaan and Egypt—all of which were pagan cities. He was also with Jacob when he came back to Upper Mesopotamia after he tricked Isaac to give away his brother Esau’s blessings. God’s presence was also felt during the Israelite’s struggle in Egypt, Daniel’s captivity in Babylon (although this would come much later than Jonah’s adventure), and many other instances in the Bible when location (even the schemes of men) simply did not present a problem for God to show his power. God also heard and answered Jonah’s prayer while he sat inside the belly of the fish after it swallowed him (he was eventually vomited on dry land).
Whether he passed through a number of ports on the way to Joppa or not, the book of Jonah continues to fascinate readers thousands of years after it was written. There are lessons that his story offers to its readers, although people will probably never know the truth about this detail on his journey. Two things are for sure: God extended His mercy even to the merciless and men could never thwart the plans of God.
May, Herbert G., G. N. S. Hunt, R. W. Hamilton, and John Day. Oxford Bible Atlas. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Singer, Isidore, and M. Seligsohn. “JewishEncyclopedia.com.” TARSHISH -. Accessed June 29, 2016. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14254-tarshish.
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