Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
During this (more than a)year’s read-through of the Bible I have chosen to read the books of the Bible in alphabetical order with the Psalms interspersed between them. The goal of this was to mix up the books that are usually digested together (the Pentateuch and the Gospels especially). This has worked fairly well, though John, Luke, Mark, and Matthew are still pretty close together. However, with this new style the Holy Spirit has been able to help me better compare some books that are usually read far apart from each other. In this case, Jonah and Joshua are brought much closer and allow for a really interesting comparison. While reading Jonah I watched as God worked and saved Nineveh, and then I read Joshua in which God worked and brought down nations.
First let’s look at Joshua. From the beginning, even before his own book, Joshua has been faithful to the Lord. After spying out the Promised Land, most of the spies brought back a bad report that made the people want to turn tail and go back to Egypt. We read in Numbers 14:1-3,
That night all the people of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?”
As the people were freaking out, even Moses was at a loss of what to do; but not Joshua. We read,
Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had explored the land, tore their clothes and said to the entire Israelite assembly, “The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and give it to us” (Numbers 14:6-8).
Joshua trusted in the Lord and followed him wholeheartedly without any doubts. Later, after becoming the leader of the Israelites, Joshua was rewarded with many great victories to his name (literally, because it’s the name of the book). Specifically, there is a rather long list of toppled kings that are attributed to Joshua. We are told in Joshua 12:7-24,
These are the kings of the land that Joshua and the Israelites conquered on the west side of the Jordan, from Baal Gad in the Valley of Lebanon to Mount Halak, which rises toward Seir (their lands Joshua gave as an inheritance to the tribes of Israel according to their tribal divisions- the hill country, the western foothills, the Arabah, the mountain slopes, the desert and the Negev- the lands of the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites):
The king of Jericho (one)
The king of Ai (near Bethel) (one)
The king of Jerusalem (one)
The king of Hebron (one)
The king of Jarmuth (one)
The king of Lachish (one)
The king of Eglon (one)
The king of Gezer (one)
The king of Debir (one)
The king of Geder (one)
The king of Hormah (one)
The king of Arad (one)
The king of Libna (one)
The king of Adullam (one)
The king of Makkedah (one)
The king of Bethel (one)
The king of Tappuah (one)
The king of Hepher (one)
The king of Aphek (one)
The king of Lasharon (one)
The king of Madon (one)
The king of Hazor (one)
The king of Shimron Meron (one)
The king of Acshaph (one)
The king of Taanach (one)
The king of Megiddo (one)
The king of Kedesh (one)
The king of Jokneam in Carmel (one)
The king of Dor (in Naphoth Dor) (one)
The king of Goyim in Gilgal (one)
The king of Tirzah (one)
Thirty-one kings in all.
Holy crap! That’s a huge list! All of those kings fell to the sword of Joshua because he trusted that God was with him and would help him to achieve what the Lord sent him to do (which was to conquer the land of Canaan). Joshua was made a great general by the Lord, who he trusted and obeyed.
Ok, let’s flip the coin over and look at Jonah. Much like Joshua, Jonah was given a great mission. We read, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me’” (Jonah 1:1-2). This is just as much of an impossible task as taking over Canaan; Nineveh was both huge and evil. Likely, Jonah would be killed for preaching there (or maybe worse). Naturally, Jonah was not inclined to take on such a task,
But Jonah rand away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord (Jonah 1:3).
The Lord however, chose Jonah and would not be denied. And so we read in Jonah 1:17, “But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.” I don’t want to dwell on it too long, but I think we quickly pass over this fish stuff without really considering how awful it would be. Imagine the smells Jonah had to endure, likely it was filled with water with very little air, motion sickness, digestive fluids trying to eat his skin. All in all, being inside of a giant fish (or whale as some suggest) would be terrible. After begging the Lord for mercy, God gives it, but the mission still stands. We read in Jonah 2:10-3:3,
And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”
Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very important city- a visit required three days.
After three days inside of a sea creature, I suspect you’d be more open to listening to God as well. So Jonah carried out his mission in Nineveh and got surprising results. We read, “When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust” (Jonah 3:6). The king also wrote a proclamation telling all of the people in the giant city (and the animals) to do the same. Scripture then tells us, “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened” (Jonah 3:10). So Jonah was made a great profit by the Lord, who he tried to run away from.
Wait, what? Joshua trusted God and was great and Jonah didn’t trust God…and was great also? What am I supposed to get out of this? God has the end already in mind when we are called to do things. The people who God calls are his chosen servants- whether they like it or not. Consider Gideon; he was a coward and actually argued with God when an angel was sent to him. We read,
The angel of the Lord came and sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, where his son Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites. When the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, he said, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior” (Judges 6:11-12)
Most would consider it an honor to be called a mighty warrior, but that is not how Gideon returned the call. Judges 6:15 reads, “’But Lord,’ Gideon asked, ‘how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.’” Gideon wasn’t a trained commander like Joshua was; he was just some guy (and the lowest of his “some guy” family at that). But the Lord’s response rings true to everyone that is called by God, “The Lord answered, ‘I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites together’” (Judges 6:16). No matter what your Midianites (adversaries/ obstacles) may be God will be with you if you are with him. And even if you’re not with him, he’s with you until you get the job done that he’s called you to. Why doesn’t it matter how willing you are? Because God chose you before you were even born to the tasks he’s set ahead of you- therefore he is determined to get it done, whether you like it or not. Paul tells us,
For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will- to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves (Ephesians 1:4-6).
People think they can get away from God or avoid him, but Scripture tells us this is not the case. The Lord has chosen those who will be called, and he has called those he has chosen. Anyone who’s had a major call on his life and tried to avoid it will tell you their own fish story about how God wouldn’t let them get away.
Even the great king Nebuchadnezzar eventually had to submit to the Lord (as the Lord was using him as a tool, but Nebuchadnezzar refused to acknowledge our God). He was driven insane and made to live with wild animals for years until he finally gave in and announced,
All the people of the earth
Are regarded as nothing.
He does as he pleases
With the powers of heaven
And the peoples of the earth.
No one can hold back his hand
Or say to him: “What have you done?” (Daniel 4:35).
Even Nebuchadnezzar, the king that destroyed Jerusalem understood that God pretty much does whatever he wants with whoever he wants. God’s will will be accomplished. So the question to you is this, which is better; great fish or great victory? Honestly, the great victory will probably happen anyway, but which part do you want as your legacy? Jonah is known for the fish; Joshua is remembered for the victories. Don’t fight against God, my friends. If the Lord is calling you to serve, serve. If you’re getting Jesus knocking on your door every day but you refuse to believe, believe. Our Lord is very creative; he put Jonah in a fish for goodness sakes, think of what he could do with you until you’re ready to listen. Instead, listen to the wisdom of Solomon when you are confronted by the King of Kings,
Obey the king’s command, I say, because you took an oath before God. Do not be in a hurry to leave the king’s presence. Do not stand up for a bad cause, for he will do whatever he pleases. Since a king’s word is supreme, who can say to him, “What are you doing?”
Whoever obeys his command will come to no harm,
And the wise heart will know the proper time and procedure (Ecclesiastes 8:2-5).