PROPHETIC VOCATION AS ‘ALL-EMBRACING’ MISSION: MISSIONAL PERSPECTIVES ON THE BOOK OF JONAH
Pr. Phinni Joseph
Prophecy and the prophetic movements are central to the Old Testament. The Prophets spoke to the specific life and times of the people of Israel. The central historical frame work for the prophetic movements can be traced from the eighth to the fifth centuries (B.C.E). The roots of prophecy are deeply embedded in Israel’s history and in the culture of the Ancient West Asia. The literary prophets bring three historical phases into focus. The first category includes those of the Neo-Assyrian period (Amos, Hosea, Micah and Isaiah). The second group of prophets is composed of those of the Neo-Babylonian era (Zephaniah, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, Nahum, Ezekiel, and Obadiah). During Persian period, the third group brought hope to the people (Daniel, Haggai, Zechariah, Joel and Malachi).
The pre-exilic prophets came to warn of impending judgment. The exilic prophets wrote to assure the people that God would restore them to the land. The post exilic prophets wrote to assure the people that God would deal with the restored community according to the same principles. As we outline the prophets we find that they all have the same basic ingredients: Warning of impending judgment because of the nation’s sinfulness, description of the sin, description of the coming judgment, a call for repentance and a promise of future deliverance.
The English word 'prophet' is derived from the Greek 'prophetes' which is a compound of pro and phetes (to speak). Thus, prophet means speaking ‘in front of’, ‘on behalf of’ or ‘beforehand’ etc. Thus a prophet is not only one who foretells the future but also one who speaks in the name of God and one who stands in front of an audience to address it. The Hebrew word used for prophet is nabi. There are different etymologies suggested for this, the Arabic nabaa (to proclaim or announce); hence, prophet is a 'spokesman' or 'speaker', as an agent of another person. Or Hebrew root, nabha ‘to prophecy” (flow, boil up, bubble forth etc. so pour out the words). It can also be from an Akkadian root nabu, which implies the meaning ‘one who is called by God’, or ‘one who has a vocation from God’.
The common synonyms used for prophet in the Old Testament are 'roeh' (seer) and hozeh (visionary). In I Sam.9: 9 roeh and nabhi are used as identical words. Another important term that is used for prophet is ‘man of God’ (I Sam. 9:6; 2 Kings.4: 9; I Kings.12:22). Ahijah is addressed as the servant of the Lord (I Kings.14:18; 2 Kings.9:7; Jer.7:254). Thus, the prophet has the task of receiving the message from God through revelation and speaks forth the message to the people. They spoke to their own times and situations interpreting current events of history in the light of God’s will and the Law and also predicted the future destiny of God’s people.
The progressive nature of Israelite Prophecy
Prophecy is the mediation and interpretation of the divine mind and will. The means of prophetic communication were dreams, visions, ecstatic or mystical experiences etc. The Israelite prophecy traces the origin to Moses (Num.11:24-30). Moses is called as nabi in the Pentateuch as with Aaron (Ex.7:1, Num.12:2-8). In the book of Judges, 4:4, Deborah is called as nabia. The major function of these ecstatic prophets seems to have been to stimulate patriotic and religious fervor. They have become a group as in I Samuel 10:6-8; 10-13. They were known as sons of prophets, members of prophetic guild, prophetic disciples etc. (I Kings.20:35; 2 Kings.2:3; 5:22).
The ecstatic experience served as the climax of prophecy and was often induced by mutual contagion through dance and music. They served as disciples or apprentices under some noted prophets or sometimes as private individual (2 Kings.4:1). They can be found attached to the sanctuaries as cult prophets (I Kings.19:1; 2 Kings.22:14-17; Amos.7:10) or court prophets (2 Sam.7:1; 12:1; 24:11; I Kings.1:8) .They wore distinctive garb of hair cloth (2 Kings.1:8, Zech.13:4). The ecstatic experiences transformed the prophet into another person (I Sam.10:6). Samuel is represented on one occasion as leading a band in ecstatic prophecy (I Sam.19:20ff). Both Elijah and Elisha are associated with sons of prophets as master and leaders. Elisha makes use of a customary device to induce ecstatic seizure (2 Kings.3:15).
Prophets whose name appears on the head of each book are known as writing prophets (literary prophets) or classical prophets. We see a narrative of the prophetic call, the experience of the divine presence plays a prominent role in their life. The classical prophets are messengers of Yahweh (Isa.44:26; Hag.1:13), Servants of God (Isa.20:3; Am.3:7) and shepherds (Jer.17:16). These prophets were highly individualistic thinkers. The Classical prophets stressed the social morality and ethical monotheism. They emphasized that the God of Israel has a moral will and only by leading a holy life can the people please their God.
The Prophetical book of Jonah
The book of Jonah is more a personal sketch of a prophet than prophecy itself. This book is significant for its dramatic presentation that increases the curiosity of its readers. The reader is posed with the questions such as; what was the reason for the flight of Jonah from the presence of God? How did Jonah survive in the belly of the fish? Why did God spare the Ninevites? Why Prophet Jonah did retaliate when God has shown favour and saved the repented Ninevites? This book also brings us interesting theological insights about God, human being, and God-human relationship. It portrays the caring nature of God that nurtures people even when they are away from God. The broken humanity and its desperate need for God are beautifully illustrated in this book.
The prophetic messages that we find in the Old Testament not only condemn wickedness and sin but also demands of the people repentance. Hence, repent and return to God are main prophetic themes that we find in almost all prophets. The primary mission of Prophet Jonah was to the people of Israel (2 Kings.14:25). Jonah’s mission in the 2 Kings seems to be of that kind, calling people for a return to God and also to exhort them to remain faithful to God.
However, the prophet received an unusual call to go to another nation, to the city of Nineveh. The city of Nineveh was a famous, well-built, prosperous city at that time. Along with its prosperity, the city was also known for its wickedness. The conduct and behavior of the people implied brokenness and godlessness in their actions. In this context the prophet was summoned with a vocation to share God’s message of repentance with the Ninevites. Jonah was not comfortable with his mission. His fear of the city, the long distance travel, and personal inhibitions led him to flee to Tarshish instead of going to Nineveh. However, he was led to the city in a dramatic way and he reached there and preached that in 40 days Nineveh shall be overthrown. Upon this message of judgment the Ninevites repented and God’s favour was shown to them. However, this gracious act of God was resented by Jonah. The story of Jonah serves us with biblical paradigms of prophetic vocation to the world at large.
Broken Humanity as the Target for Prophetic Mission
We see a broken humanity in Nineveh that lives without God. Their actions indicated godlessness and sin. The humanity that is represented in Nineveh is only good for rejection and judgment in the sight of God. It is for that people God appointed Jonah to preach the message of repentance. In Nineveh we find humanity without God, without the fullness of life and justice. The common humanity that we share today is also broken and destined for judgment from God. The experience of brokenness can be seen at all levels of our contemporary existence. It is evident in personal, family, social and religious life. At times we are aware of this brokenness in us but most of the time we avoid recognizing them. God’s message comes to all of us to examine the brokenness that we carry with us. At the same time we are chosen to witness and share the message of restoration and hope with others around us. We are summoned to witness our faith that can transform and change the lives of many around us. Our witness can motivate many to enliven their mind, body, and spirit as it leads to an experience of restoration. The prophetic task today for all of us is to work with God in this act of redemption so that persons and communities can experience God and the blessings of fuller humanity.
Exclusivism as the Distorted Face of Prophetic Mission
Narrow passion is the biggest hindrance to share one’s faith and commitment to others. Though Jonah was a prophet by name and profession he was reluctant to take the message of salvation outside of his ‘convictions’. This shows the narrow passion of the prophet for mission. A prophet who delivers God’s message to his own people now refuses God’s direction and he assumes that “I can only be a witness to my own people”. This is an exclusive theological idealism that reflects in Jonah’s mission. Jonah developed his own likes and dislikes in relation with his prophetic vocation. Jonah was reluctant and resistant to understand the message of God intended for the entire humanity. It shows his distorted ideals for the betterment of humanity. The narrow passion held him back from sharing the message of God to the Gentiles. Jonah’s narrow passion is much more evident in chapter 4. He preached for about 40 days; his message was clear; Nineveh will be destroyed in 40 days. In this unusual message there is no space for repentance and redemption. But when the people repented and God favored them, the prophet was very angry, upset, and frustrated. He began to argue with God. He was so angry that he asked God to take away his life. A prophet who receives his direction from God expresses his confusion and lack of direction. His expressions strongly indicate that at the moment he was a suicidal person. He was away from people, sitting in an isolated place. All the classical characteristics of “clinically depressed person” are found in this description. There is narrow denominationalism and churchism even today that destroys the unity and the purpose of Christian mission. As we received the commission from the Lord to take the gospel out into the world, let’s be committed not to limit its scope. Gospel of Jesus Christ encompasses the entire humanity and it is for the salvation of people from every tongue and tribe.
All-Embracing Vision of Prophetic Mission
Jonah’s had a commission for a significant mission. But his vision and clarity of objectives seems to be a major problem. He is lacking commitment to the common good and the betterment of all people. We do not find a deep sense of commitment in Jonah to see the redeeming act of God in human communities for uplifting them from brokenness. He did not recognize the significance of repentance and redemption of the Ninevites. He did not even think that there are a great number of children and infants along with the flocks of cattle. In fact the prophetic mission implies the entire creation of God. He could have taken the credit of being the prophet to this nation and thank God for using him as an agent of transformation. But his vision and commitment was so displaced and narrow that he could not think in those terms. He expected God to act upon his message of condemnation.
When our vision could not embrace the whole humanity, it is hard to visualize anything for the common good and for the building up of the community. The passion for mission we see in persons and groups with narrow interests lack the commitment to take ‘the whole Gospel to the whole humanity’. It is easy to note distorted enthusiasm and displaced vision in their ideologies and actions. Faith sharing is for building up and not for breaking down; not to condemn but to save; not to kill but to give life; not to reject but to accept; not to destruct but to strengthen; not to destroy but to hold and support. But today instead of facilitating faith for building up what we see around us is shattering of lives and communities. Instead of sharing, shattering the humanity in the name of God, religion and faith has become the hallmark of this age. The prophetic mission of taking the gospel to the world must embrace the whole humanity and even the non-human creation.
Today’s society is characterized by victims of violence, people living in constant threat and fear, those living at the margins of the society; people suffering with terminal illnesses like HIV/AIDS, a community that is prone to hatred and exploitation; the people who struggle for food and also city centers that expresses themselves with worst forms of lifestyle. They live in abundance and facilities of a high-tech society but without God’s interventions and challenges in their lives. This is the time for the church to be on the move inspired by the Word, taking the message of restoration, wholeness and forgiveness to this broken humanity. The church is yet to realize its prophetic vocation as “all- embracing mission”.