“What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country?
From what people are you?” Jonah answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship
the Lord, the God of Heaven,”—Jonah 1:8-9 (King James Version)
In the polytheistic ancient world, before the advent of monotheism, all gods were local. Their power was limited, as was their jurisdiction. For instance, Poseidon could get you if you were on a boat in the middle of the Mediterranean, but not if you were on a camel in the middle of the Sahara. What’s more, Poseidon had power over the seas known to the ancient Greeks, but not all seas. Likewise, Zeus was a powerful sky god who resided on the top of a mountain (Olympus). From that lofty vantage point, he could see and rule over the skies of Greece. But he probably wasn’t the god of all skies. There were, no doubt, limits to his jurisdiction, places where he couldn’t get you. And there were other sky gods, like Jehovah.
In The History of God (1994), Karen Armstrong makes clear that Jehovah was, like Zeus, originally just another sky god who lived on the top of a mountain (Sinai). Nobody thought he was the only god, nor did anyone think he was omnipotent. He frequently told the ancient Hebrews that he was a jealous god, that he was the only god for them; but he never told them that he was the only god in the universe. Like all gods, Jehovah had a sphere of influence—a jurisdiction—within which he could exercise his considerable power. But outside of that jurisdiction, he was powerless; outside of that sphere of influence, he couldn’t touch you. That’s why getting on a boat to flee the call of God seems like a good idea to Jonah. Like a criminal trying to flee the country to avoid prosecution, Jonah is trying to flee Jehovah’s jurisdiction, he’s trying to get out of Jehovah’s sphere of influence. Alas, we all know how that turned out.
Magic fish aside, the moral of the Jonah story is this: Jehovah’s going global. He’s a sky god who’s so bad ass that he can get to you when you’re at sea. He can even get to you when you’re in the belly of a great fish! What’s more, it’s important to note where Jonah’s told to go: Nineveh. “Now Nineveh,” we’re told, “was a very large city; it took three days to go through it” (Jonah 3:3). This passage has always struck me as odd, because it doesn’t take three days to walk through Montreal, and I’m quite sure that twenty-first-century Montreal is considerably bigger than ancient Nineveh. So I think we have to think about what is meant by “city” in this context. My guess is that Nineveh was actually a vast walled-in agricultural region, not unlike the vast and vibrant aboriginal community that Samuel de Champlain found in the Lake Huron area in the early 17th century.
Like most farming communities of this stamp, the people of Nineveh wouldn’t have worshiped a sea god like Poseidon, nor would they have worshiped a sky god like Zeus; they would have worshiped an earth mother goddess like Ishtar. As the archaeological record makes clear, Nineveh was in fact an important center for the worship of the Babylonian fertility goddess Ishtar. So, let’s run through this again: a prophet (Jonah) who speaks for a male sky deity (Jehovah) is sent to a city (Nineveh) that worships a female earth deity (Ishtar). Basically, he’s supposed to tell them there’s a new sheriff in town. In the process, we learn that his sky god also seems to have power over the creatures of the sea. In short, the takeaway message of the Book of Jonah is this: my god—the sky god known as Jehovah—is no longer a local god found on Mount Sinai. My god’s going global!
—John Faithful Hamer