Archive for Jonah

Meditations on Jonah – Chapter 2: A Necessary Oddity

A Necessary Oddity

It is almost certainly not an understatement to say that the least discussed, preached on, mentioned or dealt-with portion of the book of Jonah (at least outside of commentaries) is chapter 2 – Jonah’s Psalm.  I remember the first time I listened to Mark Driscoll preach.  I chose his series on Jonah because I had just spent the summer studying the book in my seminary Hebrew class and wanted to get a take for Driscoll’s use of Scripture.  I was genuinely impressed with his dealing of chapter 1 and was eager to listen to chapter 2.  Low and behold, he had a guest speaker for that Sunday.  I listened.  I enjoyed the sermon, but the speaker really didn’t deal with chapter 2 as much as he did the concept of God’s sovereignty.  In short, he preached about a common theme in Jonah and not chapter 2 in and of itself.

 

Who can blame him?  The chapter doesn’t seem to fit, is filled with strange imagery, and to some degree doesn’t seem to make sense.  Let’s just get back to the story in chapter 3!

 

Yet, the author didn’t switch to poetry for no good reason.  As is the case in much of Old Testament Biblical studies, poetry and/or the most difficult part of the passage is often where the primary meaning  resides.  For example, it is the narrative of Genesis 1 that describes creation but the poetry of Genesis 1:27 that describes creations pinnacle, and in Genesis 3, it is narrative that describes the fall, but poetry predicts redemption (Gen. 3:16).   We have such a case in Jonah.  Narrative is moving the story along, but the poetry gives it a fuller meaning.

 

Because poetry in Hebrew is different, we will deal with chapter 2 in a slightly different manner.  First we will deal with some of the issues related to the poem; does it belong to the original writing of Jonah?, what does it concern?, what is its structure?  Then, based on the structure, we’ll dissect each section looking both at what is being said and what the psalm is alluding too.  Let’s get started.

 

 

Is the Psalm Original to Jonah?

 

“The Jonah collection is a composite piece, made up of a short story and a psalm…” (Terrance Collins, The Mantle of Elijah, p. 71, JST 1993).  The assertion of those like Dr. Collins is not uncommon.  Many scholars believe the Jonah 2 was inserted to the story at a later date to add some artful elements to its meaning.  These scholars are quick to point out that if you took the psalm out, you have no break in the story.  Jonah 2:1 simply says, “And Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish.”  This would be followed by Jonah 2:10, “And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited up Jonah out upon the dry land.”  From a cursory view, it seems to make sense.  We have, as Collins says, a nice “short story” and it flows beautifully.

 

However, while there is some credence to this observation, there is solid evidence to suggest that the psalm is not only original, but required for the story to make sense.  Below are some reasons for my belief that the psalm is original to Jonah.

 

“I called out to the LORD…” – Jonah 2:2/3

 

Through the entirety of chapter one, the author has been playing with the disobedience of Jonah by demonstrating his unwillingness to follow the three fold command of God, “Arise, go… called out.”  We have seen the sailors command Jonah to “arise, call out (v. 1:6), we have seen the sailors “call out” (v. 1:5), we have even seen the sailors “go” (v. 1:7), and at the end of the chapter the sailors even “call out to the LORD (v. 14).”  Yet, in all of this, Jonah remains unwilling to change.  He is stubbornly silent with regards to his communication with God.

 

However, amidst his distress he finally obeys and “calls out” to the LORD.  Thus in one sense he finally obeys God (while not with regard to Nineveh), and in an actual sense, obeys the command and example of the sailors.  Thus, verse 2/3 of Jonah 2 is in perfect harmony with the plot of the Jonah narrative.

 

“Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall look again to your holy temple… I remembered the LORD and my prayer came to you into your holy temple.’” – Jonah 2:4/5, 7/8

In Jonah 1 the issues of the “presence of the LORD” is a major theme is demonstrating the wickedness of Jonah’s actions.  Nineveh is depicted as being in the “presence of the LORD” while Jonah is seen as being “away from the presence of the LORD.”  Key in this theme is the author’s portrayal of Jonah as almost being ignorant of the consequences of being out of God’s presence.

 

With the writing of the psalm, Jonah is recognizing this evil.  Both “away from your sight” and “your holy temple” are references to the presence of Yahweh.  The phrase “in the presence of the LORD” literally means “before the LORD” and has the idea of being in front of God’s face.  Thus, his “sight” is a direct connection to “presence.”  And the temple was the location of the fullness of God’s presence.  Jonah in his prayer is not literally looking at the temple, but rather praying to the place where God is in the hopes of experiencing a renewal of God’s presence in his life.  This recognition of his distance from God perfectly fits the narrative of Jonah 1 and furthers the plot of the account.

 

“I went down…” – Jonah 2:6/7

 

In Jonah 1 the word “down” has been a way of emphasizing Jonah’s descent away from God.  He goes “down” to Joppa, he goes “down” into the ship, he lays “down” to sleep.  All of this while Nineveh is “up” in the presence of the LORD.  The psalm furthers this decent both thematically and then with the statement of verse 2:6/7.  Again, if fits perfectly within the narrative and furthers the plot of the account.

 

 

“Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love, But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD.” – Jonah 2:8/9-10/11

This verse is a curious part of the psalm that is hard to see how it fits.  However, in light of the narrative seems to fit the situation of Jonah perfectly.  He has just seen pagan sailors who rejected their vain idols, found hope in Yahweh, experienced his salvation, and as a result made sacrifices and vows to him (Jonah 1:16).  Even though this is a small and confusing detail, it serves to tie Jonah’s experiences together.  Thus the psalm and the narrative of Jonah 1 are directly linked in these verses.

 

 

Then Jonah prayed… –  Jonah 2:1/2

 

While scholars who believe that the psalm was inserted into Jonah will include Jonah 2:1/2 as original, there is an interesting link that makes verse 1/2 an argument for the entire psalm being original.  Jonah prays twice in the book, in Jonah 2 and in Jonah 4.  While the nature of the prayers are completely different, they have common themes.  In Jonah 2, Jonah is asking God to spare his life.  In Jonah 4, Jonah is asking God to take his life.  In Jonah 2, Jonah is begging for and then thanking God for his steadfast love.  In Jonah 4, Jonah is angry at God’s steadfast love.  The content of the two prayers are paralleled with each other to, again, further the plot of the narrative.  While it is true that if you take the psalm out of the story there are still two prayers by Jonah, without the psalm the parallels no longer exist and it leaves the story lacking.

 

 

You brought my life up from the grave… — Jonah 2:6/7

Perhaps this verse alone stands out as the reason that the psalm should be considered original to Jonah.  Actually, it is one word in the verse – “up.”  This is the first time that Jonah has gone a direction other than down in the entire book.  Combined with his “calling out” in verse 2/3, these words mark the actual heart-change of Jonah.  Now he has called out, he has gone upward, he has sought the presence of God and God, by the end of the psalm, has honored his repentance.  Jonah has changed.

 

The compound effect of all of these elements of the psalm is critical to the story of Jonah.  First of all, in chapter 3 we are going to see a dramatic change in Jonah’s behavior.  The reluctant prophet who has completely disobeyed the commands of God, will now be obeying God down to the exactness of every phrase.  A major shift!  Without the psalm, we do not know why this shift has taken place.  There would simply be a “prayer” and then a “vomit.”  But the prayer fully explains Jonah’s new behavior; he has repented, he has sought God, he has seen salvation, and he is now ready to respond.  The psalm fits the account and gives further credence to the narrative.

 

Therefore, it is my conclusion that the psalm was part of the literary strategy of the composition and is thus original to its writing.  Just because an author changes the genre in which he writes does not automatically mean that they have to have two completely different sources.

 

 

What is the Psalm About?

 

In a word, “death.”  There is no getting around this fact.  While it does indeed describe Jonah’s plummet into the ocean, it does so with language that is overwhelmingly morbid in nature.  It uses words like “Sheol”, “grave”, “deep”, “to take my life”, “roots of the mountains”, “bars closed on me forever”, and “fainting away” all point to a death-like experience.

 

This is part of the reason some scholars have suggested the story is mythological in nature.  In addition to just wanting to reject the miracle of God providing a fish to save Jonah, the language of the psalm is filled with what is called “underworld” terminology.  Some of this terminology is eerily similar to a number of pagan myths about the afterlife.  So scholars suggest the whole story is a myth so that Jewish sacred writings can be similar to other religious stories being told at the time.

 

While I obviously reject the notion of Jonah being a myth, the observations are interesting.  Why would Jonah want to talk about his ordeal is such dirge?  Was he simply hyping his experience to equate a fish’s belly with Sheol?  Or did he actually go to Sheol?  These are questions we will explore as we interpret the psalm.  However, as you will quickly see, I’m going to give the possibility of Jonah’s actual descent into the grave a lot of credence.  I do in fact believe that he died and the miracle of Jonah, as well as the sign of Jonah, was God’s mercy to resurrect him so that he could continue his plight to preach the mercy of God to the Gentiles.

 

 

The Structure of the Psalm

 

There are many scholars who will do a much better job of analyzing the structure of the psalm in Jonah that I will.  However, I will submit just a simple analysis of what I think is going on based on the structure I see in the psalm.

 

Verse 2/3 – The overview of the psalm

In my understanding of the psalm, verse 2/3 declares the overview of what is going on.  It is the author telling us that the following verses describe Jonah’s journey to the “belly of Sheol” and God “answering” the voice of his “cry.”  Thus the psalm is not meant to reflect a chronological happening, but a thematic happening.

 

Verses 2/3– 3/4 – The plight of descent and recognition of need

These verses of the psalm are Jonah recognizing that it is God’s doing that he is being “cast into the sea” and sinking and now he is recognizing his need for the presence of God (his “holy temple”).

 

Verses 4/5-7/8 – The plight of decent and the answer of help

These verses further describe Jonah’s descent literally into the “grave,” and also describes God’s rescue.  Verse 6b/7b – 7/8 is the turning point of the psalm in which God’s rescue in final.

 

Verses 8/9-9/10 – Thanksgiving for salvation

This part of the psalm is Jonah’s statements of thanksgiving for God’s salvation and his dedication to the ways of God upon the final completion of his rescue.

 

 

A Final Note

 

As you can see by the strange way I’ve referenced the verses above, there is difference in the verse referenced between English Bibles and the Hebrew text.  In the Hebrew Bible, Jonah 2 begins with chapter 1:17 in the English Bible.  In the references above, I used both the English and the Hebrew verses.  However, beginning below I will use only the Hebrew verse listings since it will be in agreement with my translation, which is from the Hebrew text.  I will go through the chapter mostly according to the outline above, adding one section for the introduction phrases of the psalm and the concluding verse of chapter 2.  Enjoy.

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Meditations on Jonah 1: Three final Issues – Self-Sacrifice, Structure & Christology

As we wrap up our study of chapter 1 of Jonah, I would like to address three issues of importance.

 

First, the question is often asked, “why didn’t Jonah just sacrifice himself to the waves, and thereby save the sailors?”  There are certainly a host of answers.  He didn’t really want to die, he didn’t care about the sailors, he figured he was a goner no matter what – where the ship went down with the sailors or they threw him overboard – so why do anything.  However, there may be an better answer hidden in the clues of the text.

 

The question of verse 11 is “what shall we do to you?”  The sailors are asking what they should do “to” Jonah.  It is not “what should you do?”  Or even, “what must happen to you?”  The sailors assume a responsibility for Jonah, and an action that is required for their salvation.  Jonah’s response is an exact answer to their question, “Lift me and hurl me…”

 

As stated above, the structure of the text indicates that the sailors were to understand this command as the exact will of Yahweh.  God did not want Jonah to throw himself into the ocean.  God wanted the sailors to do it.  In a strange twist of plot, in these brief verses we see the pagan sailors being disobedient to the will of God by not throwing Jonah overboard, and Jonah being obedient by staying put.

 

When the sailors finally obey, there are two things that are being emphasized in their prayer to the LORD.  First, it is a step of faith because nothing on the natural looks right; to them, this action is murder.  Second, is their obedience as they obey the command of Jonah verbatim.  And it is through these actions that they are saved.

 

There is the obvious question of why did God want it this way.  Its hard to say for certain, and again I might be reading into things a bit, but it is significant that in the Old Testament, God almost always wants a mediary when salvation is to be enacted.  Whether it’s a lamb for sacrifice, or Moses standing between God and the judgment on Israel, something stands between sinful man and the justice of God to bring about salvation.  By the sailors taking a step of faith, Jonah being thrown to the waves became their Mediary between the wrath of God and the salvation of God.  It was something that could not have come about simply by Jonah throwing himself overboard.

 

The second issue with chapter 1 is simple to emphasize the beauty of how the story is told.  Often with a story like Jonah, which most of us have heard from our childhood or has been retold to us through story books and Veggie Tales, we miss the absolute literary gem that is found in these four short chapters.  Alexander has done us a great service by recording a variety of structures that commentators have outlined in chapter 1.  I’ve copied my favorite to below and they are found in his commentary on pages 107-109.  Both are of Jonah 1:4-16.

 

 

Fretheim Outline (Alexander p. 107-108):

Emphasizes the parallel elements of verses 4-9 with 10-16:

 

A. NARRATIVE FRAMEWORK (verses 4-5a):

 

1.     God hurls a wind and the storm starts (v. 4)

2.     Sailors fear, cry to their gods and sacrifice to them (v. 5a)

 

A1. NARRATIVE FRAMEWORK (verses 15-16)

 

1.     Sailors hurl Jonah and the storm starts (v. 15)

2.     Sailors fear Yahweh, speak their vows and sacrifice to him (v. 16)

 

B. NARRATIVE/REQUEST (verses 5b-6)

 

1.     Jonah sleeps deeply in the face of the storm (v. 5b)

2.     Captain requests Jonah to pray to his God so that they do no perish (v. 6a)

3.     Captain professes sovereign freedom of God (v. 6b)

 

B1. NARRATIVE/REQUEST (verses 13-14)

 

1.     Sailors striving to bring ship to land (v. 13)

2.     Sailors pray to Jonah’s God so that they do not perish (v. 14a)

3.     Sailors profess sovereign freedom of God (v. 14b)

 

C. DIALOG (verses 7-9)

 

1.     Sailors speak to one another to determine who was wrong (v. 7a)

2.     Report – Jonah is revealed by log (v. 7b)

3.     Sailors request information from Jonah (v. 8 )

4.     Jonah responds – I fear (v. 9)

 

C1. DIALOG (verses 10-12)

 

1.     Sailors speak to Jonah to determine what he has done wrong (v. 10a)

2.     Report – Jonah’s wrong revealed (v. 10b)

3.     Sailors request information from Jonah (v. 11)

4.     Jonah responds – I know (v. 12

 

 

Alexander’s Structure (p. 109):

 

A – Yahweh hurls a wind on the sea; the storm begins (v. 4-5a)

B – Jonah sleeps; cry to your god; we shall not perish; divine sovereignty (v. 5b-6)

C – that we may know on whose account (v. 7)

D – the sailors question Jonah (v. 8 )

E – I fear (v. 9)

E1 – the sailors fear (v. 10)

D1 – the sailors question Jonah (v. 11)

C1 – I know that it is on my account (v. 12)

B1 – sailors strive for land; sailors cry to Yahweh; let us not perish; divine sovereignty (v. 13-14)

A1 – sailors hurl Jonah into the sea; the storm ceases; sailors fear Yahweh and sacrifice (v. 15-16).

 

 

The final item I would like to address are the Christological implications found in Jonah 1.  It doesn’t take an astute person to see that I have already begun to draw them out above.

 

First let me set some groundwork.  I personally have no problem with the idea of “types and shadows” in the Old Testament.  I also do not believe that that the only types and shadows of Christ in the Old Testament are comprehensively found in the New Testament.  The New Testament authors identified most of them, but not necessarily all of them.  To me the New Testament does three (among many) remarkable services in looking at the Old Testament.  First, it identifies Jesus of Nazareth as the promised Son of God and Messiah to fulfill all of the promises and covenants of the Old Testament.  Second, it describes and discusses the relationship between God and his people as it has been impacted by the coming of the Messiah (the inclusion of Gentiles, the nature of the church, and the call to international disciple-making).  Finally, it teaches us HOW to read the Old Testament.  The New Testament writers searched the pages of the Old Testament and, when combined with the identification of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, saw the Christological implication of the entire Scriptures, including types and shadows.

 

Therefore, in my mind, if one can prove from the text of Scripture (preferably the Hebrew text of Scripture) that the Old Testament is making Christological implications, that is enough to prove a type or shadow of Christ.

 

While it is hard to call Jonah an exact “type” of Christ, there is a lot of foreshadowing.  Let’s take verses 14-16 alone.

 

First, the pagans call Jonah “innocent,” because he had done them no wrong and therefore his death was purely by the will and delight of God.  Jesus was innocent of any human law breaking and his death was by the will and delight of God.

 

Second, the prayer of the sailors, who would eventually execute Jonah, was to alleviate the guild of innocent blood against them.  Pilate, who ordered the execution of Jesus, washed his hands to symbolize his removal of the guild of Jesus’ innocent blood.

 

Third, both were Jewish prophets.

 

Fourth, the salvation of the pagan sailors came about because of their faith in the command of the Jewish prophet, and obedience to God’s words.  Our salvation comes from faith in Jesus the Jewish prophet, and obedience to His commands.

 

Fifth, the sailor’s salvation came by the sacrifice and apparent death of Jonah.  Ours game by the sacrifice and actual death of Jesus.

 

Sixth, the sacrifice of Jonah opened the doors for the pagan sailors to have a relationship with Yahweh.  These sailors are among the only Gentiles to ever be identified as having a relationship with the divine name.  Jesus’ sacrifice open the doors for us (a church of mostly Gentiles) to have a relationship with God the Father and to know Him as He knew His son.

 

Yes, I am aware that Jonah was rebellious and Jesus righteous, that Jonah was getting what he deserved and Jesus got what he did not deserve, and that there is not an exact parallel between the two.  However, I would also point out that there are rarely exact parallels between Christological figures or “types” in the Old Testament and Jesus.  Adam started the whole curse of sin, yet Jesus is called the second and greater Adam.  Jesus is called the prophet like Moses, and yet Moses never entered the promised land; a land that is analogous to our salvation in the New Testament.  Joshua was the leader who entered the promised land, yet failed to complete the conquest; Jesus (which is Greek for Joshua) brought his people into their promised salvation AND will complete the conquest.  Jesus sits on the “throne of David,” but is David really the exact representation of Jesus?  A murderer and adulterer?  Similar things can be said for Noah, Isaac, Jacob, Elijah, Elisha, Josiah, etc., all of whom in various ways are alluded to in the New Testament as archetypes for the coming Messiah.  Why should Jonah be help to a different standard, especially when he is the “sign” by which Jesus chose to reveal his true identity to the Jews.

 

Just food for thought.  We’ll expand on this in chapters to come.

 

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Meditations on Jonah 1:13-16: OT Gentile Sailors Call on Yahweh & Saves by Faith/Obedience

But the men rowed earnestly to return to dry land, but they were not able to because the sea was going and storming against them.  So they cried out to the LORD, and they said, “Please LORD, let us not now perish at this man’s life, and do not set this innocent blood against us.  Because you, oh LORD, delight in that which you have done.  Then they lifted Jonah and hurled him to the sea, and the sea stood still from its raging.  And the men feared a great fear of the LORD, and they sacrificed sacrifices and vowed vows. – Jonah 1:13-16

 

But the men rowed earnestly to return to dry land… — Jonah 1:13a

Instead of immediately obeying the words of Jonah, the men tried to spare his life.  While it is true that the men were being disobedient, we shouldn’t judge them too harshly.  After all, Jonah was to some degree less than trustworthy and he had done the sailors no direct harm, so to throw him overboard was tantamount to murder.  The sailors were at least righteous in their intentions to save his life.

 

There are a number of things that this simply phrase does to move the story line.  First, the word for “rowed earnestly” in Hebrew, literally means to “dig into the water.”  Sasson points out that in surveying its use in the Old Testament, “The imagery is obviously that of people who desperately and feverishly drive an instrument into the earth in order to escape their own world” (Sasson p. 130).  It is also the first time “rowing” or oars appear in the story.  The men are intent on escaping the storm.

 

Oddly enough their attempt to do this is described as “to return to dry land.”  “Return” in Hebrew is a word often used of repentance, starting over, or resetting the circumstances.  Here, it has the subtle implication that the sailors are trying to repent by “returning” Jonah to his place of origin in hopes to begin again (Sasson p. 131).

 

There is also an irony in the use of the phrase “dry land.”  Jonah has already told the men that his God is the one who made the “sea and the dry land” in verse 9.  Now they are trying to compete with the sea to return to dry land, effectually, they are competing with all of God’s sovereignty.  There is no way they can win.

 

 

… but they were not able because the sea was going and storming against (upon) them. – Jonah 1:13b

 

The evidence of their futile effort is the fact that their circumstances never change.  The sea is still “storming and going” as it was in verse 11.  This point is only emphasized by the fact that the phrase “upon them” (or “upon you”/”upon us”) has not been used four times in three verses.  The narrator wants you to understand, these men are getting absolutely nowhere.

 

 

So they cried out to the LORD, and they said, “Please LORD, let us not now perish at this man’s life, and do not set this innocent blood against us.  Because you, oh LORD, delight in that which you have done. – Jonah 1:14

 

As Sasson says, “This verse is the heart of Jonah’s first chapter, for it catches the moment in which illumination finally strikes the sailors” (Sasson 131).  This will be the same illumination that will capture Jonah in chapter 2 and the Ninevites in chapter 3.  It is a microcosm of what God is doing through the book of Jonah.

 

So they cried out to the LORD… — Jonah 1:14a

 

The sailors have now done what the captain of the ship advised Jonah in verse 6, they are crying out to Jonah’s God.  “Cried out” is the same word used by God when giving Jonah the command to go to Nineveh.  So here again, the pagans are more obedient than the Hebrew prophet.

 

The biggest shocker of the verse, some could even argue the entire book, is the use of the name of God in this verse.  Notice it is not “God,” the generic name used of God especially when Gentiles are in the context, that is used.  Rather it is “LORD” or YHWH in Hebrew; the name of the covenant God of Israel.  A name that they alone were supposed to use.  The Gentiles are acting like believing Jews, they are calling on Yahweh amidst their troubles.  Not only that, the name of God will be used three times in this verse.  Three part repetitions in Hebrew are always used as a point of emphasis.  This is not scribal error, or some mistake in the text.  The writer of Jonah is emphasizing the fact that they are calling out to the God of the universe as revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai in a covenant context.

 

 

… and they said, “Please LORD, let us not perish at this man’s life, and do not set this innocent blood against us…” – Jonah 1:14b

Notice, the name of God has entered the sailors mouths.  They are asking two things in this prayer.  First, that they not perish because of what appears to them to be murder.  They have already feared “perishing” because of the storm (v. 6), now they do not want to perish because of a crime.  Secondly, they do not want to be blamed for Jonah’s “innocent blood.”  It should be noted that they are not declaring Jonah innocent in the sight of God.  They are simply saying that Jonah has not done anything to them that is worthy of death.  They were not present when Jonah disobeyed God, so they only have the words of Jonah and the circumstances of the storm to indicate that God has deemed Jonah worthy of death.

 

 

… Because you, oh LORD, delight in that which you have done.” – Jonah 1:14c

Then sailors plea ends with the justification for why they should not be held accountable for Jonah’s innocent death.  Because, as far as they can tell, this was the will of Yahweh.  Interestingly enough, they seem to automatically assume that Yahweh takes delight in his own will, so what they were going to do would be delightful to him.  Considering the fact that the prophets were constantly reminding the people of Israel that God “delights” more in obedience than in sacrifices, this phrase had to be a harsh pill for the Jews to hear when this story was read to them.  Here were pagan sailors, calling upon Yahweh, and being obedient to the delight of His will!

 

Sasson also points out that the phrase “you delight in that which you have done” is a distinctive product of Old Testament theology.  He compares it to nearly identical quotes in Psalm 115:2-8 and Psalm 135:5-7.  He acknowledges that the familiarity with these exact quotes might be a bit obscure, the understanding that Yahweh took great delight in his own will and that those who were faithful did best when they acknowledged the will of God is now being stated by pagan sailors who have just recently learned of Yahweh.  It is an indication of a sovereign move upon their hearts.  As he says,

 

“This observation has interesting consequences for the assessment of the sailors’ prayer in Jonah.  It allows us, first, to sidestep the issue of vindictiveness, for what God is fulfilling need not be confined to the terrible events of Jonah’s ship.  Furthermore, we appreciate the cleverness of the storyteller in allotting so Hebraic an expression to the sailors, just as they are to witness the most stunning of God’s miracles over the elements.  The phrase thus becomes a perfect vehicle by which to prepare the audience for the ‘conversion’ that is soon to take place” (Sasson p. 136).

 

 

Then they lifted Jonah and hurled him to the sea… — Jonah 1:15a

This is the record of the obedience of the sailors.  The phrase is almost identical to verse 12.  Which means that they both obeyed the command of Jonah perfectly, and that they mimic God by “hurling” Jonah into the sea.  It should also be noted that in the Old Testament, obedience is often equated with faith.  This action by the sailors indicates that they had both.  They finally believed the command of Yahweh given by Jonah, and the acted upon their belief by obeying the command even when, in their own mind, it appeared to be murder.

 

 

… and the sea stood still from its raging. – Jonah 1:15b

 

It is significant that the narrator does not decide to use the phrase “quietness upon the sea” that is used in verses 11 and 12.  It emphasizes the shocking contrast upon the instance that the sailors obeyed.  The sea stood still and stopped raging.  The imagery is of a violent tempest turning into a serene pond almost immediately.  Sasson also points out that the phrase “stood still” is often used of an act of sovereignty by God against the natural will or forces of the subject (Sasson p. 137).  This was a miracle by the God who made the seas and the dry land.  And by this miracle, the sailors are saved.

 

I would like to insert a brief note here that some might consider reading into the text.  It is impossible to know for certain whether or not Jonah could swim.  Many would be right to point out that he was not a seaman since he was from Gath (2 Kings 14), and it is unlikely that non-seaman would know how to swim during this time period.   We also have not idea how close the men were to land, so, even if Jonah could swim, there is no way to tell if he’d have a chance at survival.  Regardless, the instant calm that came upon the sailors would have also come upon Jonah.  And it is certainly easier to swim in a sea that is “standing still” that one that is “tempestuous.”  However, when we turn the pages of the story, we are going to see a violent decent by Jonah into the depths of the sea, one that sound more like the violent storm that the standing still sea.  It might be a stretch, but I believe God intentionally dragged the prophet down almost instantaneously.  Jonah did not tire of swimming, nor did the storm did not take a while to albeit, rather God was quickly and precisely enacting the redemption upon the sailors while enacting his justice against Jonah.

 

 

And the men feared a great fear of the LORD, and they sacrificed sacrifices and vowed vows. – Jonah 1:16

 

The shock level of verse 14 where pagans are calling on the name of Yahweh only heightens now as they worship him and worship him directly.  The NABC commentary attempts to argue that some type of permanent transformation is beyond the scope of the text and we have no way of knowing if these men were just temporarily grateful, or life-long converts (NABC p. 238).  I could not disagree more.

 

First, the word play with “fear” in this passage is instructive.  In verse 5, the men simply are “afraid” because of the storm.  Then in verse 10, after Jonah has said he “fear[ed] the LORD,” it says that the sailors “feared a great fear.”  There is irony there because their “fear” is mentioned twice as often as Jonah’s fear.  However, in the text there is still an implication that Jonah’s “fear” is meant to be “worship” while to this point the sailors’ “fear” is mostly actual fear.  Now in verse 16, the “fear a great fear” has a source “the LORD.”  Them men have replaced Jonah as the owner of true “worship.”  They are now the actual worshipers of Yahweh, not the Jewish prophet.

 

Not only that, but to back up the purity of their worship, the make sacrifices and vows.  Both were signs of Jewish piety.  These pagans are acting like God-fearing Jews.  When you take all of the textual evidence, plus the parallel with the Ninevite repentance (we will discuss in Chapter 3), it seems clear that these men were more than just temporarily saved from the storm at sea, but had rather experienced the true salvation of Yahweh made possible to them by the sacrifice of a Jewish prophet.

 

As always, commentators have to argue about something, so there is a raging debate about how the sailors could have sacrificed anything on a ship.  Ironically, one of the evangelical commentaries I have been using suggest they could not have had live animals aboard and therefore had to go ashore to make their sacrifices (NABC p. 237-238), while both of the non-evangelical commentaries (who do not accept the exact historicity of the account) argue that they could have had live animals aboard and made the sacrifices at sea.  To settle the issue, I will let Elizabeth Achtemeier answer the issue and set us up for Chapter 2.  Her words below:

 

“There has been some discussion among commentators about how it would have been possible to offer such a sacrifice on a ship, but again, those who are familiar with the history of sailing on know that animals were often carried on ships to provide fresh meat for the crew, and the fire of sacrifices could easily be contained.   The notice of a sacrifice is really not unbelievable.

 

“We are not told what the content of the vows was or what the future relations of the sailors to Yahweh would be.  In fact, the sailors now disappear from the story and are not mentioned again.  But certainly the Lord of the world has used Jonah to convert one small group of heathen, and so Yahweh’s purpose has begin to be fulfilled.  The focus of the story now shifts to Jonah, who is sinking to his deserved death” (Achtemeier p. 269).

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Meditations on Jonah 1:11-12 – Transgression requires a Response

 

So they said to him, “What shall we do to you that [there may be] quietness upon the sea,” because the sea was going and storming.  Then he said to them, “Lift me and hurl me to the sea, that the sea might quiet from upon you, because I know it is because of my account that this great storm is upon you.” – Jonah 1:11-12

Transgression requires a response.  The sailors immediately move from “what have you done” (v. 10), to “what shall we do to you?”  They assume that now that Jonah is the reason for the storm, there is some type of penance that must take place.  This response, of course, creates irony in the following paragraph because once Jonah tells the sailors what to do, they refuse to do it.  Thus the sailors, like Jonah, are sailing the seas in disobedience.

 

A few notes below:

 

… going and storming… — Jonah 1:11:b

 

This is a strange phrase in Hebrew that simply indicates that the storm is continuing to increase in intensity.  This intensity gives the impression that God is increasing the level of judgment once the ignorance of the sailors has been alleviated.  Now that they know what is going on, God wants them to respond according to His will.

 

The he said to them, “Lift me and hurl me to the sea, that the sea might quiet from upon you…” – Jonah 1:12a

 

Verse 12 is loaded with intrigue the moves the story along.  First, unlike in the previous paragraph where Jonah directly answered virtually none of the sailors questions, in this verse is directly answers the question of the sailors.  “What shall we do to you that there may be quietness upon the sea?”… “Lift me and hurl me to the sea, that the sea might quiet from upon you.”  Direct, and virtually identical phrasing.  All of a sudden, Jonah is willing to cooperate.

 

Second, the phrase “hurl me to the sea” is the exact phrase for what God is doing with the wind in verse 4 (Hebrew verb is in the Hiphil form), whereas when he sailors where hurling cargo into the sea in verse 5, the root of the verb was the same, but the tense of the verb was different (Hebrew verb is in the Qal form).  The sailors in verse five were mimicking God (see above), however, if they throw Jonah overboard they would be doing exactly what God wanted them to do.  In this subtle way, the narrator is letting up know that Jonah is not simply asking for a death wish.

 

Finally, there is a bit of debate about the phrase “lift me.” It seems unnecessary, after all, to throw Jonah into the sea will require him to be lifted.  Three things about the phrase.  First, the Hebrew does not use a word that implies “up.”  Of course “lifting” is “upward” by nature, but to this point Jonah has been going “down” and this word allows for the “downward” direction of Jonah to still be in the forefront.  The narrator does not want you to believe that Jonah has somehow moved closer to God by this statement.  Second, Sasson makes in interesting comment on p. 124.

 

“[To lift] is a verb that seldom refers to lifting up an individual.  It is constructed, rather, with nouns such as “sin” and “evil” when Scripture wants to speak of guilt and the many ways in which human beings sustain it… Such a connotation, therefore, could have penetrated the sailors mind.” (Sasson  p. 124)

 

I would be inclined to agree with Sasson’s observation.  After all, I would love nothing better than to see Jonah as some sort of sin offering for the sailors.  Makes many of the Christological parallels much easier.  While I don’t completely discredit the theory, there is one major flaw.  The Hebrew verb “to lift” is very, very, very common and is used to extensively in the Old Testament.  While it doesn’t usually refer to individuals, and can be used to refer to nouns connected to sin and evil, it can also just mean to “lift.”

 

I’ll offer my own theory, which doesn’t rule out Sasson, but I think is a better explanation.  It just so happens that the root word “to do” in verse 11 said by the sailors, and the root word for “lift” said by Jonah in verse 12, sound very much alike (Rood work for “to do” is YSH (Ahsa), root word for “lift” is NSA (nahsa).  Not only that, in their inflections in the sentence that actually have a reverse rhyming effect.  “We to do” in Hebrew sounds like “na-ah-sah,” and “lift me” in Hebrew sounds like “Sa-oh-ni.”  Notice they both share a “sa,” an “ah/oh,” and an “n” sound.  Finally, they are both the first words out of their speaker’s mouths (“What shall we do” is actually two words in construct out of the sailors mouths, but is meant to sound like one word in Hebrew, and “Lift me” is the first thing Jonah says).  What we have is another word play in the narrator’s recording of the account that is meant to show that Jonah is being truthful in his answer.  The sailors are, indeed, supposed to throw him overboard.

 

“… because I know it is because on my account that this great storm is upon you.” – Jonah 1:12b

 

This phrase makes two subtle points.  First, the phrase “on my account” is almost exactly the phrase “on whose account” in verse  7.  The puts an inclusio around this section of the story (a similar phrase at the beginning and end of a section to emphasize the relatedness of the account).  The storm is indeed the responsibility of Jonah, the sailors know it, Jonah knows it, all that is left is what to do about it.

 

Some have suggested that this phrase is the beginning of Jonah’s repentance.  It is the first time he has taken responsibility and demonstrated any concern about anyone other than himself.  While I do agree that there seems to be a subtle change in his attitude, or at least some recognition of what is going on, I do not think he is yet repentant.  Understanding your transgressions does not necessarily mean you are repentant.  I’ll never forget my first encounter with this phenomenon.  I was working the stock room at a retail store as one of my first jobs and witnessing to my coworkers.  One of them, apparently a faithful church going Pentecostal, constantly talked about all the ladies he’d sexually conquered during various weekends.  He was a natural exaggerator, so it was hard to tell if he was being truthful, but he regularly bragged about multiple women in one weekend.  One day I asked him if he saw a problem between his life on Sunday and his life on the rest of the weekend.  “Oh, I’m a fornicator J-Love (that was his pet name for me), I know that!  What I’m doing is sinful.  But if feels so good!”  Here was a man who recognized his sin, even admitted the possible consequences, but had not yet repented.

 

Jonah, in verse 12, is closer to my fornicating Pentecostal friend than a truly repentant person.  We will see his actual repentance begin in Chapter 2, and be completed in Chapter 3.

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Meditations on Jonah 1:7-10; The Lost fear God More

Then each [sailor] said to his companion, “Come [go], let us cast lots that we may know on whose account this evil it to.” So they cast lots and the lot fell against Jonah.  So they said to him, “Now, declare to us for whom this evil is to us.  What is your mission?  Where are you from? From what land did you come? And from what people are you?”  And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, the LORD, God of the heavens, I fear, who made the sea and the dry land.”  Then the men feared with a great fear, and said to him, “What is this that you have done?”  Because the men knew that he was fleeing the presence of the LORD when he had declared this to them. – Jonah 1:7-10

 

1:7a – Then each [sailor] said to his companion, “Come [go], let us cast lots that we may know on whose account this evil is to.”

 

Without a response from Jonah, or any indication that he either helped with throwing items overboard or followed the pilot’s advice, the narrator takes us to the next actions of the sailors.  They have stopped seeking their gods’ help and are now seeking the advice of others.  Yet, the irony continues.  The Hebrew word for “Come” in the phrase “Come, let us cast lots,” is the same as the word for “go” – context simply determines how to translate it into English.  Thus, we now have in the words of the pilot and the sailors all three of Yahweh’s commands to Jonah, “arise” and “call out” in verse 6 said by the pilot, and “go” in verse 7 said by the sailors.  Jonah simply can’t escape what God commanded him to do.

 

The sailors also call the storm “evil.”  “Evil,” which is used seven times in the book of Jonah (Sasson p. 112), is a very flexible word in Hebrew and can be used for a variety of purposes.   Many English translations say “disaster” or “calamity” in verse 7, which is correct.  Usually in the context of a natural disaster or a disaster of an invading army, “evil” is talking more about an outcome than morality issue.  I keep the translation “evil” in this verse not because I think there is an issue of morality with the storm, but because I want to show the word parallel with verse 2.  It is intriguing that upon the second occurrence of “evil” it is understood that Jonah is at fault.  This depicts the prophet’s rapid decline in an even greater way.  While Nineveh remains in the “presence of Yahweh” in the text with her “evil up” in front of Him, Jonah has now gone “down” a number of times “away from the presence of the LORD” and he is responsible for “evil.”

 

 

1:7b – So they cast lots and the lot fell against Jonah.

 

There are two important observations in this verse.  First, as Achtemeier says, the important point about the lots is not knowing what method was used to cast them, rather “that the deity determines upon whom the lot falls” (Achtemeier p. 265).  This action is another indication of the sovereign work of Yahweh to pursue Jonah for His purposes.

 

There may be more than just sovereignty at work here.  The phrase “fell against Jonah” includes the same preposition in the phrase “call out against her [Nineveh]” in verse 2.  The subtle implication in the parallel phrase is that now the lot is casting God’s judgment against Jonah for his evil – not just by identifying him, but by revealing what must come.

 

v. 8 – So they cast lots and the lot fell against Jonah.  So they said to him, “Now, declare to us for whom this evil is to us.  What is your mission?  Where are you from? From what land did you come? And from what people are you?”

 

Now that God has revealed to the sailors that Jonah is the cause of their evil, they begin to demand an answer.  They want to know from Jonah why he is the cause of the evil and do so by asking four questions.  First, as Sasson argues for in his commentary (Sasson p. 113-114), they inquire about his mission – why is he on the boat and where is he going.  Second, where he is from (they would have understood that Jappa was a port city and not necessarily the town of Jonah’s origin).  Third, his land or country (essentially a national issue).  Finally, his people (a racial issues).  While not explicitly stated, the last three questions could be aimed at discovering Jonah’s God and method of worship.  In the context the sailors have tried to call out to a variety of deities to appease the storm, now that they have their subject identified they could be trying to again get specific in how to direct their prayers.

 

v. 9 – And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, the LORD, God of the heavens, I fear, who made the sea and the dry land.”

 

Jonah now replies to the questions of the sailors and with his reply he speaks for the first time in the book.  His first words are emblematic of his own deception on who God really is and just how far the prophet has fallen.

 

“I am a Hebrew…” I do not doubt that these are the exact words of Jonah, but the decision of the author to include this identification in the story is instructive not only to the readers of Jonah but also to the readers of the Minor Prophets.  Technically, Jonah was an “Israelite” a resident of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  By this time in history the promised land of Israel had been divided into two kingdoms.  The North, Israel, and the South, Judah (or the Kingdom of David, whose residents where called “Jews.”  Their history was rocky – they were mostly at peace but at times were at war.  Prophets were sent to both kingdoms, but also prophesied to the 12 tribes as a whole.  In God’s eyes they were all His people, but due to their disobedience the kingdom was divided after the death of Solomon.  A few hundred years after Jonah, the Northern Kingdom will be conquered by Assyria (whose capital city is Nineveh) and a few decades after that the Southern Kingdom will be conquered by Babylon.

 

What then is the significance of “Hebrew”?  Essentially it is an apolitical designation.  Jonah is not saying he is of the Northern Kingdom, nor is he saying he is NOT of the Southern Kingdom.  He is saying he is of the “people of Yahweh” – thus uniting all of Israel under the purposes of Yahweh.  This is important because it ties all of God’s people to the plight of Jonah.  The story of Jonah is more than just about Jonah, his sin is the whole people’s sin – disobedience and ignoring their call to proclaim Yahweh to the pagan world.  It is also more than just about the trespasses of the Northern Kingdom, but about all of the people of God.  This connection will be explored more in the final chapter of Jonah.

 

“… the LORD, God of the heavens, I fear…” Jonah only really answers one of the four questions by the sailors – “from what people are you?”  However, the designation of “the LORD (Yahweh), God of the heavens” answers what the sailors were most interested in – who does this guy worship.   “Yahweh” or “the LORD” identifies the covenant name of God to the sailors.  “God of the heavens” is not so much an identifier of location as it is power – Yahweh is God over (literally above) all things.  He has the power to stop the storm, more so than any god to whom the sailors could cry out.

 

The terrible irony is “I fear.”  Indeed there is nothing about Jonah’s actions that indicate any fear whatsoever – if anything, Jonah is completely lackadaisical in his response to the judgment of God and openly rebellious to God’s commands.  As Achtemeier puts it;

 

“That Jonah makes such a confession of faith is totally ironic.  He says he ‘fears’ Yahweh.  ‘To fear God,’ in biblical usage, can have tow meanings.  It can mean simply ‘to obey’ (Deut. 5:29, 6:2, 13, 24, 10:12, passim), and Jonah certainly has not obeyed Yahweh. ‘To fear God’ can also mean to stand in awe of God (Ps. 33:8, Lev. 19:14, 32, etc.) or to reverence or honor God (Exod. 1:17; Ps. 55:19; 66:16, etc.), and Jonah has not been in awe of God; he has deliberately disobeyed Yahweh and then gone soundly asleep., with not a disturbing worry.” – Achtemeier p. 266

 

Indeed, Jonah has all the trappings of a cultural, nominal believer – he has the right Sunday School, Biblically correct answer when asked the tough questions, but his life is totally devoid of evidence that he understands that answer.  He proves himself to be a hypocrite before the lost.  In another ironic turn, the lost will prove him to be lost.

 

“… who made the sea and the dry land.” This is again a pointer to the sovereignty of God.  When the Old Testament lists two complete opposites (sea and dry land) it is called a “merrism” and means “everything.”  Jonah is saying that His God has authority because He is the creator God (Sasson p. 118-119).  This is also another allusion to Genesis 1-3 and the Creation and Fall accounts.  The author still wants us thinking, even if subtlety, about the book of Genesis.

 

v. 10a – Then the men feared with a great fear, and said to him, “What is this that you have done?”

 

Two amazing implications in this verse.  Notice upon the identification of Jonah’s God, the “men feared a great fear…” Literally, they fear twice as much as Jonah (Jonah says “I fear” one time, the narrator tells us that the sailors feared two times) and that this fear was “great.”  Just in case you missed the hypocrisy of Jonah’s actions compared to his statement, the God, the narrator and the sailors demonstrate it to you by the sailors response – they actually DO fear Yahweh!

 

The sailors then ask Jonah a haunting question, “’What is this you have done’ the sailors ask Jonah, verse 10 (RSV), which was the same question God asked Eve, according to Genesis 3:13.  Despite his disobedient flight, despite his indifference as he slept through the punishing storm, Jonah is responsible to God.  And he cannot escape that responsibility any more than could Adam and Eve, or any person whom the Lord God has created.” – Actemeier p. 266

 

What was the judgment on Adam and Eve?  Banishment from the intimate presence of God and, ultimately, death.  Jonah is headed for the exact same fate.

v. 10b – Because the men knew that he was fleeing the presence of the LORD when he had declared this to them. – Jonah 1:7-10

Here we see again the emphasis of exactly where Jonah is – “fleeing the presence of the LORD” even while the sailors are “fearing” Yahweh.  The contrast is still very clear – the one who should know where and who God is is away form absent, the ones who should not know or desire God are near.

 

One small note on translation.  There are a host of options for the statement “when he had declared this to them.”  Most English translations go with “because he had declared this to them” which implies that Jonah told the sailors that he was fleeing God but the author doesn’t record his exact words.  Sasson has a great discussion on how the phrase should be translated (p. 121) and translates the verse, “and upon learning that it was the Lord he sought to escape – now that he had admitted it to them – they told him, “How could you have done this?”  I left it simply translated “when” giving it some ambiguity on the exact timing of Jonah’s discussion.  I did this for two reasons.  First, in my estimation the Hebrew leaves the timing ambiguous, thus the commentaries do not agree on an exact translation (yes, I understand the argument that an original audience would have known their language a lot better and would have known exactly how the Hebrew should be taken, BUT, just as English authors can be ambiguous with their use of the English language, so Hebrew authors can be intentionally ambiguous with their use of the language.

Second, while I admit the language and grammar does not definitively prove this point, if the Hebrew is ambiguous as to the timing of Jonah telling them he was “fleeing from Yahweh,” it is possible that God simply revealed to the sailors what Jonah was doing without Jonah actually having to say anything.  Therefore, Jonah would simply confirm, “yes, I’m fleeing my God.”  I favor this possibility for three primary reasons.  First, because the grammar of the Hebrew IS, in my estimation, ambiguous.   Second, the sovereignty of God IS a major theme in this book – sovereignty that is showing itself prone to do unexplained miracles where normal human faculties for explanation are set aside in favor of mystery.  Finally, because the sailors to some degree are being paralleled with the people of Nineveh in chapter 3. In Chapter 3, all of Nineveh repents without Yahweh being identified as the God to whom to repent to (Jn. 3:4).  Yet we know that they repented to the God of Israel because the phrase “believed God” (Jn. 3:4) is the phrase for “true faith” in the Old Testament (Gen. 15:6).  So, just as Nineveh has the God of salvation appear to them without a normal “identification,” so also the sailors know what Jonah is doing without it being identified in a normal fashion.  The point?  God is doing something only He can do in order to accomplish His purposes for Jonah, Nineveh, the sailors and all of Israel.

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Meditations on Jonah 1:4-6 — God’s Response

So the LORD hurled a great wind toward the sea, and there was a great storm in the sea.  So the ship was thinking to break apart.  And the sailors were afraid and each one was crying out to his god(s).  Then they hurled the cargo in the ship into the sea to make it lighter.  But Jonah was down in the innards of the ship, and he lay down and was soundly asleep.  Then the head pilot came to him and said to him, “What of you sleeping? Arise, call out to your God! Perhaps the God will give thought to us, and we will not perish!” – Jonah 1:4-6

 

1:4 – So the LORD…

 

It seems so simply, yet it’s a powerful statement.  Verse three leaves us with a rebellious prophet, fleeing in the opposite direction of God’s will and relationship, hoping that by his disobedience a just God will have to act in judgment against Nineveh.  In verse four, we see the actions of a just God – actions compelled by both justice and mercy for Jonah and Nineveh.

 

Verse 4 begins with a subtle and powerful word plan.  When combined with the end of verse 3, the phrase looks like this: “… away from the presence of the LORD. So the LORD…”  The divine name, “the LORD,” is only separated by one Hebrew letter – “so.”  To construct this word play, the author also reworked typical Hebrew grammar to make it possible (Sasson p.93).  All of this represents an effort by the author to make sure that you know a) the LORD did not wait around in His response to Jonah, but acted quickly to bring him to repentance and b) to emphasize Yahweh is the God of what is going on in the story.

 

1:4a – So the LORD hurled a great wind toward the sea, and there was a great storm in the sea.

The LORD’s response to Jonah was to begin to slow down his rebellion.  He did so first, by a raging storm.  Several things of interest in this phrase.  First, begin to notice the use of “great.”   Hear it is applied to the wind and the storm.  What we will begin to notice is that “great” in the book of Jonah is almost always an indicator or God’s sovereign intervention.  Some scholars have suggested that the story is exaggerated because of the use of “great.”  However, if you take the subtle implication of fiction out of the equation, this, in some regards, is how we should think of these actions.  After all, the direct intervention of a sovereign God should seem to us as in-credible or super-natural.

 

Second, the word for storm here is a word that is often used in the Old Testament for a place where God’s presence resided (Sasson p. 94).  Consider the irony, Jonah is fleeing God’s presence in verse 3, only to have it show up in the form or a storm in verse 4.

 

Finally, while it is a very, very subtle allusion, I do believe there is some creation imagery here.  Notice it is a “wind” sent by God that created the storm.  In Genesis 1:1, it is a “wind/spirit” that is hovering over the waters.  Again, just a reminder by the author of who Jonah is actually trying to flee – the God of ALL creation, who can hurl that creation in any direction in order for His purposes to stand.

 

1:4b – So the ship was thinking to break apart.

 

This is a very strange phrase in Hebrew, but, again, packed with subtle literary genius.  The translation is accurate, it is written to personify the ship so that the ship DOES appear to be contemplating its own destruction – i.e. the ship has a thought process.  There are several reasons for this to be the case.  First, the wording for “thinking to break apart” has a high degree of assonance (rhyming or shared sounds), so it’s literarily picturesque.  Second, some have argued that the sounds in the phrase actually sounds like the creaking of boards under pressure, so the author may be intensifying the action by using words that sound like the action (Sasson p. 93-94).  Third, it could also be a way of related the ship to the coming fish. Jonah is in the belly of both, he is in some type of sleep-like state in both, and now both are given attributes of a living organism.

 

Finally, the personification of the ship also indicates yet another subtle irony of Jonah’s thick-headedness.  The ship is the first to know – “think” – about what is going on and its severity.  The sailors are the next to realize the seriousness of the situation.  Jonah is the last to understand what is going on, and he is simply sleeping (NAC p. 230).

 

1:5a – And the sailors were afraid and each one cried out to his god(s).

 

After the ship begins to realize what is going on, the sailors then begin to respond.  There are several things to notice about this statement.  First, notice the sailors immediately assume that there is a worship issue at stake in the occurance of the storm.  Sure, it was a superstitious time, but their response of worship will be intriguing by the end of the verse.

 

Second, they begin crying out to their “god(s).”  The Hebrew here is ambiguous – part of the problem of the Hebrew word for “God” – Elohim.  Elohim in its form is a plural – even when it refers to a single deity.  Because of this, context always determines if we are talking about one God or multiple gods.  In this context it is hard to tell.  We either have each sailor calling out to his personal god, or we have each sailor going through his list of deities trying to find the right god to deliver him.  No matter which way it is rendered, the same phenomenon is in effect – the sailors are trying to find which god they angered so that it can be appeased and the storm subside.

 

Finally, take notice to the “fear” phenomenon.  The sailors “fear” will be used by the author to demonstrate their movement towards the worship of Yahweh.

 

1:5b – Then they hurled the cargo in the ship into the sea to make [it] lighter.

The response of the sailors continues by throwing the cargo on the ship overboard to make it lighter and less likely to sink.  The purpose for doing this is clearly described in the verse, “to make [it] lighter.”  So it might be a mistake to assume they are throwing things over as a sacrifice to their gods.  However, it is intriguing that their actions are paralleled to the actions of the LORD in verse 4.  “The LORD hurled a great wind to the sea…” and “Then they hurled the cargo… into the sea.”  With the exception of a verb tense, the actions of hurling and “to the sea” are the exact same in the Hebrew text.  I find it is intriguing that when faced with the actions of Yahweh (He sent the storm), the sailors unknowingly mimic the actions of Yahweh (hurling things into the sea).  In this way, the author is setting us up for the fact that when Yahweh is revealed, the hearts of the sailors are ready to be instantly persuaded and prepared to worship Him.

 

1:5c – But Jonah was down in the innards of the ship, and he lays down and was soundly asleep.

While seemingly such a simply sentence, it is loaded with word plays and allusions that is setting us up for what God is going to do in the life of Jonah.  First notice that Jonah has again gone “down” in the story.  His descent away from the presence of the LORD is still being emphasized.  However, even the Hebrew word for “soundly asleep” emphasizes this descent.  The Hebrew word for “down” is “yirad” with the consonants “YRD” as its root.  The word used here for “soundly asleep” is “wayaradim.”  Notice, the core of “wayardim” is “yarad” and sounds like “yirad” – the word for “down.”  Even in his “sleeping” the author is emphasizing that Jonah is down and away from God.

 

Not only is the literature of Jonah emphasizing his flight from God, but also his ignorance of what is going on.  In the phrase in verse 4, “the ship was thinking of breaking apart,” both the words “thinking” and “breaking apart” rhyme with the word in verse 5, “and he lays down.”  While the inanimate boat realizes that they are amidst a storm created by the furry of Yahweh, Jonah simply ignores the situation and lays down to sleep.

 

Third, Jonah is in the “innards” of the ship that is in the middle of the sea.   This is both an allusion to his plight in the fish and of him being in the middle of Nineveh when he preaches his message.  Indeed, Jonah is in the middle of all the action.

 

Perhaps the key issue to see in this sentence is, again, the contrast between the pagan sailors and Jonah.  The first response of the sailors is to assume that the storm is a worship issue, and they begin to cry out to their god(s) to appease them.  This response leads them to mimic the very actions of Yahweh.  By contrast, the chosen, Hebrew prophet ignores the situation and falls asleep amidst the impending judgment of God.  Again, like Nineveh in the first paragraph, the sinners are closer to doing the right thing that the chosen prophet.  The contrast is gripping!

 

1:6a – Then the head pilot came to him and said to him…

Despite his sleep, Jonah cannot escape the consequences of the storm.  The pilot – Sassons argues for the chief navigator or helmsmen (Sasson, p. 102) – finds Jonah below and confronts him.  Two things to note about this encounter and its place in the recording of Jonah.  First, along Jonah’s journey he is going to run into two leaders – the ship’s pilot, and the king of Nineveh.  Both of them are going to be found in the middle of their respective locations – the ship and Nineveh.  Both of them will speak.  They are being paralleled in their responses to Jonah and their statements are, in part, to be understood together.  Second, it is interesting that the pilot is not named.  This is again to emphasize that the primary concern of the story is the relationship between God and Jonah.  So what does the pilot say?

 

1:6b – “What of you sleeping? Arise, call out to your God! …”

It is again amazing how much literary genius can be packed into so few words.  The translation is meant to reflect the Hebrew, “What of you sleeping” is just as awkward in the original as it is in English.  It’s literally, “What to you sleeping?”  There are a number of speculations as to why this construction exists, but I think it’s simply to demonstrate the captain’s shock at what he is seeing.

 

The beauty of the verse comes in the next few words.  First, the combination of “… sleeping? Arise…” next to each other gives the author a vocal word play.  Remember, the Hebrew word for “sleeping” in this passage shares the basic consonantal sounds as “down.”  So while the text means “… sleeping? Arise…”  It has the audio resonance of “… going down? Arise…”  The captain is unwittingly hinting to Jonah that his downward journey must end.

 

The second combination of significance is the phrase, “Arise, call out to…”  Here the pilot, who is the second person to speak in our story, has issued two of the three commands that God gave Jonah in verse 2 – “Arise, go to… call out…”  When Jonah awakens amidst the chaos of the storm, the first words he hears are almost verbatim the same words of Yahweh which initiated Jonah’s rebellious reaction and necessitated the storm.  As Achtemeier comments, the Word of God is pursuing Jonah no matter what (Achetmeier p. 263).

 

Finally, the pilot commands Jonah to call out to “your God.”  To essentially join in figuring out the worship issue that is causing the furry of the storm.  Again, the pagan has figured out the worship issue, Jonah probably wishes he was still sleeping.

 

1:6c – “… Perhaps the God will give thought to us, and we will not perish.”

There is both irony and desperation in this statement.  “Perhaps” can be used in Hebrew as almost a fatalistic phrase.  The pilot is losing hope in the ability for any god to rescue them.  But when he says “the God” it has a touch of irony.  The sailors are trying to find the god above all gods that can control the anger of the seas, the pilot is now telling Jonah to pray to his God to see if he is the one true God.  “Perish” is a theologically charged word in the Old Testament.  In the New Testament it is transliterated as “Abbadon” and is often used for the word “hell.”  While it probably simply means “to die” in this context, given the poem in Chapter 2 (which has a lot of death imagery) and the fact that a pagan is saying the word, their eternal fate could be a reasonable way to understand this verse.

 

Frank Paige in the New American Commentary makes an insightful comment about this verse.  While not core to the message or literary construction of the passage, his thoughts are very instructive to the heart of Jonah and our hearts as well.  He says,

 

“There is extreme irony here: a ‘heathen sea captain’ pleaded with a Hebrew prophet to pray to his God.  It is sobering to see one who might be termed an ‘unbeliever’ pleading for spiritual action on the part of a ‘believer.’  The ‘unbeliever’ saw the gravity of the situation while the prophet slept.  It is a sad commentary when those who are committed to the truth of God’s word have to be prodded by the lost world to spiritual action (NAC, p. 231).”

 

In summary of verses 4-6, we see God responding to Jonah’s rebellion.  This action, while violent in nature (sending a storm) is actually an act of mercy for both Jonah and Nineveh.  Yahweh is determined to save both, and will “hurl” objects in the pathway of his obstinate prophet.  All the while He will make sure that Jonah understand how blatant and stupid his rebellion is.  After all, the ship understands what is going on, the sailors recognize a breach in the worship of God and begin to mimic Him, the pilot quotes God’s commands to Jonah, and they are all asking “the God” to be revealed to them so that they will not “perish.”  Meanwhile, Jonah just looks more and more hardheaded as he continues to descend from the presence of the LORD, a descent that has not yet reached its low point.

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Meditations on Jonah 1:1-3 — Who is in the presence of the Lord?

Now the word of the LORD was to Jonah, son of Amattai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and call upon her, because her evil has come up before my presence.”  So Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD, and went down to Jappa and found a ship going to Tarshish.  And he gave [exorbitant] wages to commandeer the ship and he went down in it to go with them to Tarshish away from the presence of the LORD. – Jonah 1:1-3

 

The beginning of a story almost always sets the stage for the rest of the plot, and few stories, especially short stories, do as good a job setting the stage, the plot, and capturing our attention as the author who gives us the account of the prophet Jonah.  In the opening paragraph we have the protagonists – the LORD, Jonah and Nineveh.  We have the plot – the LORD’s command to Jonah, Jonah’s disobedience of the command, and in the background the fate of Nineveh sits in the balance.  We have the intrigue or the problem – Nineveh, the wicked Gentile city is “up before [the] presence [of the LORD]” and Jonah, the chosen prophet is “down” and “away from the presence of the LORD”; twice!  We also have intrigue – who is Jonah really? Why is Tarshish mentioned three times? Why does God care about Nineveh?  What is the purpose of Jonah going to Nineveh?  Yes, in three short verses, just over 40 Hebrew words, the author has created an attention grabbing scenario that begs us to read and ask more questions.  His goal, to capture the heart of God through the actions of the disobedient prophet.

 

1:1a – The word of the LORD was to Jonah…

 

Just as I’ve translated the phrase here, “was to Jonah” in English and Hebrew doesn’t seem to make a lot of grammatical sense.  It is idiomatic.  However, Sasson mentions that even the idiom is out of place here (Sasson, p. 67).  In most other contexts the prophet and his mission are already established when the idiom appears, here it is before both.  The phrase serves three purposes in establishing the story of Jonah.  First, the “word of the LORD” is going to command the action of the book – often the author will do this in very creative ways, and here it is what initiates the action of Jonah.  Second, due to the fact that “the word of the LORD” is used so often in the contexts of other prophets, it does serve to imply that Jonah is a prophet (notice, our text doesn’t give him that title).  Third, the nature of the idiom builds the intrigue of the story.  So much of the story is design to set religious norms on their heads that the author is setting you up for a less than usual set of circumstances.

 

One other note about this phrase – Jonah is the only person, other than “the LORD,” that is named in the entire book.  His name literally means “dove,” which does have some symbolic implications.  However the fact that the only two characters named are “the LORD” and Jonah it implies that God is more interested in the plight and his relationship with Jonah than He is the message or even the plight of the people of Nineveh.  The author takes care to demonstrate this, by relating this relationship in such a way that we follow Jonah’s plight in relationship to “the LORD.”  Indeed by the way the author relates the story we could say that Nineveh, while ultimately proving to be very significant in the mind of God, is almost the excuse for the interaction between the LORD and Jonah.

 

1:1b — … the son of Amattai…

This is the only biographical information we have about Jonah in the story.  We have of course seen his appearance in 2 Kings 14, but even that information is short and gives us about the same amount of information.  This demonstrates that the story is less interested in the background to Jonah as it is the story of Jonah.  Why?  No certain reason is given.  However, if you’ll allow me to muse, when the lack of biographical information is combined with the fact that the title “prophet” is never used in this book, it might imply that the author wants us to see Jonah as any other person – a person who is ultimately just as responsible as we are to obey “the word of the LORD.”

 

There is a legend told by the Rabbi’s that identifies Jonah as the son of the widow in Zeraphath that Elijah raises from the dead (1 Kings 17).  Essentially the link between the widow’s son and Jonah comes in the link between the root word for “truth” and the name of Jonah’s father “Amattai.”  Amattai is built off the Hebrew word for “truth” and when the boy is raised from the dead the widow explains, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD is in your mouth is truth (1 Kings 17:24).”  The Rabbi’s saw “word of the LORD,” a prophet, “truth,” and an unnamed person at the right historical moment, and they declared the boy “Jonah” (Sasson p.86).  While there is no real reason to doubt the Rabbis, there is also no reason to believe them.  Since, as stated above, the biography of Jonah doesn’t seem to be the focus of the author, his connection to the widow as Zerephath is simply a fascinating speculation.

 

1:1c — … saying,

While simple, we should not forget that the “word of the LORD” is forcing that action.  This has been the way God has worked since He spoke creation into existence.  He is a God that is about the business of spoken revelation – wanting to be known and experienced.  Our story begins with such a revelation.

 

1:2a – “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call upon her…”

 

There are several things that are worthy of recognition in this section.  First is the three-fold command to Jonah – “Arise, go… call upon…”  This will both be echoed verbatim in chapter 3, but will also become constant play on words that will be used as a depiction of obedience.  The word “arise” in this particular Hebrew construction implies an urgency in the matter (NAC 224) and the three-fold command, as with most three-fold repetitions in Hebrew, also imply urgency and immediacy in the message from God.

 

The second thing to notice is the phrase “call upon her.”  It is different that the phrase used in chapter 3 (“to her”).  The Hebrew implies an impending judgment (Sasson 74-75).  However, while judgment is implied, it is also important to note that God does not actually tell Jonah what He will do to Nineveh.  This will make Jonah’s flight in verse 3 all the more mysterious.  All Jonah knows is that Nineveh has sinned greatly in the eyes of the LORD, and God wants a declaration of judgment pronounced against the city.

 

Finally, the rare phrase “that great city” that is only seen in this form in the book of Jonah and in Genesis 10 appears for the first time here.  For the key issues of the origins of Nineveh, see my entries about the background to Jonah.  For now, it is sufficient to note the phrase and watch its usage – especially in the relation to the word “great.”  We will discuss its meaning later in the book.

 

1:2b – … because her evil has come up before my presence.”

 

Here we see the only reason that the LORD gives Jonah for going to Nineveh – “because” of the fullness of her evil.  The intriguing thing is where the evil is, “in the my presence” literally “before me” in the Hebrew.  The idea is almost “in my face” or “in front of me.”  This phrase is certainly an expression of concern and is probably a faint allusion to intimacy.  It shows the concern that the LORD has for the fate of Nineveh.  We see here yet another mystery in the plot of the story – Nineveh, a Gentile city, is before the LORD because of His concern for her sin.  This is a concern that typically is reserved for His covenant people, Israel.

 

1:3a – So Jonah arose to flee…

 

Jonah’s initial reaction, “he arose,” implies obedience to God’s command to “arise.”  However, that is the extent of the obedience.  The rest of the verse is designed to emphasize Jonah’s blatant rebellion to God’s command.  First, we see the intention of the “rising” – “to flee.”  The Hebrew here is a purpose statement.  The reason Jonah “arose” was “to flee.”  It is also important to note that the intensity in which God commanded Jonah to “rise” is matched with Jonah’s intention “to flee.”  Mysteriously, the prophet is rebelling against God’s command and doing so with fervency.

 

1:3 – … to Tarshish… and found a ship going to Tarshish … to go with them to Tarshish…

 

After seeing the intention of Jonah’s plan, we see the direction – “to Tarshish.”  Again, the three-fold use of this phase in the verse is there for emphasis.  The city is less important than what it represents.  Tarshish was most likely located in Spain (NAC 100).  But Biblically, it also represented the farthest extremities of the West.  Insightful, since Nineveh is east of Israel.  The point, not only is Jonah fleeing God and Nineveh, he is going the opposite direction – west instead of east.  Tarshish was also a three year round trip journey (2 Chron. 9:21/Sasson 82).  In light of the urgency of God’s command in verse 2, it seems as if Jonah is hoping that his extended trip will cause a just God to pour out His wrath on the wicked city before the prophet could return.  Thus, the trip to Tarshish is both an attempt to both flee and control God.

 

1:3 – … and went down to Jappa … and he went down in [the ship]…

 

It is true that because Jappa was a port town, you had to go “down” in altitude to get to it from pretty much every point in Israel.  It is also true that you have to go “down” directionally to go into the hold of the ship.  However, there is also a play on words going on here with the author.  Remember, Nineveh’s sin has gone “up” to God.  Jonah has now gone the opposite direction, twice.  Not only is Jonah going the wrong way geographically, he is going the wrong way with regard to his position before God.  Achtemeier discusses the fact that these are just the first few steps in Jonah’s “downward” spiral.  He will eventually end up in the depths of Sheol (2:6).  She rightly says, “To flee the LORD requires death” (p. NIBC 260).

1:3b – And he gave [exorbitant] wages to commandeer the ship…

 

Most English translations simply say that Jonah “paid the fare” (ESV) and boarded the ship.  It implies that he simply bought a ticket and joined a ship that may have had other passengers.  However, Sasson successfully argues that the word in Hebrew more likely implies that Jonah rented the entire ship to himself to go to Tarshish.  This would imply two things.  First, Jonah was a man of considerable means because, especially in that day, to rent a ship for a potentially three year journey would be very expensive.  Second, it shows the hardness of heart and intentionality of Jonah’s actions.  Those were not the days of ATMs and banks.  Liquidizing enough wealth to commandeer a ship would have been a considerable task.  This action demonstrates the hardness of Jonah’s heart towards the LORD’s command.

 

1:3 – … away from the presence of the LORD… away from the presence of the LORD.

 

The phrase “presence of the LORD” is the same phrase used of Nineveh’s sin.  Here again we see the problem.  Nineveh, the wicked, Gentile city, is depicted in these opening verses as having a more intimate connection with the LORD than the chosen, covenant prophet of Israel.  The city has captures the concern of God because of her disobedience, the prophet completely lacks concern for God by his disobedience.  Jonah has now successfully fled God in every sphere possible – geographically: west instead of east; directionally: down instead of up; financially: he’s liquidized his wealth to purchase a ship; and relationally: he’s fleeing God’s presence.  Wherever Jonah is not, Nineveh is – up in the presence of God.

 

There are many things to take away from this opening paragraph, but let me just highlight two.  First is God’s sovereignty, which will become a major component in the story of Jonah.  Prior to the opening lines, neither Jonah nor the Ninevites had any knowledge of God’s desires or concerns for them.  It is God who initiates the action for both parties – for the calling of Jonah to Nineveh, and the concern to proclaim a warning/judgment upon Nineveh.  While Jonah’s actions by the end of verse 3 seems to imply a bunch of independent decision making outside of the sovereignty of God, we are going to see God win the day and the argument against the rebellious prophet.

 

The second thing to notice is the heart and mission of God in light of the covenant of Abraham.  God is concerned for the salvation of a Gentile city.  Indeed, the cities fate and position by the end of verse 3 is more favorable than His chosen prophet.  Jonah is rebelling against God’s most basic command to Israel to be a “light to the Gentiles.”  And it is, at least in part, faithfulness to the covenant of Abraham that will keep the LORD hot on the trail of Jonah until His message is delivered.

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