Jonah – the tempest

The tempest rages, the crew prays, each to his own god, the cargo is being tossed overboard in an attempt to save the ship that is in danger of breaking up. Jonah is curled up in a corner below decks fast asleep.

6 The captain came to him and said, “What are you doing asleep? Rise up, call upon your God! Perhaps God will be mindful of us so that we may not perish.” (Jonah 1:6) Did the captain go looking for Jonah? I suspect not. I think he is below deck to see what other cargo can be tossed overboard when he stumbles upon Jonah asleep. Everyone else is working to save the ship, save themselves. The captain, exasperated shouts out “What are you doing asleep?” Seriously, dude, get your sorry self up and if you’re not going to lend a hand to help us, at least “call upon your God!” We’ve shot-gunned our prayers across a whole passel of gods seeing if we can appeal to the god behind this storm. “Perhaps God will be mindful of us so that we may not perish.” (Given that he is sea captain, there were no doubt some “salty” words mixed in the middle.)

In other translations the Hebrewʿā·šǎṯ appears as “be mindful, notice, consider” and similar. The word can also be translated as “act favorably” as in rescue. Other versions offer “have mercy”, “spare us” and “rescue.” Whatever the translation the same intent is clear. “Get up and pray, maybe your God is paying attention and will come to our aid.”

Jonah is fast asleep and is suddenly awakened to find the captain barking at him, the ship tossing and turning, the surrounding cargo threatening to break free from its constraints. He is waking up into a nightmare. I imagine the view from Jonah’s perspective. Maybe in the fog of waking up he sees an angry God shouting. “Rise up…” (qûm, both here and in v.2) The same phrase that disturbed his vision of his life when God called him to a prophetic mission. As the fog lifts, Jonah understands the captain is asking him to pray to God. In that moment he begins to realize how far he is from God. “If only this captain knew.”

But actually, the captain knows a lot. As Leslie Allen notes: “For the captain, Jonah’s God was possibly the one behind the storm. Here was one god not represented among the crew, and it was essential to tap every divine possibility. That way we must hit the right god sooner or later, and he’ll stop the storm.”  Or rather, he may graciously “spare us a thought” (JB, NEB) and come to our aid, for the captain is too good a theologian, polytheist though he is, to make man the master of such a situation. “If Yahweh had sent the storm, they were all in his hands: it was not for Jonah to dictate to him to stop it. He at least is alive to the sovereignty of Yahweh and the need for a tentative, submissive approach to his inscrutable will. Grudgingly one has to admire this enlightened pagan who outshines Jonah in his grasp of divine truth.”

Jonah does not pray.

When last seen Jonah had booked passage for Tarshish in order to flee as far from God and the prophetic mission as possible. It certainly was his decision to make, but one of the points I believe the author is making is that our decisions are (a) never isolated from our other decisions, they form the path we walk, the character we are developing, and (b) never isolated from others. Consequences pour out from our choices into the lives of others. His personal choice leaves in place the wrecking ball of evil that is Assyria and Nineveh. He could choose to fulfill his mission and either (a) they are destroyed or (b) they repent. Either way the “wrecking ball” is out of action. But he is too self-centered, selfish to potentially sacrifice himself for the others, for the mission. And now he will drag others down by his choice to run.

And so, we continue our look at the Book of Jonah, remembering that the author places this chain of events before us, this descent into the consequences of his choices. Note the language from Jonah 1:3: “He went down to Joppa, found a ship going to Tarshish, paid the fare, and went down in it to go with them to Tarshish, away from the LORD.” And this will not be the only times that Jonah is depicted going “down.” Each step, each choice along the way adds to the slow descent into darkness, away from the mission to be a light to the nations.

Topside the story continues: “Then they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots to find out on whose account we have met with this misfortune.” So, they cast lots, and thus singled out Jonah.” (Jonah 1:7)

The storm is not relenting, cargo has been jettisoned, prayers have been made, and the crew is at wit’s end. All that is left is to (a) find the person at fault and (b) then decide how to placate the angry god behind this raging tempest – so they cast lots.

“Casting lots” was a method to determine the will of God: “Into the bag the lot is cast, but from the LORD comes every decision.” (Proverbs 16:33)  Lots could be sticks with markings, stones with symbols, dice, etc., which were thrown into a small area and then the result was interpreted.

Dice were given meanings of “yes” or “no” and then cast for their answer. What came out was the decision. Here the saying interprets the sequence of actions: a human being puts the dice in the bag but what emerges from the bag is the Lord’s decision. Interestingly, God does not condemn the practice in Scripture. In fact, there are notable places where casting lots plays an important role including the selection of the scapegoat (Lv 16:8–10); the allocation of the tribal inheritance in the Promised Land (Nm 26:55, 56; Jos 14:2; Jgs 1:3; etc.); the order of the priests and their duties (1 Chr 24:5–19; Neh 10:34); and after the death of Judas, even the determination of the replacement Apostle, Matthias (Acts 1:26). That was the last instance of casting lots in Scripture. Many Christians think that with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the casting of lots gave way to the discernment in the Spirit.

No surprise, but Jonah “wins” the lottery. And now they can focus their attention.

8Tell us,” they said, “what is your business? Where do you come from? What is your country, and to what people do you belong?”

Once the outcome is known, it is not hard to imagine the staccato, rapid-fire chain of questions from the frightened crew. Was the root cause his business, his homeland, or his heritage. Why was some god pursuing Jonah and seeking to wreak havoc upon his head? They want him to confirm the lot, give him a chance to defend himself, but all the while waiting to condemn him.

Dryly and with a minimum of words, Jonah answers:

9 “I am a Hebrew,” Jonah answered them; “I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”

The word “Hebrew” seems to be a term used by the people of Israel to describe themselves to foreigners – e.g. Exodus 1:19 or Genesis 40:15. The Biblical term Ivri means “to traverse” or “to pass over”, perhaps referring to their Exodus experience. Having identified himself, Jonah now identifies the one he worships, “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Jonah’s God is presented as not some local deity with narrow interest or focus on a particular people; no, this is the God universal: “The sea and dry land belong to God, who made them, formed them by hand.” (Ps 95:5) The clear conclusion is that Jonah’s God is behind all this calamity.

In Hebrew “worship” can also be translated as “fear” – something that the sailors have in abundance while Jonah seems rather nonchalant about it all. His response is as though he continues to sleepwalk through his life. His credal response, “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land,” recognition of who God is, stands in sharp contrast to his own disobedience.

Could there be a wider gap between the credal-like confession and the choice he was living out? The sailors have had their world turned upside down—almost literally. With Jonah’s explanation a new understanding of the world is beginning to take shape in their minds, although their chances of remaining in it for much longer seem to be fast disappearing. Even so, they seem incredulous how Jonah could have made his choices, acted in such a way when, at the same time he confesses knowing and worshipping the God who controls everything. While words come easily enough, his life does not give the same witness.

In our age, we face the same dynamic as Jonah. We are called not just to give witness with our words — but to become the living evidence. A minimal demonstration is our words and examples of evidence of our witness. But our lives and everything else that goes with it will inevitably and unavoidably be evidence itself.

The clear gap and his lack of fear is horrifying to the sailors: “10 Now the men were seized with great fear and said to him, “How could you do such a thing!”— they knew that he was fleeing from the LORD, because he had told them.” It is one thing to have Jonah’s god be after Jonah, but if Jonah’s god is really the Universal God, the men have a glimpse of their humanity and have no hope in the face of such divine power. But Jonah might know what to do since it is his God. So, they ask him:

11 “What shall we do with you,” they asked, “that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more turbulent.”

The captain and crew know that if Jonah is the cause of the storm, then he is the key to its calming. Jonah’s response is simple:

12 Jonah said to them,Pick me up and throw me into the sea, that it may quiet down for you; since I know it is because of me that this violent storm has come upon you.”

Here’s a question for you. What is the motivation for Jonah to suggest being thrown into the sea?

We’ll see.

2 thoughts on “Jonah – the tempest

  1. I’m thinking Jonah was probably in a state of depression and didn’t have the courage to throw himself in, so he thought that having the crew do it might actually serve two purposes: he finally gets “away” from God for good and maybe, just maybe, the sea will calm down as a bonus for the crew.

    • One of the fascinating things about Scripture is its many invitations. There is the invitation to understand the reading from the perspective of the original hearers of the word. To understand its meaning in the context of history, the culture of the Hebrews and early Christians. The invitation to apply lessons to our own lives. The opportunity to enter into a deeper reflection of the story and note how you encounter it.

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