Jonah – overboard

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.” 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.”

These were the ending verses in the previous post. But there was also a question to ponder: What is the motivation for Jonah to suggest being thrown into the sea? To be fair, the narrative is silent on the matter, we only know of the suggestion. It seems there are at least two plausible motivations:

  1. Jonah has had a change of heart. He has realized that his choices and actions are a wrecking ball in the lives of the captain and crew. In an altruistic moment, he takes responsibility and offers his life as the solution, as the means of salvation. He is willing to die as he recognizes his guilt before God.
  2. Jonah is not done running. If Tarshish is not far enough away, then maybe death is. He would rather die than obey God and be part of a potential rescue of the people of Nineveh from their sins.

And, if Jonah comes up with the suggestion, why doesn’t he just throw himself overboard? Why does he ask the crew to be the proximal cause of his demise? In the later chapters we will encounter the extreme lack of enthusiasm with which Jonah finally undertakes his prophetic mission and his great displeasure at the mission’s results. It is hard for me to see a change of heart. I would suggest that “not done running” is the simplest alternative and one that continues the direction of the narrative. Although the text will not use the word, being tossed overboard is one more step down for Jonah.

13 However, the men rowed for the shore, to get the ship back. They failed, finding the sea getting rougher and resisting their efforts.

One can ask, why didn’t the crew just throw Jonah overboard? The casting of lots pointed to him. The man confessed he was the cause of this calamity. What shall we do with you,” they asked, “that the sea may quiet down for us?” (v.11) Clearly, they have “skin in the game.” Again there at least three options:

  1. Toss him over the side and if later twinges of conscience plagued them, they could always tell themselves that it was his wish. But how could they be sure this would mean an end to God’s hostilities? If Jonah’s reluctance to go to Nineveh had stirred God into directing such a violent storm at their ship, what hope was there for them if they conspired together to murder his prophet?
  2. The captain and crew think his suggestion and death is a horrible idea of which they want no part. Perhaps it is altruistic. Perhaps it is just the accepted role of the captain that he is responsible for the souls on board his ship.
  3. Or maybe the practical conclusion: the storm had made their voyage impossible, maybe God wanted Jonah returned to shore.

Scripture is again silent, but in any case, they begin to row back to Joppa and it is as though the seas have a mind of its own: resisting.  The Hebrew ḥā·ṯǎr is also translated as “dig,” bring to mind the nautical cry for the rowers to “dig deep.”  Like jettisoning the cargo, they are seeking a human solution in their attempt to return Jonah to the starting point as though they could turn back the clock, or at least offload their troubles and conscience. One might argue that the whale/large fish also returns Jonah to the starting point. One is a human path to the beach for which Jonah will learn nothing. One is a divine path to the beach in which Jonah will have three days to learn something.

Realizing the futility of their plan, they stop rowing.

14 Then they cried to the LORD: “We beseech you, O LORD, let us not perish for taking this man’s life; do not charge us with shedding innocent blood, for you, LORD, have done as you saw fit.”

Jonah had been asked to pray to his God but had never done so. In v.5 all the crew were shot-gunning prayers to their gods. Here in v.14 we have the first prayer uttered to God – and it is still not from Jonah. The crew has come to realize that there is only one God who can save them. Think about Jonah’s tepid witness: “I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Tepid as it was, it was enough for them to turn to God in prayer. They pray for themselves “let us not perish” and they pray for mercy for what they are about to do: “do not charge us.

The onslaught of the storm, which had moreover prevented them from reaching the coast, and the verdict of the lot were indications of God’s purpose. Jonah, sinful victim of God’s wrath, seemed doomed to die. So, viewing themselves as agents of divine justice, they tossed Jonah into the raging sea below.

15 Then they took Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea’s raging abated.

The result is seemingly instantaneous and dramatic: the storm switches off. Its fury, a symbol of God’s anger, subsides now that God’s dire will is done. Much to their relief, the sailors have the answer to their prayer: salvation and mercy. They also are struck with the evidence of God as maker of sea and dry land. If they recognized God’s power in the wrath of the storm, no less do they recognize God’s power in having it all stop.

16 Struck with great fear of the LORD, the men offered sacrifice and made vows to him.

The original hearers of this story have to be dumb struck. Jonah the Israelite is disobedient, selfish, unrepentant, never prays to God. He never worships. The pagans are the truly pious one, offering sacrifices and making vows to God. When offered the circumstances for conversion, they accepted. The original hearers are no doubt completely turned against the prophet, yet they have to be impressed with the pagan’s response to God’s desire to save all people – even those outside the Hebrew people. The crew is saved in more than one way.

And Jonah has been jettisoned. And as before, he is unaware of God doing amazing things for the crew, once gentiles, now believers. It is another instance of spiritual slumber, missing out on how God wants to use him for good at same time as he is withering.

Jonah has again chosen to go down. Will this be a moment of his rebirth? A second chance? In pure and complete rebellion, Jonah (standing in for the people of God) can’t go any lower, but even there God meets Jonah (and us) in his brokenness, giving him a chance for new life.

What can Jonah do to spiritually wake himself up and grab this chance? As we will see, Jonah does nothing, something will be done to him. He finally gives up at the point he is meeting his own death. At this point God will meet him in Grace. Grace happens. Jonah will become awake for the first time.

The crew reached the point of their own death and God met them there. They became awake for the first time.

What can we learn from all this? Try and do it all yourself apart from God? Sleepwalk through your own life? Hardly. Just wake up to the fact that apart from God’s grace we are helpless. Take the captain’s advice: wake up and pray.

Next time: the whale…

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