1:15Then they took Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea’s raging abated. 16Struck with great fear of the LORD, the men offered sacrifice and made vows to him. 2:1But the LORD sent a large fish, that swallowed Jonah; and he remained in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
Interestingly, many modern translations position Jonah 2:1 as Jonah 1:17, including it with the previous chapter where it makes more sense from a literary point of view. It is good to be reminded that chapters/verses were assigned by Robert Estienne in 1551 for the New Testament and 1571 for the Hebrew Scriptures for his print editions and so chapter/verse is not sacrosanct. But if you read other Bibles and commentaries and are wondering why the verses are “off” by a single digit…now you know.
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.” 12Jonah 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:
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.
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.
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.) Continue reading →
“But Jonah made ready to flee to Tarshish, away from the LORD. 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.” (Jonah 1:3) So much for the son of faithfulness (Amittai).
Why run away? The wickedness of Nineveh. Would you want to go? Fear seems like a healthy reaction to avoid this mission. But there is more to it. For this we have to peek ahead to Chapter 4 (spoiler alert!). At the end of Chapter 3 the king and the entire city of Nineveh has heard Jonah preach against it and repented. “When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out.” (Jonah 3:10)
This is the word of the LORD that came to Jonah, son of Amittai” (Jonah 1:1)
Such is the traditional opening of God reaching out to communicate the divine will to a prophet. The 1st century hearers would have been attuned to the opening and then jolted by the verse’s end: Jonah son of Amittai. Nationalistic feelings ran deep in their memory. This name brought to mind the prophet of the Northern Kingdom, which had seceded from Judah and Davidic rule after the reign of Solomon. Unlike the prophets Amos and Hosea, Jonah did not rage against the sins and misdeed to tribes to the north and their rebel kings. Rather he prophesized the expansion of the rebel kingdom’s frontiers under King Jeroboam II, the thirteenth king of the north (mid-8th century BCE): Continue reading →
There are several historical references that one encounters while reading the Book of Jonah. Rather than include this detail in later posts when the references appear, I thought it good to provide some details early on. The setting of the book is a period of Israel’s history when there is a lot going on – inside and outside the traditional boundaries of the Promised Land. The Kingdom of David had split into the Northern Kingdom (confusingly called Israel and consisting of 10 tribes) and the Southern Kingdom (called Judah consisting of two tribes) still loyal to the throne of David and centered in Jerusalem. Beyond the borders was the ever-looming threat of the Assyrian Empire whose capita city was Nineveh. It was located in the area of modern-day Mosul in Northern Iraq. Compared to Israel, it is to the northeast at some distance.
In most commentaries there are discussions focused on the unity of composition (i.e., were there later editors?), date and purpose of the writing, questions of text preservation (consistency among known copies), underlying theology, and the “Sign of Jonah” from Matthew 12:40. If you are interested in a “deep dive” into some of these topics, any scholarly text will provide lots of details. Let me just provide a few thoughts – not trying to rehearse all the opinions and arguments, but simply offering what makes the most sense to me.
Do you know the book of Jonah? Everyone knows the story, right? Jonah was a disobedient prophet who rejected his divine commission, tried to run away, was cast overboard in a storm and swallowed by a great fish, rescued in a marvelous manner, and returned to his starting point. Lots of people know this much of the story. But that is the briefest of summaries of just the first chapter. The summary above does not include a lot of information and perspective from the beginning verses. It ends up missing the point and trajectory of the first chapter and the whole book itself. There are three more chapters after the great fish and the subsequent rescue – and a lot more to know about the Book of Jonah.
In today’s readings for Mass, the refrain of the Psalm is “The Lord is gracious and merciful; slow to anger, and of great kindness.” And that is a great thing to know and recall when we have sinned in ways large and small. And we should turn to God seeking forgiveness and the divine grace to quench our souls.
But how often our dryness has led us to the occasion of sin – and that same dryness keeps us from seeking forgiveness from God – and especially from others. The reading from Isaiah describes it all pretty well: “…the needy seek water…their tongues are parched with thirst. This is when we need to turn to God: I, the LORD, will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them. I will open up rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the broad valleys” (Isaiah 41:17-18)
That’s what God will do for us – and we should drink deeply of those waters.
One of the aids to remembering events and where to place them in your life is having major milestones that serve as a point of reference, an external anchor so to speak. Sometimes it’s as simple as our progression through school – “oh, yeah, that happened at elementary school such-and-such.” Middle and high school serve well, as does college and so on. Major life events help secure our memory on the timeline: dating, marriage, children, family vacations. Careers and our work events – all of that and more. It all helps. “Sure, I remember that. It was while we lived in Baltimore, dad was working for Martin Marietta, and we all went to St. Perpetua.”