Defiance: The Prophet Runs From God (Jonah 1.1-2.1)

Modern and Postmodern scholarship on the short book of Jonah has not been kind to the story of the wayward prophet. Much of what is written about the book tends to be a deconstruction of the historicity of the book while also a demythologizing of the story itself. As a result, the potent message of the book is missed. The prophets of Yahweh tended to labor for decades without ever seeing the fruit of their labor. Yet Jonah, the reluctant prophet, saw what next to no prophet saw in their ministry: a mass turning to God by the people to whom he preached. Then, in an unprecedented turn, Jonah actually resents the success of his ministry and the grace of God.

The book begins immediately with the phrase “the word of Yahweh came to Jonah” (1.1). This is stock language for prophetic revelation.[1] Here it seems to be the narrator’s way of dropping us right into the sweeping narrative of the work of Yahweh. Usually His work is accomplished among His people. In this case it will be accomplished among the nations, specifically pagan sailors and the people of Nineveh.

The call of the prophet is very succinct and clear. It is “the word of Yahweh” which comes to Jonah. The entire command spans a single verse. It contains the imperatives “arise” and “go.” The destination is Ninevah, described as a “great city.” The greatness of the city is again emphasized elsewhere in the book (3.2, 3). Here the emphasis is on the severity of the “evil” of the city. Later, it will emphasize the size of the territory the city covers. The mission is to “call out against” Ninevah because “their evil has come up before me.” Smith and Page note that “[a]rchaeology confirms the biblical witness to the wickedness of the Assyrians. They were well known in the ancient world for brutality and cruelty. Ashurbanipal, the grandson of Sennacherib, was accustomed to tearing off the lips and hands of his victims. Tiglath-Pileser flayed victims alive and made great piles of their skulls.”[2] To these vicious people God sends a prophet with a message of repentance, grace, and mercy.

The reader expects to read that Jonah “arose” to go to Ninevah. Instead one reads that Jonah indeed “rose” but to go in a completely different direction “to Tarshish” (1.3). Tarshish (cf. Tartessus in the table of nations, Gen 10.4) is often identified as a place in southern or southwestern Spain. It is the other side of the known world. The reason for Jonah’s flight is that he wants to get “away from the presence of Yahweh.” This phrase means more than Jonah was trying to get away from Yahweh, as though he viewed his God as a territorial deity (he did not, see 1.9). Literally Jonah is fleeing from “before (Heb. millifne) Yahweh,” an interesting phrase which has prophetic connections. Prophets are said to “stand before Yahweh,” i.e. they are in service to him.[3] Further, this is language which is virtually identical to when Cain, after he killed his brother Abel, “went away from the presence of Yahweh” (Gen 4.16). Taken together we see that this is a technical phrase for Jonah’s rebellion manifesting as his rejection of serving Yahweh.

While storms are a natural part of the environment, particularly at sea, the “mighty tempest” that the boat Jonah is on encounters is “hurled” (like cargo into the sea, 1.5) by Yahweh. Wind, storm, sea, even the boat which “seriously considered breaking apart” (NET) are subject to the will of Yahweh. That Jonah thought he could flee from his mission by getting on a man-made boat and sailing across the Yahweh-made sea is rather quixotic. Smith and Page go further and say, “To run away from a god was foolish; but to run from ‘the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land’ was suicidal.”[4]

Jonah’s absurd flight threatens to be lethal for the ship’s crew. For the “mariners” who were seafaring men and no doubt had seen their share of storms, it was a terrifying experience. They each cry out to their personal deities in an attempt to calm the storm. When that proves ineffective, they attempt to lighten the ship by throwing cargo overboard. The frantic frenzy of the sailors is contrasted with Jonah’s sleeping in the midst of the boat. Jonah is in the middle of running from God, in the middle of the sea, in the middle of a storm, in the midst of the boat, in the middle of a nap. It is also suggested that Jonah may have gone unconscious due to the fear such a stormy sea could induce in someone acclimated to the land.

The ship’s captain rouses Jonah from his slumber and tells him to call out to his god. He and his men have exhausted all other deities for help to no avail. Perhaps they just have not addressed the right one who can save them from their predicament. Meanwhile, the crew has concluded that they are experiencing a visitation of divine wrath. They cast lots in an attempt to determine which person is responsible for “this evil” which has befallen them (1.7). Elsewhere the Bible says that the lot’s “every decision is from Yahweh” (Prov 16.33). Thus, even the lot is obedient to Yahweh, identifying Jonah as the one responsible for their calamity.

The sailors interrogate Jonah once they identify him as the one responsible for the storm. Their questions come rapid fire and range from his job to country of origin to race and ethnicity. In his first words of the book and the turning point of this section (4-16), Jonah does not hold back and informs them he is “a Hebrew” and he fears Yahweh “God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Here we find the source of Jonah’s troubling character flaws: he professes faith and worship with his mouth yet his actions are contrary to his confession. His disobedience has brought calamity upon these pagan foreigners.

The feigned fear of Jonah is contrasted with the genuine terror (“exceedingly afraid,” 1.10) of the mariners. Their terror is vocalized with the exclamation, “What is this you have done!” The end of verse 10 is a parenthetical insertion telling the reader that Jonah had informed them, perhaps when he secured his place on the ship by paying his fee, of his purpose for travelling abroad: Jonah was abandoning his calling as prophetic servant (see 1.3 comments).

Verses 11-15 report the various methods the mariners attempt to try to calm the storm which was only increasing in intensity by the minute. First, they ask Jonah, “What shall we do?” Jonah recommends they “hurl” (same word from vs. 4 and 5) him into the sea. Jonah is confident if he is off the boat the sea will be calm. Interestingly, Jonah is essentially saying he would rather die than cry out to Yahweh. The initial reaction of the sailors to Jonah’s plan is to reject it. They have no interest in being responsible for someone’s death (see 1.14). Rather than hurl Jonah overboard, they “rowed hard” in a futile attempt to reach dry land (1.13). Once more the tempest only grows in ferocity. Second, they “called out” (lit. “cry out,” same as Jonah was supposed to do in 1.6 and from the beginning in 1.1) to Yahweh. They pray they would not be held responsible for taking Jonah’s life and his “innocent blood” would not be on their heads. They even recognize the sovereignty of Yahweh by acknowledging He has done what He pleased (14b). In this way the pagan sailors are pictured as more devout than Jonah. Finally, after they have prayed they pick Jonah up and “hurl” him into the sea. The way the text reads it seems as soon as Jonah hit the water “the sea stopped raging” (NET). The sailors now know that Jonah was right, Yahweh was the wrathful deity to be appeased, and Yahweh rules “the raging sea; when its waves rise, you still them” (Psa 89.9).

The opening scene closes with a contrast in fates (1.16-17). The pagan sailors redirect their fear from the storm (1.5, same phrase) to Yahweh. Yahweh did what their gods could not: rescue them from calamity. Therefore they offered sacrifice to Yahweh and made vows, though the type of sacrifice and vows is not specified. Meanwhile, Jonah, who is in the sea, is not forgotten by Yahweh. One reads that Yahweh “appointed” or “prepared” (KJV, NKJV) or “provided” (NRSV, NIV) a great fish (Heb. dāg; LXX: kētous, a sea monster) which swallowed Jonah. The word is used four times in the book (see 4.6-8) and “always points to the Lord’s power to accomplish his will.”[5] The fish was in the right place at the right time to do what Yahweh needed to be done.

For three days and three nights Jonah is in the belly of the fish (17b). This verse with 2.10 are the parts of the book which give critics the most trouble in allowing Jonah to be an historical book. The main question is, of course, Is it possible? Yes. Documented cases historically have shown that a man can be swallowed by a sperm whale and survive being in the beast for several hours.[6] Leaving off the scientific explanation one must not forget (a) God had ordained the great fish to swallow His misguided prophet and (b) Jesus validated the event as historical when He cited it in reference to His resurrection (Matt 12.38-41; Luke 11.29-30). Without a doubt Jonah was in the “stomach” (2.1, NASB) of the large fish when he voiced his prayer. Therefore, this was nothing short of miraculous divine intervention on behalf of the wayward prophet.

[1] Cf. Jeremiah 1.2, 4; Ezekiel 1.3; Hosea 1.1; Joel 1.1; Zechariah 1.1; et al.

[2] Smith and Page, 225.

[3] Elijah is perhaps the quintessential example. He spoke of his prophetic ministry as standing before Yahweh, the God of Israel (“before whom I stand”). See 1 Kgs 17.1; 18.15.

[4] Smith and Page, 235.

[5] Ibid., 239

[6] There is the curious case of James Bartley who in 1891 was swallowed by a sperm whale and spent approximately 36 hours in the creature before his fellow crewmen dug him out of the stomach. He was alive, driven somewhat insane by the event, but after about two weeks he fully recovered except for his skin remaining bleached due to the whale’s stomach acid. See Ambrose John Wilson, “The Sign of Jonah and its Modern Confirmations,” Princeton Theological Review 25.4 (1927): 634-636.

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