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Jonah 1

Overview

  • God tells Jonah, “Get up and go to Nineveh, the capital city of your dreaded national enemies the Assyrians, and tell them to repent because their evil badness is getting really bad in my opinion.”
  • Jonah is all, “Nineveh? I think you mean Ninev-nuh-uh,” and gets up and decides to head out of town.
  • At Joppa, the nearest seaport, Joe Joe hires a boat to take him to Tarshish, a city on the total opposite end of the world from Nineveh. Jonah is hoping to get away from God and all his silly requests.
  • Once on the boat, God hucks a massive sea storm Jonah’s way. It’s so bad that the ship starts breaking apart.
  • The sailors are all, “Whaaa?” and they pray to their gods and throw cargo overboard in hopes of surviving.
  • Meanwhile Jones is sleeping away below deck. The captain is like, “What are you doing, man? We’re working our fore and aft off up there! Get up! You obviously don’t care if we die, but at least pray to your god. Maybe he will give a hoot and save our lives.”
  • Then the sailors decide to pull straws to see who’s guilt is making the gods mad. Jonah draws the short stick.
  • Immediately the sailors ask, “What’s up with you? Where are your from? What did you do? Why is your god so huffed?”
  • Jonah’s all, “Okay. Alright. (Sigh) I’m a Hebrew. I believe in God (with a capital “G”), the one who created everything–land, sea, the whole deal.”
  • “And you’re trying to run away from this God (with a capital “G”)? Even though he made everything and is everywhere?” the sailors exclaim. ” What! Are! You! Thinking! We’re so screwed!”
  • “What now?” they ask Joe. “What can we do to pacify your capital “G” God?”
  • “Get rid of me,” Jonah says. “Throw me out. If I’m dead God will leave us all alone.”
  • The sailors think that’s a bad idea and decide to try to row to shore first. That doesn’t work.
  • “Alright,” the crew concedes after making a valiant effort. “Um, Jonah’s God?” they pray, “Please don’t kill us for tossing your boy overboard.”
  • Kersplash! Joe Joe goes into the water.
  • The storm subsides. The sailors are grateful and offer sacrifces of thanks to God.
  • Then God summons a great fish to the scene and it swallows Jonah.
  • For the next three days and three nights, Jones is inside the belly of the fish.

Historical Context

Assyrian Military Might

To intimidate their enemies, the Assyrians practiced a policy of calculated terror. For example, the Assyrian king Ashur-Nasir-Pal II (883-859 B.C.) inscribed his tactics on a stone monument: “I stormed the mountain peaks and took them … with their blood I dyed the mountains red like wool.… The heads of their warriors I cut off, and I formed them into a pillar over against their city, their young men and their maidens I burned in the fire” (Finegan, Light from the Ancient Past).2

Tarshish

The city of Tarshish is generally considered to be a variation on the name Tartessus a seaport just west of Gibralter on the southern coast of Spain, which was at the opposite extremity of the Mediterranean and exactly opposite from the direction of Nineveh.2

Israeli Exclusivity

The ancient Hebrews saw themselves as God’s favorite people. They had been told that they were “a special treasure above all nations” (Exodus 19:5). Many of them believed that God didn’t love Israel’s enemies as much as he loved Israel.2

God’s Inclusivity

God had called Israel to be “above all nations” to be “a kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6) so that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3).The prophet Isaiah would remind them many years later that they were to be “a light of the nations so that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).

The Great Fish

There has been much debate as to wether or not any existing “great fish” can swallow a man whole. Killer whales can swallow large seals whole.  Sperm whales can swallow giant squid whole, so chances are, they could also swallow a human whole.5  Whale sharks are also thought to be able to swallow large creatures whole.

Jonah is often associated with a whale due to the use of the Latin word “cetus” in an early translation. Over time the word “cetus” came to be primarily associated with the word “whale” and thus the mistranslation. However, there is no indication that the original story implies a whale more than any other large fish.

James Bartley, a 20th Century Jonah

James Bartley (1870–1909) is the central figure in a late nineteenth-century story according to which he was swallowed whole by a sperm whale, then found days later still alive in the stomach of the dead whale.

During a whaling expedition off the Falkland Islands, Bartley’s boat was attacked by a whale and he landed inside the whale’s mouth. He survived the ordeal and was carved out of the stomach by his peers when they, not knowing he was inside, caught and began skinning the whale. It was said that he was in the whale for 18 hours and that as a result his skin had been bleached by the gastric juices, and that he was blind the rest of his life. His tombstone in Gloucester, England says “James Bartley – a modern day Jonah.”4

Research into this story has been done recently by Edward B. Davis, a professor at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. The result of Davis’s research was that he could not find any credible evidence to support the James Bartley story. There were no records of his treatment at a London hospital, there was no James Bartley listed among the crew of the ship he was said to be aboard, and the wife of the ship’s captain published a letter in 1907 saying there was no truth to Bartley’s claims.6

The Great Fish Constellation 

It has also been proposed that Jonah was not literally swallowed by a fish, but instead was adrift at sea for several days during the time of a constellation known as “Cetus” or “the big fish.” Thus, Jonah’s big fish is not a real animal, but rather a manifestation of Jonah’s fear and sense of alienation while afloat during a long winter’s night, with the Cetus constellation showing prominently in the skies.8

In Greek mythology, Cetus is a sea monster. It may have originally been associated with a whale, which would have had mythic status amongst Mesopotamian cultures. The creature is most strongly associated with Cetus, the sea-monster who was slain by Perseus as he saved the princessAndromeda from Poseidon’s wrath.9

The constellation Cetus is located in a region of the sky called “The Sea” because many water-associated constellations are placed there, including Eridanus, Pisces, Piscis Austrinus, Capricornus, and Aquarius.9

Jonah In The Fish: Dead or Alive?

The text is unclear as to whether Jonah remained alive for three days and three nights within the belly of the great fish, or if God raised him from the dead upon the occasion of the great fish’s vomiting him out upon the dry land. The record of the prayer which Jonah prayed after being swallowed seems to argue that he was alive; but, since the prayer was only a matter of a very few minutes duration, it falls short of proving Jonah’s continued life within the fish’s belly for a whole three days and three nights.3

Observations

  • Why did Jonah refuse to go to Nineveh? Perhaps because he feared for his life. Perhaps because he thought the task would be fruitless. However, the text indicates that Jonah most feared success. He did not want the Assyrians to repent. If he had been sent to destroy Nineveh, he would probably have gone gladly. He grudged that heathen should share Israel’s privileges, and probably thought that gain to Nineveh would be loss to Israel.11
  • Jonah fled, literally, from the “face of Jehovah.” This may mean, from God’s special presence in Jerusalem or the Holy Land, as banishment from Canaan is called “casting out of his sight” (ex. 2 Kings 17:20); or, from serving the Lord as his minister (Deuteronomy 10:8), Jonah preferring to renounce his office as prophet rather than execute his mission. The former seems the most natural explanation of the phrase. Jonah may have supposed that the spirit of prophecy would not extend beyond the land of Israel. He could never have thought to escape from God’s all-seeing presence.11
  • When the text says Jonah “paid the fare” it may mean that he paid for the whole freight of the ship so that it would leave quicker. The sooner the boat set sail the sooner Jonah would be out of Israel.11
  • Ironically, Jonah escapes his duty to witness to the Gentiles from Joppa, the exact same seaport where God will send the apostle Peter to start the Gentiles on the road to salvation (Acts 10:5-6).2
  • Joppa was the only seaport that Israel had until Herod built Caesarea Philippi several hundred years later.3
  • The Hebrew word for ship in this text is shephinah, and is found nowhere else in the Old Testament. It derived from saphan which means “to cover” thus implying that the vessel was decked. Jonah was resting below decks in the hold of the ship when the storm came.3
  • The word for “sailors” here literally means “salts,” that is sailors of the salt seas; they are usually thought to have been Phoenicians engaged in the corn trade with western Mediterranean ports, or the iron trade with Sardinia.  The variety of “gods” mentioned indicates that they were, not all of a single nationality, but of mixed origin, some worshipping one god, some another.3
  • The sailors would’ve been used to storms; the danger therefore must have been extreme for them to be afraid.11
  • The text presupposes that Jonah, like the sailors, prayed unto “his God,” but that his prayer had not been answered any more than their prayers. This is why the sailors cast lots to expose the guilty party.3
  • The author draws many sharp contrasts between Jonah, a supposedly devout Jew, and the sailors, who were pagan. 1) Jonah sleeps during the storm while the sailors work; 2) Jonah did not ask God for mercy whereas the sailors petitioned their own gods; 3) the sailors end up worshiping/sacrificing to God and Jonah does not.10
  • When the text says God “prepared” a great fish, it means he “commissioned” or “appointed,” or “ordered.”3
  • This first chapter reminds us that God is not concerned about our race, our origins, or our occupation, but with what we are doing with what He has commanded us to do.10
  • Note the similarities between Jonah and Jesus (Mk. 4:135-41) sleep through storms. Both are awakened by concerned sailors who wonder why they are not doing anything to help the situation. Note the contrast between Jonah’s reluctance to help with Jesus’ willingness to oblige. In both instances it is shown that only God can stop the storm, causing the sailors to be awed.

Discussion

  • Jonah was asked to do something by God, and he did the exact opposite. We often think that, “If God would only make it clear what I was supposed to do, then I would do it,” yet this text shows that in the face of overt instruction we still have the opportunity to disobey. What does this say about our freewill? What are you being called to do? Are you doing the opposite?
  • Jonah avoided God’s call because he didn’t like the possibility of God showing mercy to his enemies. In what ways are we possessive of God’s mercy (i.e. thinking it’s only for us)? Who do we begrudge God being kind to? What does this say about our sense of justice? What does this say about God’s mercy? How do justice and mercy relate or contrast? Are we willing to help someone who may harm us, our family, our reputation? Who do we secretly not want God to help? Why? What parallels are there between the story of Jonah and the parable of the prodigal son?
  • God pursued Jonah though he tried to flee from him. What does this say about God? Do you think God was angry, sad, hopeful or loving? Why? What parallels are there between Jonah’s story and the parable of the lost sheep? Why does God pursue us? Is God purusing you? For what purpose?

References

  1. Asbury Commentary
  2. GCI Commentary
  3. Coffman’s Commentary
  4. James Bartley
  5. The Naked Scientist
  6. Truth or Fiction
  7. Edward Davis’ Research Article
  8. Beasts of the Bible
  9. Cetus
  10. Deffinbaugh’s Commentary
  11. Various Commentaries
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