Recently Jonah was used as an example in a talk someone was giving. The speaker noted the mercy of God for He preserved Jonah alive in that fish for three days. This example is just one of the vast derivations and assumptions on the Jonah narrative. Very few of them have any understanding of what happened, nor do they demonstrate the truths buried within the story.
Typically, our lead into Jonah comes from the book after his name, where it tells us:
Jonah 1:1-3 MKJV And the Word of Jehovah came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2) Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their evil has come up before Me.
However, that is not what Jonah did. Because of his actions, we make huge assumptions about the man and leave off pertinent information. Continuing with verse three we see Jonah on a ship to Tarshish, hoping to get out of God’s sight.
3) But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of Jehovah. And he went down to Joppa. And he found a ship going to Tarshish. And he gave its fare, and went down into it, in order to go with them to Tarshish, away from the sight of Jehovah.
Try to find maps showing Tarshish from the time of Jonah, and you will see that they are nonexistent. Most place the location of Tarshish on the Southern tip of Spain. These days, there is a town called Tarshish in Lebanon. That location, however, does not work for the story as Jonah was attempting to run in the opposite direction, and Lebanon would have been a rest stop along the way.
We have to go to another book of the Bible to find Jonah’s hometown and his familial background.
When we learn of Jonah in 2 Kings 14:25, it is as a side note in the life of Jeroboam, who restored the borders of Israel from the entrance of Hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah. This act of rebuilding the borders of Israel takes on immense significance when you realize that Hamath was north of Damascus, and the region of Arabah was south beyond the dead sea. And, this action was foretold through a prophetic word given by Jonah. Since we know that Jeroboam lived from 793-752BC, then we can also assume that the restoration of the border of Israel would have been toward the end of Jeroboam’s life. With a minimal amount of research, we can understand that the word spoken by Jonah was before the restoration of the border.
2 Kings 14:25 MKJV He (Jeroboam) restored the border of Israel from the entering of Hamath to the sea of the plain, according to the Word of Jehovah, the God of Israel which He spoke by the hand of his servant Jonah, the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher.
The passage explains Jonah to us as: “the son of Amittai, the prophet, which was of Gath-hepher.”
I can understand this statement two ways:
Jonah, a prophet, was the son of Amittai;
Or, Jonah was the son of Amittai, who was also a prophet.
From 2 Kings 14:25, I can approximate about where Jonah was when he opted to catch a boat ride to Tarshish. Because Gath is in Northern Judah, it would have logical to find a boat ride at one of the local ports, and that is what we see.
This familial relationship is not that uncommon as many of the prophets were sons of the priest or high priests in the old testament; nor is it essential. However, their family backgrounds and education would have allowed for training in oratory skills and may have played a role in their ability to stand before kings.
When we look at the book of Jonah, the Expositor’s Bible commentary tells us that the date range is about 539-331 B.C and this would put Jonah in Nineveh long after the restoration of the border of Israel.
What we typically hear when we hear the name, Jonah.
Jonah is now on a boat ride to Tarshish to escape from God and his directive to go to Nineveh.
Albert Barnes commentary points out that, “It has been asked, “How could a “prophet” imagine that he could flee from the presence of God?” Plainly he could not. Jonah, so conversant with the Psalms, doubtless knew well the Psalm of David (Psalm 139:7,) “Whither shall I go from Thy Spirit, and whither shall I flee from thy presence?” He could not but know, what every instructed Israelite knew. And so critics should have known that such could not be the meaning.”
“How could a “prophet” imagine that he could flee from the presence of God?”, seems like a good question; the answer of which should have been understood by Jonah.
Dake’s commentary aspect of his Bible, tells us:
The book (Jonah) is a story of a bigoted Jew who, after being chastened by the Lord for disobedience, preached to and converted the whole city of Nineveh.
Bigoted seems like a harsh word, especially since I grew up during a time of intense racial bigotry.
Bigoted, – Means to be obstinately and blindly attached to some creed, opinion, practice or ritual; unreasonably devoted to a system or party, and illiberal towards the opinions of others.
What would drive a man to such hatred? J Vernon McGee, a man who had a doctorate in Theological studies, states:
J Vernon McGee, a man who had a doctorate in Theological studies, states:
“Assyria was one of the most brutal nations of the ancient world. They were feared and dreaded by all the peoples of that day. They used very cruel methods of torture and could extract information from their captives very easily. … As an army, the Assyrians moved in an unusual manner. One of the reasons the Babylonians were able to overcome them was the slowness of the march of the Assyrian army. They took their families with them and had very little order in the army. They moved as a mob across the countryside. It is very easy to see that their disorder would militate against them. However, when they moved down like a plague of locusts upon a town or village, it is said that they were so feared and dreaded that on some occasions an entire town would commit suicide rather than fall into the hands of the brutal Assyrians.”
2Kings and 2Chronicles both speak of years of tribute paid to Assyria, and how Israel went into captivity for generations at the hands of Assyria. Jonah would have been witness to much of this. To put it bluntly, they were cruel people and Jonah would rather have seen them dead.
If you believed that God would strike these people dead, why would this provoke your attempt to run from God? This logic does not make sense. However, if Jonah knew something about God that we are not privy to at this point, then we need to understand what that is because it is the most potent motivation behind Jonah’s attempt to flee from God’s mission. We don’t find out what this motivation is until the last chapter of the book.
Jonah 4:2 NET. He prayed to the LORD and said, “Oh, LORD, this is just what I thought would happen when I was in my own country. This is what I tried to prevent by attempting to escape to Tarshish! — because I knew that you are gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in mercy, and one who relents concerning threatened judgment.
What evidence did Jonah have that God is prone to show mercy?
Exodus 33:19 NET. … I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy.”
Psalms 78:38 NET. Yet he is compassionate. He forgives sin and does not destroy. He often holds back his anger, and does not stir up his fury.
Psalms 86:5 NET. Certainly O Lord, you are kind and forgiving, and show great faithfulness to all who cry out to you.
Being the son of Amittai, the prophet, Jonah would have been well schooled in the Torah and Talmud and knew the nature and character of God.
We now find Jonah out on the ocean, in a storm.
Jonah 1:4, 5 NET. But the LORD hurled a powerful wind on the sea. Such a violent tempest arose on the sea that the ship threatened to break up! The sailors were so afraid that each cried out to his own god and they flung the ship’s cargo overboard to make the ship lighter. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold below deck, had lain down, and was sound asleep.
Things that catch my attention here:
Brenton’s translation – “and there was a great storm on the sea, and the ship was in danger of being broken.”
NASB “Then the sailors became afraid, and every man cried to his god,”
MKJV “And they threw out the ship’s articles in the ship, into the sea in order to lighten it.”
NASB “But Jonah had gone below into the hold of the ship, lain down and fallen sound asleep.”
The fact that each sailor cried out to his god says a lot. This action is contrary to what we see in the world we live in now.
Jonah 1:6 NASB So, the captain approached him and said, “How is it that you are sleeping? Get up, call on your god. Perhaps your god will be concerned about us so that we will not perish.”
Sleeping? There was little he could do above deck, for Jonah was not a sailor. He was, however, a man of God, with particular skill sets. Having the captain approach him might not be that unusual, but then I am projecting forward to modern standards where there would have been an insistence upon wearing a life vest, but not in this era; safety standards would have been minimal at best. What does the captain say? “Get up, call on your god. Perhaps your god will be concerned about us so that we will not perish.” It was surprising, years ago, to hear how common it was in India for a family to express worship to many gods, Jehovah, being one of them. Much like you might see in gambling, they are just hedging their bets to protect against the odds that they chose the wrong god.
Jonah 1:7 NASB Each man said to his mate, “Come, let us cast lots so we may learn on whose account this calamity has struck us.” So they cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah.
This is no different than gambling. How odd that the dice would point to Jonah. God uses the most unusual methods and people to convey His message.
Jonah 1:8 CEV They started asking him, “Are you the one who brought all this trouble on us? What business are you in? Where do you come from? What is your country? Who are your people?”
A highly superstitious lot, maybe not so much. Having done some fishing, I like to take bananas as a snack. They are a self-contained, clean food; so easy to open, and filling. However, the men who work the boat, and those who fall prey to superstitions, start crying foul as they believe that bananas bring bad luck. Hogwash!
I cannot read these next words without hearing them come forth with authority and power.
Jonah 1:9 CJB He answered them, “I am a Hebrew; and I fear Adonai, the God of heaven, who made both the sea and the dry land.”
Watch their reaction.
Jonah 1:10 CJB At this the men grew very afraid and said to him, “What is this that you have done?” For the men knew he was trying to get away from Adonai, since he had told them.
Pay attention to this eye-opening statement. “For the men knew he was trying to get away from Adonai, since he had told them.” I checked multiple commentaries trying to find something that told me who the author of Jonah was, for it does not make sense. Look, I am not a grammarian; I use a paid aid to correct my grammar, but I picked up on the fact that the book is written in the third person. If you were writing about yourself would point out the flaws? Maybe not, most historians were selective about the information they gave us. Based on what we see in verse nine, there is no indication that Jonah revealed why he was here. We, as church-going folk, don’t like to acknowledge our flaws, and yet, there it is, and he told them.
Jonah 1:11 CJB They asked him, “What should we do to you, so that the sea will be calm for us?”—for the sea was getting rougher all the time.
“They asked him, …What should we do to you?” They had no clue. What if this man’s god is as ominous as some have portrayed? Throwing a man overboard did not seem to be high on the list of things to do. Jonah’s answer.
Jonah 1:12 CJB “Pick me up,” he told them, “and throw me into the sea. Then the sea will be calm for you; because I know, it’s my fault that this terrible storm has come over you.”
Whoa. Think about this a moment. They may be lost at sea for all we know, with no hope of swimming to land; they are being pushed severely by winds, and battered by waves to the point that the boat is close to destruction. Whatever load they were hauling, is now lost, and anyone going into the ocean will be lost and dead in a matter of minutes. I can appreciate the brevity of this, having experienced several overnight fishing trips myself; one skipper decided to inform us that, “in this chop, even with the deck lights on, if someone does not have eyes on you in the water, we will not be able to find you, and you will drown!”
This may be hard for most readers to handle, but Jonah asked the crew to assist him in committing suicide.
Does he care about the potential outcome of his actions? Considering what he has already done, foolishly deciding to run from God, and, making it clear that he does not want anything to do with the Assyrians, I don’t think so.
What does the crew do? They tried to ignore Jonah’s ludicrous request.
Jonah 1:13 CJB Nevertheless, the men rowed hard, trying to reach the shore. But they couldn’t, because the sea kept growing wilder against them.
The crew rowed harder. Still, the conditions got worse.
Jonah 1:14 CJB Finally they cried to Adonai, “Please, Adonai, please! Don’t let us perish for causing the death of this man, and don’t hold us to account for shedding innocent blood; because you, Adonai, have done what you saw fit.”
Somewhere in this process, the crew had made their decision. They knew Jonah would die.
Jonah 1:15 JPS So they took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging.
Issues we need to address at this point.
I mentioned deck lights, but, as you can imagine, they had none. The description of an incident I experienced, happened around eleven P.M., making the telling of the story relevant to the passengers who stood at the aft rail, in rough seas, while underway, and necessary for safety reasons. But there is nothing in the story that tells us it is nighttime. What we do have is Jonah going below to sleep; this leads us to believe that it was night.
Having experienced seasickness, the way I fought it off was to go to sleep in a bunk. Did Jonah have seasickness and therefore slept? We don’t know. I am merely pointing how quickly we make assumptions. Assumptions will get us in trouble, and we are trying to avoid misunderstandings.
So, let’s assume it was daylight. A boat, large enough to have two decks does not equate to an ocean-borne freighter, and so a safe assumption would be that it was getting tossed about like a toy. We have no information about the size of the crew and therefore might have been simply a captain and two crew members. Nonetheless, having a man go into a rough ocean like this, would have meant his death.
“So they took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging.”
Translations range from ceased, to immediately. If the sea stopped immediately, why then did they not get Jonah? An obvious answer is that they made the correlation between their problems and having the man onboard.
But then, why do we get large choppy waves on any body of water? Disturbances, primarily from the wind. We know that they were experiencing a brutal wind storm. So, what stopped? The wind, and we recognize that they saw the correlation between throwing Jonah in the water and the wind stopping. However, it was going to take some time for the water to return to its normal rolling condition. Regardless, Jonah could not and would not survive. And yet, it seems he did. We will pursue that soon, in the next chapter.
Even in the midst of our worst decisions, God still comes through in unusual ways.
Jonah 1:16 JPS Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly; and they offered a sacrifice unto the LORD, and made vows.
The men, seeing how the God of Jonah, had an immediate impact on the weather, feared the Lord exceedingly. A small portion of Gill’s commentary reads, “they feared him, not only because they saw his power in raising and stilling the tempest, but his goodness to them in saving them.” Think this entire scenario through for a moment.
Because one man runs from God and His mission, it would seem that God is willing to kill everyone on the boat.
Jonah effectively asks the crew to kill him, and, in time, they do. Does God show anger toward anyone involved? No.
Since Jonah is apparently dead, the weather lies down. The crew of the boat sees a correlation between tossing Jonah in the sea as the effect on the wind is immediate; the waves, not so much. Regardless, the crew now make commitments to the God of Jonah.
What is it that we do when we come to the Lord?
We demonstrate some faith in Jesus Christ, the one who paid our debts in full.
Some might regard this motion of ours toward God, as something done out of fear of the Lord. While it is true that many promote coming to the Lord out of fear, this “fear” we speak of is more of respect. The crew of the boat indeed found great respect for the Lord they did not know, that day.
The crew “offered a sacrifice unto the LORD.”
Look at the context of the words once again. NASB “Then the men feared the LORD greatly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.” The word sacrifice – is to slaughter. If this all happened on the boat, what was left to slaughter?
And, under the religious umbrella, we make our own vows.
For example: We make a commitment to the Lord, much like we do in marriage. However, we all know that commitment is only as strong as our backbone. Fortunately, Jesus side of the commitment is built on a stronger foundation; a sin free foundation, and therefore He says things like – I will never leave you or forsake; Or, speaking to the Father, he says, “all that you have given me I have kept, and, “no one can take them out of my hand.” Strong words I realize, but nonetheless true.
It is is not clear to me who wrote the book of Jonah, for I can see that it is written in the third person dialogue (as if one had been standing back watching and is now telling you what they saw.) If Jonah wrote the book in that manner, as most agree he did, is he then merely taking for granted that this crew (we assume they are gentiles) changed their hearts and suddenly offered up a sacrifice to God. We make these leaps of assumption because:
- Jonah came from the same area as the Philistines, and therefore these people must have played a role in his life. All assumption.
- In trying to escape from God he catches a boat in Joppa. But no one bothers to fill in the blanks as to where Joppa is.
- We assume the captain and crew of the boat are anything but Jewish, however, there is nothing to define them, and we cannot rule out the possibility that they are Israelis. The only evidence we have comes when they all prayed to their own gods to be saved out of the storm.
We assume that these were not Jews because of the varied gods to which they prayed, but wasn’t that Israel’s problem from the day they left Egypt? We see evidence of their attachment to idols as one of the first things they did was roast their children on the altar Aaron built to the god Moloch. I realize that most of you refuse to believe that, but it was Stephen (of the New Testament) who makes this fact clear as he addressed the Jewish council prior to their having him stoned. (You will find all this in Acts 7, specifically verse 43.) When Balaam was asked to curse Israel, God told him not to, but he did take the liberty of telling king Balak that if you introduce the good-looking women from the surrounding nations, Israel will take them in, and will be destroyed from the inside out as they adopt the other gods these women bring with them. (Numbers 22)
In trying to understand Jonah, I am reminded of Moses. Moses is said to have written much the of the books of the Law in the third person, but not all. If Jonah were dead he would not have known about the actions these men took. Anything we say to define what exactly happened is merely conjecture. What does seem feasible, is that God, like he did with Moses, saw fit to relate many aspects of this story to Jonah or some other author. We then must chose to believe, as we did with the books written by Moses, and find, as the crew did, the awesome God, who shows mercy, and responds to prayer.