Jonah refused God’s commission, but that was not the end of the story. God pursued Jonah.
The narrative begins with God’s call (Jonah 1:2), moves to Jonah’s refusal by flight (Jonah 1:3), and now God pursues Jonah through wind, storm, and fish. Back-and-forth, God invites and Jonah refuses until Jonah, in the belly of the fish, accepts God’s call. God’s pursuit is God’s mercy, and the wind, storm, and fish are not God’s punishment but God’s discipline, a severe mercy.
Jonah’s downward descent is the primary movement in the opening scenes of the first chapter, also noted in the previous blog.
- Jonah descends to Joppa, a city under Gentile control (Jonah 1:3)
- Jonah descends onto a boat, which is piloted by Gentiles (Jonah 1:3)
- Jonah descends into the bowels of the boat, the lowest part of the boat (Jonah 1:5)
- Jonah descends, ultimately, into Sheol, the belly of the great fish (Jonah 2:6)
Jonah is descending into a pit, away from Yahweh, away from his commission. As Jonah descends, God pursues.
A Severe Providence
Youngblood (Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy) identifies this downward movement in Jonah 1:4-6 and also discerns another downward movement in the narrative, a movement from the heavens (sky) to the depths of the ship. This movement happens on the sea.
Sky – Yahweh hurls a great wind at the sea.
Sea – The wind whips a raging storm on the sea.
Ship – The ship threatens to disintegrate on the sea.
Deck of the Ship – Sailors are hurling cargo into the sea.
Bowels of the Ship – Jonah sleeps in the ship on the sea.
“The narrative,” Youngblood notes (p. 72), “descends, pulling the reader down to the depths with Jonah.” Entering the world of the narrative, we are caught in the descending cycle of Jonah’s flight. Though headed to Tarshish, he is actually going nowhere.
The sea is harsh place. Even the most experienced mariners faced the dangers with great anxiety. Ezekiel 27:25-36, describing the “ships of Tarshish,” provides a harrowing account of sea travel and its dangers. Life, wealth, and futures “sink into the heart of the seas on the day of your ruin” (Ezekiel 27:27). Rowers on an ancient ship were no match for an angry sea (Ezekiel 27:26).
Jonah’s ship faced such an angry, even raging, sea (Jonah 1:15). The narrator calls it a “storm,” which describes something akin to hurricane (Psalm 83:15), and such storms are often associated with divine activity, even wrath (Amos 1:14; Jeremiah 23:19). Indeed, the storm arises from a great wind Yahweh “hurled” across the sea. The storm is a divine act—it begins and it ends when Yahweh decides. The winds and the waves obey Yahweh, even though Jonah does not.
The “sea,” of course, is a dominant theme in chapter where the word yam (sea) occurs nine times. And this is more significant than mere vocabulary. The word also has a mythological background in Canaanite culture. Yam is the god of the sea, the chaos God, who battles Baal, the fertility god of Canaan. In ancient myths, Yam and Baal represent water and land, or sea and the earth.
This is why the sailors are crying out to their own gods, perhaps the gods of their homeland. Ancient deities were often local, regional, or national, and sometimes they were even personal or vocational (e.g, sailors, artisans, etc.). Even ships would have their own protectors, as their decorations sometimes indicated.
When Yam, it appears, as the god of the sea, threatens the ship with a storm, the sailors pray for their gods to rescue them. But, generally, upon the sea, they are impotent. They cannot fight Yam on that god’s own territory.
Yam, however, is not the source of this storm. Quite the contrary, neither Yam nor the chaotic sea is a threat to Yahweh who hurled the wind upon the sea to create the storm. Yahweh created the land and the sea (Jonah 1:9), Yam and Baal are nothing to Yahweh. God uses chaos, even Yam (as the sailors believed in such), as a tool of God’s own purposes. God uses wind, storm, and eventually a fish to pursue Jonah.
The storm, then, is God’s act; it is an act of divine providence. Providence is not always blissful; it is often disciplinary. Providence is not always “friendly,” though it may be misinterpreted as such at first. For example, Jonah had the money to hire a ship and he found one. We might wonder whether such “luck” (or providence) might have encouraged Jonah to flee. But even that providence becomes part of a larger story where God pursues Jonah’s flight. It is not so much a function of divine wrath as it is divine discipline, a severe mercy.
The Renewed Call
Jonah descended into the bowels of the ship, that is, to the furthest reaches of the baot. Perhaps Jonah is hiding, or perhaps Jonah is simply escaping—going to the extremities available. It is like going into Sheol, the place of the dead. The word here is found in parallel with Sheol in Isaiah 14:15 and Ezekiel 32:21. Whatever the case, there Jonah goes to sleep and in such a deep sleep, the storm does not awaken him.
How can Jonah sleep, or why is Jonah sleeping? Perhaps Jonah was content to die, content with his decision; perhaps Jonah was exhausted from stress. Or, as some have suggested, Jonah has fallen into a deep sleep occasioned by God. The Hebrew word may indicated a deep, hypnotic-like sleep (Genesis 2:21; Job 4:13), and often people, including prophets, receive revelation in their sleep or dreams (Genesis 15:12; Job 33:15; Daniel 8:18: 1 Samuel 25:12-25; Genesis 28:16; Zechariah 4:1). Perhaps in this moment God is once again bring a “word” to Jonah. Youngblood (p. 76) suggests the sleep is “preparation for his second calling.” Perhaps this is why the storm did not disturb Jonah’s sleep—God was coming to Jonah once again.
This is confirmed by what the captain says when he awakens Jonah. The commission, announced in Jonah 1:1-2, is renewed through the captain’s words.
|The word of the Lord came…||Arise!||Cry out…||1:1-2|
|The captain came…||Arise!||Cry out..||1:6|
God calls. Jonah runs. God responds through wind and storm, and God renews the call through the captain. Jonah, however, continues to resist. As we will see, Jonah does not cry out to Yahweh. Instead, he runs again—this time he is “hurled” into the sea (Jonah 1:12, 15), just as Yahweh “hurled” the wind at the sea (Jonah 1:4) and the sailors “hurled” their cargo into the sea (Jonah 1:5).
The captain is astounded Jonah is sleeping rather than praying. The captain hopes for mercy, much like David hoped for such mercy when praying for his son (2 Samuel 12:22). Perhaps some god somewhere will show mercy and do something to help them.
Ironically, mercy is all Yahweh has shown and will show in this story.
Jonah refuses God’s call and flees from God’s presence. In response, God does not execute Jonah or zap him with lightning. On the contrary, God pursues Jonah! Through wind, storm, and tumultuous waves, God calls Jonah once again. Rather than punishing Jonah, God continues to invite Jonah into the divine mission. And Jonah continues to refuse. God, however, remains merciful, though it is a severe mercy.
The book of Jonah moves from one mercy to another, from mercy to mercy.
Mercy for Jonah.
Mercy for the sailors.
Mercy for Nineveh.
And mercy for Jonah again
The story of Jonah piles mercy upon mercy, which is God’s own identity (Jonah 4:3).