Salvation Through Judgment and Mercy is the title of Bryan Estelle’s book in The Gospel According to the Old Testament series (Presbyterian and Reformed). Judgment for Jonah is not retribution or revenge; it is the means of salvation. Through judgment, God saves Jonah from himself and renews Jonah’s missional call. God is not punishing Jonah; God is pursuing Jonah.
God saves Jonah through the mediation of wind, storm, and fish….and pagan sailors who learn about Yahweh through Jonah. The narrator tells the story through the dialogue and interaction between the sailors and Jonah.
|“Come, let us cast lots”||The lot fell on Jonah|
|“Tell us why this calamity has come upon us”||“I am a Hebrew and fear Yahweh”|
|“What is this you have done!”||They knew he was fleeing from the presence of Yahweh|
|“What shall we do with you?”||“Pick me up and throw me into the sea.”|
|They rowed hard for land.||The storm grew in intensity.|
|“O Yahweh, do not let us perish…and do not make us guilty of innocent blood.”||They picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea.|
|The sea ceased its raging and they worshiped Yahweh.||A great fish swallowed Jonah.|
The sailors move from terror to praise, and Jonah descends into the deep, into the belly of the great fish.
The sailors cast lots, which is a common form of discernment in the Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 16:8-10; 1 Samuel 10:19-21; Proverbs 16:33; 18:18). Their prayers, obviously, were not effective, and their gods had not responded. They sense, however, their situation is connected to someone on the ship who has offended Yam, the great sea god. Astoundingly, as Brent Strawn has argued, these pagan sailors engage in the Hebrew practice of casting lots (Biblica  66-76). Casting lots is unknown among nations other than Israel at this time. As Kevin Youngblood notes (Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy, 77), the sailors have moved away from praying to their own gods and practiced Hebrew divination, including casting lots and later praying, sacrificing, and making vows to Yahweh.
Jonah did not volunteer he was the one responsible for this calamity (literally, “evil”). He was not, apparently, going to identify himself until he was discovered. He was hiding and waited to see what would happen. He watched as the lot was cast, and Yahweh singled out Jonah.
The sailors then bagger Jonah with a series of questions, probably frustrated by his silence.
Why has this “evil” come upon us?
What is your occupation?
Where did you come from?
What is your nationality?
Who are you?
The questions probe Jonah’s identity—vocation, movements, and loyalties. At the heart of the questions is the “why” and the “who”? Jonah’s occupation, origins, and nationality might contribute to their primary interest, which was the initial question out of their mouths and the last one.
The first question laments their current situation—they are in the midst of a traumatic storm, which threatens their lives. They want to know, what we all might want to know at that point, “why?” They need an explanation, a rationale. If they knew what was happening, they might figure out how to respond. And while Job’s immediate recorded response does not answer this question (the narrative is telescoped), apparently Jonah did answer it since it becomes evident they did learn about Jonah’s flight from God. Consequently, we might imagine Jonah answered all their questions:
I am fleeing from the presence of Yahweh (the problem).
I am a prophet of Yahweh (occupation).
I came from the land of Israel (geography).
I am an Israelite (nationality).
I am a Hebrew (ethnicity).
The last question probes Job’s identity, “Who are you?” He gives an ethnic answer, “I am a Hebrew.” This is how an Israelite would answer a foreigner, the term the nations used to describe Jews. More importantly, he gives a religious answer: “I fear Yahweh.” This is his religious loyalty; Yahweh is his God. And Yahweh is the “God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Jonah serves the Creator God who is sovereign over the sea and land, sovereign over Yam and Baal. In other words, Jonah serves the God who sent this storm. Yahweh wants Jonah!
Given Jonah’s responses (including what was not cited in the narrative), the sailors recognize their plight and their fear increases. Outraged, they exclaim: “What is this you have done!” Jonah has involved them in his disobedience to Yahweh. Jonah flees Yahweh, but Yahweh pursues Jonah, and the sailors are caught in the middle. Yahweh’s pressure on the sailors increases as the intensity of the storm increases. The sailors are at a loss as to what to do, and Jonah suggests they cast him overboard.
Why did Jonah offer this option? Jonah, we might say, is willing to die to save the sailors since he figures Yahweh will save the sailors if he is not on board. Jonah knows Yahweh is merciful, and he expected Yahweh would save these pagans just as Yahweh wants to save the Assyrians. Ironically, Jonah shows mercy to pagans even has he is running from proclaiming mercy to pagans (the Assyrians). This may indicate Jonah’s particular hatred for the Assyrians themselves.
However, Jonah could have simply prayed to Yahweh, accepted the commission, and Yahweh would have calmed the seas. Jonah, however, is not willing to accept the mission as yet. He would rather die than offer Assyrians mercy!
At the same time, Jonah is not willing to throw himself into the sea. He asks the sailors to oblige him. Perhaps this suggests Jonah will not act to save the sailors himself—he will wait it out on the boat until there is no choice. Perhaps Jonah still thought he could escape with the sailors. Whatever the case, the sailors do not immediately hurl Jonah into the sea.
Apparently, the sailors did not want to do that. They continued to row in an attempt to reach land, but their efforts were futile. The storm continued to intensify. The more they attempted to save themselves—and Jonah—the more the storm increased. Ultimately, if they were to secure their own salvation, they had no choice but to hurl Jonah overboard just as they had previously hurled cargo over the sides of the ship.
Reluctantly, they threw Jonah overboard, praying Yahweh would save them and forgive them. They held Yahweh accountable for this person’s blood rather than themselves; it was Yahweh’s storm. Yahweh had left them no choice. In this way, as at other times in Israel’s history, the nations became God’s instrument to discipline Israel—this time in the person of Jonah.
In the end, the sailors (the nations) praised Yahweh and offered sacrifices and vows to the God of heaven. Jonah’s sacrifice redeemed the sailors. The pagans were, in some sense, converted, and this is something Jonah refused to help the Assyrians to do.
Jonah, no doubt, expected to die. Surely there was no hope in the raging sea.
But, scandalously and despite Jonah’s persistent resistance, God showed Jonah mercy. God rescues (saves) Jonah through judgment (discipline). A severe mercy keeps Jonah alive.
Undeserving of mercy and not seeking any mercy, Yahweh, nevertheless, showed mercy. This is who God is.