4 But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. 5 Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. 6 So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”
7 And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. – Jonah 1:4-7 ESV
God told Jonah to “get up and go” and that is exactly what he did. But in the wrong direction. Rather than head to Nineveh as God had commanded, Jonah decided to “to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3 ESV). While we have no idea of the exact location of Tarshish, we do know that it was nowhere near Nineveh. In fact, to go there, Jonah headed east to the city of Joppa on the Mediterranean coast, where he hired a boat. Some speculate that Tarshish was another name for the city of Tartesus in southwest Spain. In Jonah’s day, the 2,500-mile journey to this remote location would have been like traveling to the end of the world.
But for Jonah, the trip was well worth the effort and expense. He was determined to get as far away from the land of Israel as he possibly could. Among the people of the ancient world, it was a common belief that the gods were regionalized deities whose domains were restricted to specific geographic locations. We have an example of this mindset recorded in 1 Kings 20. In this account, the Israelite army finds itself encamped in a valley, facing a much larger Syrian force. But God delivers a word to the king of Israel.
“Thus says the Lord, ‘Because the Syrians have said, “The Lord is a god of the hills but he is not a god of the valleys,” therefore I will give all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am the Lord.’” – 1 Kings 20:28 ESV
Based on his actions, it seems that Jonah believed that Yahweh, the God of Israel, was somehow restricted to that region of the world. After all, the temple where God’s presence was said to dwell was located in Jerusalem.
Three separate times in this opening chapter, the author stresses that Jonah was attempting to flee from the presence of the Lord. In other words, his decision to go to Tarshish was motivated by a desire to get away from God. Having found the task assigned to him by God to be unacceptable, Jonah chose to avoid doing God’s will by escaping His presence. And this raises some serious questions about Jonah’s theology. Did he really think he could run from God? As a good Hebrew and a prophet of God, was he not aware of the concept of God’s omnipresence? Had he never read the words of King David?
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.” – Psalm 139:7-12 ESV
To think that Jonah had a fully formed theology of God would be a mistake. Later in the book, he will display an intimate understanding of God’s nature.
“I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” – Jonah 4:2 ESV
But we should not assume that Jonah’s concept of God was fully complete or entirely accurate. Even his understanding of God’s grace and mercy seems a bit skewed. He almost describes these divine traits as weaknesses, that might somehow allow God to relent from pouring out His judgment on the Assyrians. Jonah describes his understanding of God’s grace, mercy, patience, and love as the very reasons why he ran away in the first place. “That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish” (Jonah 4:2 ESV).
Rather than run the risk of having to watch God spare the Ninevites, Jonah simply ran away. But he was about to discover the truth behind David’s words – the hard way.
The author matter-of-factly states that “the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea” (Jonah 1:4 ESV). It’s almost as if, at the very moment Jonah stepped foot on the boat, his plan began to fall apart. His hope to escape the presence of the Lord was met with a divine reminder that running from God is not only futile but utterly impossible.
The Lord looks down from heaven;
he sees all the children of man;
from where he sits enthroned he looks out
on all the inhabitants of the earth,
he who fashions the hearts of them all
and observes all their deeds. – Psalm 33:12-15 ESV
And the prophet Amos, a contemporary of Jonah, had declared God’s words of judgment against the rebellious people of Israel.
“Even if they dig down to the place of the dead,
I will reach down and pull them up.
Even if they climb up into the heavens,
I will bring them down.
Even if they hide at the very top of Mount Carmel,
I will search them out and capture them.
Even if they hide at the bottom of the ocean,
I will send the sea serpent after them to bite them.” – Amos 9:2-3 NLT
Little did Jonah know that he was about to experience the words of this prophetic statement in real life. He could run but he couldn’t hide. Jonah had no idea that he had just purchased a ticket to “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.”
One of the things that will become readily apparent as we work our way through the book of Jonah is the author’s habit of repeating certain words for emphasis. He states that God “hurled a great wind upon the sea” (Jonah 1:4 ESV). One verse later, he writes that the sailors “hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them” (Jonan 1:5 ESV). And in verse 15, he will bring this part of Jonah’s story to a climax by stating that “they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea” (Jonah 1:15 ESV). The Hebrew word for “hurled” is ṭûl and it was often used to describe the act of casting a spear. Like a divine warrior, God uses the elements of nature like a weapon, flinging the wind and the waves at his reluctant and rebellious prophet. And the psalmist describes the Lord’s sovereign authority over the wind and the waves in graphic terms.
Some went off to sea in ships,
plying the trade routes of the world.
They, too, observed the Lord’s power in action,
his impressive works on the deepest seas.
He spoke, and the winds rose,
stirring up the waves.
Their ships were tossed to the heavens
and plunged again to the depths;
the sailors cringed in terror.
They reeled and staggered like drunkards
and were at their wits’ end.
“Lord, help!” they cried in their trouble,
and he saved them from their distress. – Psalm 107:23-28 NLT
That is the scene being played out in the opening chapter of the book of Jonah. God is hurling his divine weapons of judgment against the ship in which his prodigal prophet has sought refuge. And the sailors responsible for Jonah’s safe passage find themselves in a state of abject fear as their vessel begins to break up under the relentless wrath of God Almighty. As a sign of their desperation, they begin to jettison the ship’s valuable cargo, willingly sacrificing any hopes of profit in order to preserve their lives. In 1 Kings 10:22, we are given a description of the potential value of the cargo contained on ships traveling to and from Tarshish.
…the king [Solomon] had a fleet of ships of Tarshish at sea with the fleet of Hiram. Once every three years the fleet of ships of Tarshish used to come bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks. – 1 Kings 10:22 ESV
These seasoned sailors were terrified by the intensity of the storm. So much so that they “each cried out to his god” (Jonah 1:5 ESV). These men were non-Israelites and the fact that they each had their own god would seem to indicate that were from different countries and cultures. Little did Jonah know that his traveling companions were a mixed bag of pagan idol worshipers. And these men were in fear of losing their lives. But while they were busy calling out to their respective deities and throwing cargo overboard, Jonah was fast asleep in the hold of the ship.
It’s amazing to think that Jonah was able to sleep through the storm and the constant noise associated with the sailors’ frantic efforts to jettison cargo. But the author is very specific in the word he uses to describe Jonah’s slumbering state. The Hebrew word is rāḏam and it conveys the idea of a sleep bordering on unconsciousness. Jonah is in a state of stupefaction. He is out like a light. Perhaps Jonah had imbibed in some liquid refreshment that contributed to his coma-like condition. But regardless of what caused Jonah’s deep sleep, it was soon interrupted by the angry cries of the ship’s captain.
“How can you sleep at a time like this?” – Jonah 1:6 NLT
It was all hands on deck. This was no time for anyone to be sleeping while sinking. He demanded that Jonah join the rest of the crew by calling on his particular deity of choice. He was an equal-opportunity idolater who was more than willing to accept the aid of any and all gods. At this point, he had no idea who Jonah was, where he was from, or what religion he practiced. He just knew that, without divine intervention, they were dead men.
“Get up and pray to your god! Maybe he will pay attention to us and spare our lives.” – Jonah 1:6 NLT
It should not go unnoticed that these pagan sailors displayed far more spiritual awareness than the Hebrew prophet, Jonah. While they had been praying, Jonah had been sleeping. He almost seems resigned to the fact that his life is not worth living if he has to do what God has commanded him to do. Jonah shows no signs of remorse or regret. He was not tossing and turning in sleepless anxiety, questioning his actions, or agonizing over his decision to disobey God. He was sleeping like an innocent baby. But these pagan sailors seemed to recognize that this storm had divine retribution written all over it. Someone was guilty of something and the god(s) were angry. So, in the hopes of assuaging the divine wrath, they come up with a plan to discover the identity of the guilty party.
“Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” – Jonah 1:7 ESV
And, not surprisingly, “the lot fell on Jonah” (Jonah 1:7 ESV). These sailors discovered what the readers of the book already knew. Jonah was the cause of all their troubles. This unknown and unnamed passenger had uncaringly jeopardized the lives of the entire crew. And whatever deity Jonah worshiped was going to kill them all if they didn’t figure out a way to appease its wrath.
Jonah, the Hebrew prophet, showed no concern for the suffering sailors. At no point does this servant of Yahweh display a heart for these pagan idolaters who were desperately calling out to the gods in hopes of experiencing salvation. Jonah was a follower of the one true God, but he had no desire to share what he knew with these desperate and dying men. There is no indication that Jonah ever prayed to Yahweh on their behalf. He was too busy running from the presence of God to take time to call on the power of God. And as the representative of Israel, Jonah displayed their ongoing reticence to be a light to the nations.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.