Exegetical Exercise

Fresco of Jonah being cast into the sea

Jonah: “Just let me off here …”

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, May 7 is Jonah 1:7-17 – it’s the first in a series of four lessons on Jonah, which will cover the entire little book, which is itself one of “the Twelve” (as these short books are known in Hebrew) or the “Minor Prophets” (as we were taught in “learn all the books of the Bible” Protestant Sunday school). Here’s a little bit of that text – which is itself just a portion of the opening narrative, the longest chapter in the book, that initiates the plot of Jonah receiving a call from God to go to Nineveh, “that great city,” and trying to “flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Holy One.” (Jonah 1:3) Jonah has booked passage on a sailing ship, they are in the midst of a huge storm that’s getting worse, the sailors have cast lots to find out whose fault it is (since it must be someone’s fault), and the lot has fallen on Jonah. Jonah volunteers to be thrown into the sea! (What is he thinking? “My life is not worth living …”?? Still trying to run from God, possibly?)

(13) Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them. (14) Then they cried out to YHWH, “Please, O YHWH, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O YHWH, have done as it pleased you.” (15) So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. (16) Then the men feared YHWH even more, and they offered a sacrifice to YHWH and made vows.

(17) But YHWH provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

This story is a wild ride. Almost a farce. Why does God call on Jonah anyway? We have no clue, the word of YHWH just comes out of the blue. Why go to Nineveh – a symbol of “your worst enemy” evidently, it means “the Assyrians,” it’s like saying “go to Moscow” in the middle of the Cold War or maybe like saying “go to Pyongyang” yesterday – why?? [well, maybe because God loves everybody …] And if Jonah is the sort of person to whom the word of YHWH comes, has he not read any Psalms, and does he not know that it’s not possible to “flee from the presence of YHWH,” even if your destination is a fictitious/unknown/mythical destination like Tarshish? But apparently not.

So, it’s probably obvious that I do not read this story as a history. It is a different genre – a parable, a fable, a tall tale – but also true – that is, it tells us something true about ourselves and God. Like: sometimes, we have to encounter our worst enemies. Sometimes, God has a word for our worst enemies. (Because God presumably still has a word for us, even when we are our own worst enemies …) And it’s impossibly difficult to evade the word of God. All implications most religious readers of the Bible will be willing to accept, I think.

There is an active role for non-human agents of God’s purposes – not just in this chapter, it will continue through the whole story. Here, v. 4, “a great wind upon the sea,” both the wind and the sea, and the ensuing storm. The “wind,” of course, is ruach, the same “wind” or “spirit” that hovers over the waters in Genesis 1:1. Here the interaction of the wind/spirit and the water creates a storm – realistic, but also symbolic.

Jonah is sleeping in the hold of the ship. During the storm. (hmmm. Does this remind anyone of Matthew 8:23-27/Luke 8:22-25? Or were those stories supposed to remind us of this storm? Jesus is not that much like Jonah – is he? If so, in what way?) How is Jonah managing to ignore this? He is supposed to be calling on “his god,” as everyone else is. Ironically, since presumably everyone else is calling on some “false god,” while Jonah would be calling on the real one, so that the only person on the ship who could manage an effective prayer [at least, from inside the world-model of the narrative] is the one asleep at the switch.

Verses 8-10, there’s an interrogation of sorts, which is funny, because in v. 10 we find out Jonah has already told them he is fleeing from the presence of YHWH. So why the casting of lots in the first place? Maybe they were unclear about the identity of this god – now Jonah announces that it’s the creator of sea and dry land (specifically) – in other words, in this context, in a way, creator of death (sea+heaven/wind) and life (dry land), so, the God who makes the difference between life and death. Now they are more afraid.

The sailors become progressively more afraid during the story: from v. 5 (storm), to v. 10 (God of sea and dry land), to v. 16 (when the storm ceases, clearly at God’s behest), when they are so afraid they effectively become worshipers of the fearsome God of Jonah (they offer a sacrifice, we don’t know of what, and make vows in v. 16). So Jonah succeeds in doing some YHWH evangelism even while trying to avoid it. Or else, God does the evangelism. (Again, the sailors’ growing terror echoes/presages the disciples’ greater terror when Jesus stills the storm on the Sea of Galilee.)

Jonah himself proposes the stratagem of being cast into the sea. Maybe he would rather drown than go to Nineveh?

The sailors try to save Jonah by rowing – this is interesting, isn’t it? They are trying to do the right thing, and the right thing seems to be, in context, to save this worthless scumbag from the wrath of God. (So, does this make them more moral than Jonah, who is not interested at all in saving the worthless scumbags in Nineveh from the wrath of God? But would rather abandon them to their fate? These idolatrous sailors are risking their lives for this one guy, where Jonah will not even see whether he would be risking his life, maybe he wouldn’t be, for that whole great city …)

Then, they acknowledge that it is wrong to have someone’s blood on your hands, and beg forgiveness in advance, even though they have good reason to think God is demanding this guy’s life, for killing him. The sailors are actually pretty heroic, and moral paragons. Or else they are a little bit like Pilate …? (Or, Pilate is a little bit like the sailors, only less sincere.)

More natural world agency in v. 17: YHWH’s large fish, which swallows up Jonah. Or maybe the fish is death. Or Moby Dick.

So, here’s David’s commentary, from two centuries earlier (if we believe the Jonah of Amittai in this book was the 8th century prophet by that name, which is disputed) or maybe five or so centuries earlier (if we believe the Jonah story was post-exilic, which seems more likely, especially with its sense of God’s ubiquitous presence – even, say, in Babylonia):

“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can 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 settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” Psalm 139:7-10

Jonah could be a commentary on Psalm 139, for that matter.

Also, this probably needs to be said: Jonah is the worst prophet ever. Sort of the ideally bad prophet, an “anti-prophet,” the Holden Caulfield of prophets. Anyone could be a better prophet than Jonah – I could probably be a better prophet than Jonah. Could this, also, be part of the point?

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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