Jonah 1:1-17(2:1)

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The manner in which the “word of YHWH” came to Jonah the son of Amittai” is not revealed in the account. Nothing is known about his father Amittai. According to 2 Kings 14:25, Jonah (whose name means “dove”) lived in Gath-hepher, a town in the territory of Zebulun. (Joshua 19:10, 13) This town has commonly been identified with Khirbet ez-Zurra‛ (Tel Gat Hefer), located about 14 miles (c. 22.5 kilometers) west of the southwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. The account indicates that the prophet had sufficient means for a long sea voyage and living expenses while outside the land of Israel. (1:1; compare 1:3.)

Jonah was divinely directed to arise and head to “Nineveh, the great city” and make a proclamation against it, for its “badness” had “come up” before God. Two mounds in northern Iraq on the east bank of the Tigris River and opposite the city of Mosul occupy the site of ancient Nineveh. (1:2)

The Septuagint rendering indicates that Jonah was to proclaim the message in Nineveh because the cry of the city’s badness had ascended to God. This could be understood to mean that there was a general outcry from the people who suffered from the evil deeds that had been committed in Nineveh. Both the extant Hebrew text and the Septuagint reveal that the wickedness of the city had not escaped God’s attention. (1:2)

Instead of following through on his assignment, Jonah tried to run away from the “face of YHWH” or to get far away from his God, possibly thinking that he could escape from YHWH’s presence by taking up residence in a distant foreign land. He wanted to reach Tarshish. This is a location commonly associated with the Iberian Peninsula, but the identification is not certain. Josephus (Antiquities, IX, x, 2) understood the place to be Tarsus in Cilicia, a region in the southeastern part of Asia Minor. (1:3)

If Jonah was in Gath-hepher (2 Kings 14:25) at the time he received his commission to go to Nineveh, he would have traveled some 60 miles (roughly 100 kilometers) southwestward down to the seaport of Joppa on the Mediterranean coast. (For pictures of and comments about Joppa, see Joppa.) He took along sufficient funds (probably silver, if not also gold) for the voyage he was about to undertake and for living expenses. This suggests that Jonah was not a man of limited means. (1:3)

At Joppa, he found a ship that would take him to Tarshish. According to the Seputagint rendering, Jonah “gave” or paid the “fare” (naulon, a noun related to naus, meaning “ship”). The Hebrew text may also have this significance. There is, however, another possibility. In this context, the Hebrew word sakár is commonly understood to mean “fare” or “passage money,” but its basic significance is “hire” or “wages.” Since the account makes no mention of other passengers, possibly Jonah hired both the ship and the crew to take him to Tarshish. Whatever the financial arrangements may have been, he spared no expense in his effort to get away from the presence of YHWH. (1:3)

Jonah, however, did not get away from YHWH, the God who, for his purpose, can control all creation and the forces of nature. YHWH caused a “great wind” to rush down upon the sea. The mighty tempest churned up the water, and the powerful high waves threatened to wreck the ship. (1:4)

Fear gripped the sailors, “they cried out [each] man to his gods [their god (LXX)].” To increase the ship’s buoyancy, the crew began to lighten the vessel, casting into the sea whatever items (Hebrew, the plural of keli; Greek, the plural of skeuos) they could. Both the Hebrew word keli and the corresponding Greek word skeuos are general designations that can refer to equipment, an item, an instrument, a thing, an implement, a vessel, or a weapon. (1:5)

While the storm was raging and the sailors did everything they could to keep the vessel from being wrecked, Jonah was fast asleep. He may well have been exhausted from his long journey to Joppa. Possibly when the storm began, he had gone down into the bowels or recesses of the vessel. According to the Septuagint rendering, he “was sleeping and snoring.” Josephus (Antiquities, IX, x, 2) referred to him as lying still and covered, not “imitating anything that the others did.” (1:5)

Upon finding Jonah asleep, the captain (literally, “chief of the sailors”) woke him up, saying to him, “What [is] this, sleeper? Get up, call upon your gods. Perhaps the gods will grant consideration to us, and we will not perish.” The Hebrew word for “god” is plural, but it can here be understood as a plural of excellence and, therefore, as singular. According to the Septuagint, the captain said to Jonah, “Why are you snoring? Get up, call upon your god so that the god might save us and we might not be destroyed.” (1:6; see the Notes section.)

The sailors concluded that the storm was an evidence of divine wrath and that someone on the ship must have incurred divine anger. As was commonly done in such situations, they decided to cast lots to learn on whose account the calamity had come upon them. “And they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah.” (1:7)

Likely with one mariner raising one question and another seaman asking another one, Jonah faced a barrage of questions. “Tell us, please, on what account has this calamity come upon us? What [is] your occupation? And from where do you come? What [is] your country? And from which people [are] you?” (1:8)

According to the Septuagint rendering, Jonah identified himself as a “slave of the Lord,” but the Masoretic Text refers to him as identifying himself as a “Hebrew.” Otherwise, the Septuagint reads much like the Masoretic Text. Jonah continued, “YHWH the God of the heavens I am fearing, [the one] who made the sea and the dry land.” In this manner, Jonah made it clear that he recognized YHWH alone as the true God and as the Creator of everything. (1:9)

His response to the questioning gave rise to dread among the seamen, for they would have perceived that their perilous situation had YHWH, the Creator of the sea and the dry land, as the source. Having learned from Jonah that he was running away from the presence (literally, the “face”) of YHWH, the seamen were very fearful, saying to him, “What [is] this you have done?” In the Hebrew text and the Septuagint, their horror is expressed in an intensified manner by means of the repetition of the verb and the noun for “fear” (“feared [with] a great fear”). (1:10)

Meanwhile the threat to their lives had become greater. The sea kept “coming” or lashing against the ship and “raging” (“stirred up more [of] a swell” [LXX]). Therefore, the mariners then asked Jonah what they should do to him so that the sea would become calm for them. (1:11)

He told the mariners to pick him up and to cast him into the sea so that it would calm down, acknowledging that the “great tempest” had come upon them on his account. Instead of endangering the lives of everyone, Jonah was prepared to face death by drowning so that all the others might be saved. (1:12)

The seamen, however, did not want to share in an act that they perceived as certain to kill Jonah. They tried hard to get the ship back to land, rowing as hard as they could. Their efforts did not succeed, for the sea “kept coming and raging against them.” The powerful wind caused ever-higher waves to batter the ship. (1:13)

Without any possibility for getting safely to land, the mariners were forced to act on Jonah’s words. Nevertheless, they wanted to avoid incurring YHWH’s wrath for sharing responsibility for the prophet’s death. This prompted them to cry out to YHWH, entreating him, “O YHWH, let us not perish for the soul [or life] of this man and lay not innocent blood on us, for you, O YHWH, have done as it has pleased you.” (1:14)

They then “picked up Jonah and cast him into the sea, and the sea stopped from its raging.” For the mariners, the return of calm confirmed that Jonah had been responsible for their dire situation and that YHWH, the Creator of the sea and dry land, had acted. (1:15)

This development caused them to “fear YHWH with great fear” or with profound awe. Apparently in gratitude for having been delivered, the men “offered a sacrifice to YHWH and vowed vows.” The account does not disclose the nature of the sacrifice nor what the men vowed to do in expression of their thankfulness. In view of the absence of any mention of a postponement of the sacrifice until their once again being on land, with the proper location being at YHWH’s temple in Jerusalem, one may conclude that they did so while on the ship. Their interaction with Jonah was not of a nature to reveal to them that the temple in Jerusalem was the place for presenting acceptable sacrifices to YHWH. Moreover, any previous contact with Israelites from the ten-tribe kingdom would not have enlightened them regarding what constituted acceptable worship. In their worship of YHWH, the majority in the realm practiced a corrupt form that was associated with golden calves that Jeroboam, the first monarch, had set up at the northern city of Dan and the southern city of Bethel. (1 Kings 12:28-33; 2 Kings 17:16, 17, 22-28) Accordingly, the seamen may well have acted in keeping with what they believed to be a fitting expression of their gratitude to YHWH as the God who had saved them from certain death. (1:16; see the Notes section.)

“YHWH assigned [manáh] a huge fish to swallow Jonah.” The Hebrew word manáh basically means “number,” “reckon,” or “count.” In this context, however, its apparent significance is “assign” or “appoint.” The Septuagint rendering is a form of the verb prostásso, meaning “command.” So YHWH is here represented as directing the sea creature to fulfill his purpose respecting Jonah. Neither the Hebrew word for “fish” (dag) nor the corresponding Greek noun kétos (“sea monster” or “huge fish”) provides any clue about which large sea creature then found in the Mediterranean Sea swallowed Jonah. Although a sperm whale and a great white shark would have been capable of gulping down a man whole, there is no way to establish that either one of these creatures did so. (1:17 [2:1])

Jonah remained in the inward parts or belly (koilía) of the fish “three days and three nights.” Without direct divine action, he could not have survived, to be later disgorged without having suffered any apparent harm. Some commentators have conjectured that Jonah did die inside the large sea creature but was resurrected upon being vomited out on dry land. There are, however, no specifics in the account to support this view. (1:17 [2:1])

Notes

In verse 6, the Hebrew text does not include a verb when quoting the initial words of the captain. For this reason, translations vary in their renderings. “How can you sleep?” (NIV) “What are you doing asleep?” (NAB) “What do you mean by sleeping?” (NJB) “What, fast asleep?” (REB)

The sacrificing referred to in verse 16 would not necessarily have involved an animal offering. It could have been a libation or included items that they had intended as votive offerings upon completing a successful sea voyage.

A Minor Prophets scroll (8HevXIIgr) in Greek (thought to date between 50 BCE and 50 CE) contains the divine name in ancient Hebrew script (paleo-Hebrew). This scroll includes a very fragmentary portion of the book of Jonah. In what would be verse 16 of chapter 1, the first two letters (yod [Y] and he [H] of the divine name [written from right to left according to Hebrew style, not left to right as is the Greek text]) are preserved. Two other occurrences of the divine name likewise do not preserve all the letters (3:3 [the last letter he (H)] and 4:2 [the last two letters waw (W) and he (H)]).