Jonah flees from the Lord, 1-17

Jon 1:1 The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai:

Jonah 1:2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”

“Preach against it” – or, ‘Preach in it.’

“Because its wickedness has come up before me” – Or, ‘Because its calamity is of concern to me.’

Jon 1:3 But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the LORD.

Tarshish – probably Tartessus at the southern tip of Spain but possibly of Tarsus in Cilisia. Jonah sailed for Tarshish, the far limit of the western world from the Mediterranean port of Joppa in his futile attempt to escape God’s call

‘When the call came to Jonah to preach in Nineveh, he fled in the opposite direction, hoping thus to escape from his unpleasant task. He was afraid that the merciful God would forgive the oppressing heathen city, if it should repent at his preaching. Jonah was a narrow-minded patriot, who feared that Assyria would one day swallow up his own little nation; and so he wished to do nothing that might lead to the preservation of wicked Nineveh. Jonah was willing to prophesy to Israel; he at first flatly refused to become a foreign missionary.’ (ISBE)

Why was Jonah so reluctant to go to Ninevah?  ‘Secular sources inform us that the Ninevites were atrocious in the way they treated their enemies. They beheaded the leaders of peoples they conquered and piled up those heads. They sometimes placed a captive leader in a cage, treating him like an animal. Often they impaled their captives, thus giving them an agonizingly painful death. Other times they stretched out the legs and arms of a captive and skinned him alive. No wonder Jonah did not want to preach a message of repentance to the Ninevites! He felt they deserved judgment for their atrocities.’ (Zuch, Basic Bible Interpretation)

Jonah 1:4 Then the LORD sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up.

Jonah 1:5 All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep.

Jonah 1:6 The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish.”

Jon 1:7 Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah.

On the casting of lots, see Pr 16:33 n

Jonah 1:8 So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?”

Jon 1:9 he answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.”

‘Jonah has an orthodox theology, but his conduct does not match his confession.’

Jonah 1:10 This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the LORD, because he had already told them so.)

Jonah 1:11 The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?”

Jonah 1:12 “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”

Jonah 1:13 Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before.

Jonah 1:14 Then they cried to the LORD, “O LORD, please do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O LORD, have done as you pleased.”

Jonah 1:15 Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm.

Jonah 1:16 At this the men greatly feared the LORD, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows to him.

Jon 1:17 But the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.

‘As far as the sailors were concerned, Jonah had drowned. For our narrator, however, it is the drowned man who remains the chief interest.’ (Nixon)

The psalm which makes up the biggest proportion of ch 2 is framed by references to the ‘great fish’ which swallows Jonah (Jon 1:17) and vomits him out (Jon 2:10).

‘In this brief narrative we see that Yahweh retains the initiative. Jonah’s contest with God is ill-matched. The account illustrates the impossibility of escaping God’s presence and the folly of attempting such a thing. It shows Jonah’s dependence on God even when he is in a state of rebellion against him.’ (Nixon)

The great fish appears just twice, at the beginning and end (Jon 2:10) of this scene. ‘It is a sign of Bible reader’s eccentricity that the fish in history has expanded to fill the whole horizon – paintings, windows, diagrams and even a pulpit in Poland.’

‘Ambrose John Wilson in the Princeton Theological Review for 1927 mentions a case of a sailor on a whaling ship near the Falkland Islands who was swallowed by a large sperm whale. The whale was later harpooned, and when it was opened up on deck the surprised crew found their lost shipmate unconscious inside its belly. Though bleached from the whale’s gastric juices, he recovered, even though he never lost the deadly whiteness left on his face, neck and hands.’ (HSB) This story is subjected to detailed discussion by E.B. Davis in A Whale of a Tale: Fundamentalist Fish Stories.

The Lord provided a great fish – The Lord ‘appointed’ the fish, and the fish obeyed (contrast with disobedient Jonah). The same word is found in the Lord’s ‘appointment’ of the plant, Jon 4:6, the worm, Jon 4:7, and the wind, Jon 4:8.

Isa 1:3 contrasts domestic animals who know their owner to the people of God who do not know him. See also Jer 8:7 Job 38:8-11. In Num 22:22-30 an ass is better at recognising God’s word than a prophet. In Gen 8:10-12 birds are God’s messengers. In 1 Kings 17:6 lions are obedient to the heavenly messenger.

The Lord might have chosen any of a number of ways to save Jonah. But ‘the Lord does not usually protect us from the consequences of our own choices and actions. In his faithfulness and graciousness towards us, Yahweh comes with us into the consequences of our choices in order to save us there. Jonah had chosen the sea as his escape route; it is there that the Lord awaits him.’ (Nixon)

‘Jonah was to discover for himself the impossibility of escaping God’s presence. To learn this he needed to be in the place of human powerlessness, ultimately the place of death. Salvation is not, in the first instance, the Lord God taking us “out” of our mess, but God meeting us “within” it. Jonah will find salvation within his watery grave, for there, in the place which eloquently speaks of death, God will meet him.’ (Nixon)

‘The book of Jonah does not reach its climax by asking the reader, “Do you believe that the great fish was historical or allegorical?” Rather, God asks, “And should I not pity Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jon 4:11)’ (Nixon)

The images of the overpowering sea and the threatening great fish are perhaps reminiscent of pagan mythology, but in this story God is not in combat with these forces: he merely commands them and they obey. Nixon quotes an old Rabbinic saying: ‘God spends eight hours administering the universe, eight hours reading the Torah and eight hours playing with Leviathan.’

Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights – This length of time indicates the hopelessness of his situation, cf. 1 Sam 30:12; Jn 11:17; Lk 24:21.