‘Now the word of YHWH came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying,'
As a prophet of YHWH Jonah received ‘the word of YHWH'. We are rarely given any explanation of how the word of YHWH was given and we are not justified in most cases in assuming that the prophet went into a state of ecstasy. Indeed it could be argued that among Hebrew prophets that was so rare an occurrence that it was only when it did happen that it was described in depth. Many have received the word of God since that day in the quietness of prayer and meditation, and there is no real reason for seeing the genuine prophets of YHWH as receiving it in any other way, except in exceptional circumstances. Elijah (e.g. 1 Kings 17:11-14) and Elisha (2 Kings 4:27) certainly expected that the word of YHWH would often come to them without any fuss. We have only to compare the approach of Elijah in contrast with the prophets of Baal to recognise that not all prophets functioned in the same way (1 Kings 18:26; 1 Kings 18:28-29; 1 Kings 18:31-38).
All that we know of Jonah, apart from what is in this prophecy, is found in 2 Kings 14:25, where we learn that Jeroboam II ‘restored the border of Israel from Libo-Hamath to the sea of the Arabah (the Dead Sea) according to the word of YHWH, the God of Israel, which He spoke by the hand of His servant Jonah, the son of Amittai, the prophet who was of Gath-hepher.' We thus know that he was seen as an authentic prophet in the early 8th century BC who received ‘the word of YHWH', and probably had the ear of the king. But in view of the fact that so little was known about him it would be difficult to see why this story should be written about him if it did not have a basis in fact. Why select a prophet connected with the outwardly successful reign of Jeroboam II for such a story when the point could be got over better by choosing a prophet from another time who would have had a good cause to fear (or to object to) going to Nineveh? Thus while attempts have been made to find such a reason, they have not been considered successful.
‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it, for their wickedness is come up before me.'
YHWH's command was that Jonah should go to Nineveh to proclaim His word there, because He was aware of their ‘wickedness', or alternatively ‘the evil that had come upon them'. In fact both meanings might have been seen as reflected in the word. As well as indicating moral wickedness the word used can also indicate ‘evil' in the sense of ‘afflictions' or ‘natural evils' But Jonah's message to it was to be such (Jonah 3:2; Jonah 3:4) that it is made clear that it was his view that YHWH certainly had their wickedness in mind, even if He was also aware of their misfortunes. As the largest city within the purview of Jonah it would necessarily have been seen with some justification as the home of much villainy and vice, to say nothing of extremities of pleasure, of a kind which both Jonah and YHWH would certainly have frowned on (1 John 2:15-17). Scripture always sees large cities outside of Israel/Judah as centres of all kinds of evil (which in fact they were) so that Isaiah, for example, portrays the world's sinfulness in terms of ‘a city' (e.g. Isaiah 24:10-12).
‘That great city' was probably indicating Greater Nineveh which was made up of four large cities seen as forming one. Nimrod was said to have ‘built Nineveh and Rehoboth-Ir, and Calah, and Resen between Nineveh and Calah, the same is the great city' (Genesis 10:11-12). It was seemingly this conurbation that YHWH is presented as having in mind. It was probably the ruling centre of Assyria (compare how the king of Assyria was known as ‘the Great King').
It should be noted that intrinsic in this command is that Nineveh is responsible to YHWH and can be called into account by Him, and furthermore that its future fate depends on YHWH. He is thus revealed as the God of the whole of creation, as He will now make apparent. This is not a new teaching. It was the message of Genesis 1-11, and was made apparent by God's activities in Egypt, in the wilderness, and in Canaan. It was also made apparent in the activities of Elijah and Elisha.
This opportunity being given to Nineveh and its king in its time of weakness can be seen as God's final attempt to prevent Assyria from going into the excesses of which it will shortly be guilty. Had they listened and responded permanently how different their future might have been. As it was they would finally be destroyed, and that within two hundred years.
‘But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of YHWH, and he went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid its fare, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of YHWH.'
But Jonah was unwilling to go to Nineveh and sought to evade YHWH's call by fleeing in the opposite direction to Nineveh. He did this by taking ship for Tarshish (possibly Sardinia or Spain). Tarshish (possibly meaning ‘smeltery') was the name given to a number of areas which mined the silver, tin, iron and lead carried by the ‘ships of Tarshish' (ships that carried ore, large cargo ships). Others sees Tarshish as meaning ‘the open sea', with ships of Tarshish being those large enough to cope with the open sea as opposed to sailing near land.
‘He went down to Joppa.' Joppa, or Yepu in the Amarna letters and Yapu in neo-Assyrian inscriptions, was a small port on the coast and was not in Israel or Judah. It was Jonah's first step in his attempt to get away from God. In Joppa no one would blame him for wanting to get away from Israel's influence, and from the influence of Israel's God.
This does not necessarily mean that Jonah actually thought that he could escape the presence of YHWH, only that he thought that if he abdicated his responsibilities as a prophet and left the country of his calling he would be freed from his responsibilities. YHWH's earthly dwellingplace was in Jerusalem, and Israel was YHWH's inheritance, and he presumably considered that by cutting himself off from YHWH's inheritance, the land of Israel, he could be freed from his calling as a prophet and from any responsibility to YHWH. He would no longer be responsible as YHWH's servant.
We are not told why Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh. He may well have been afraid of what they might do to a Hebrew prophet. Or he may have felt that they were foreigners, and therefore not suitable people to receive a revelation from YHWH. Or he may simply have hated Assyria because of what it had already in the past done to his people, and have felt that he wanted no part in offering them the possibility of repentance. It may be that to him they were beyond the pale. Perhaps his own family had been affected by previous Assyrian invasions. But none of these are the reasons which are made clear in the prophecy. Indeed Jonah's argument was that it was because he was afraid that he would be too successful (Jonah 4:2-3), and that YHWH might then spare the Assyrians. That would mean that his ability to prophesy the truth might then be called in question. And he emphasises that he had already made this clear to YHWH before he fled from Israel. He did not think that YHWH was being fair to him as a prophet. He could not bear to think that after prophesying the destruction of Nineveh it might not happen. What would people think about his prophetic ability then? He might even be seen as being a false prophet because what he had prophesied had not happened (Deuteronomy 18:22).
Note the threefold emphases in the verbs. He ‘rose up to flee to Tarshish', ‘went down to Joppa' and ‘found a ship going to Tarshish' (which was what he was looking for). So he ‘paid his fare', ‘went down into it', in order to ‘go to Tarshish'. In both cases what is being emphasised is his set purpose. Note also that Tarshish is mentioned three times in order to emphasise his specific destination. To most people Tarshish was the remotest spot on earth.
‘But YHWH sent out a great wind on the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship was likely to be broken.'
But YHWH was not going to let Jonah off so easily. Jonah was His servant and He never just cast off His servants however badly they behaved. He was as concerned to show mercy to Jonah, as He was to the sailors and to Nineveh. So He sent a great wind on the sea, and aroused a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the probability was that the ship would be broken in pieces. It does not sound like an act of love, but it was. How often He also break up our foundations so that we might learn to walk in His ways and trust and obey Him.
‘Then the mariners were afraid, and cried every man to his god, and they cast overboard the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the innermost parts of the ship, and he lay, and was fast asleep.'
It may well be that Jonah was the only passenger aboard. Thus when the storm came he got himself out of the way and left things in the hands of those who were more capable. The fact that he fell asleep suggests merely that he had little experience of the sea and was confident in both the ship and its crew, and he was very tired. How often God's people think that all is well when really it is not so.
Meanwhile the mariners, who did know the sea, and had never experienced a storm like this, were terrified. And each of them cried to his own god. And at the same time, in order too demonstrate the faith that they had in them, they lightened the ship of everything that could be thrown overboard, which was basically the cargo of trading goods. What were profits when life was at stake?
‘So the shipmaster came to him, and said to him, “What do you mean, O sleeper? Arise, call on your God, if so be that God will think on us, so that we perish not.” '
The shipmaster was concerned to see that while his mariners were doing all that they could to persuade their gods to rescue the ship, their passenger did not appear to be interested. And he woke him up and asked him what he meant by sleeping at such a time. Then he called on him to ‘arise, call on your God', just in case his God might think on their predicament so that they did not perish. It is clear that to him this was a last desperate venture, in which he did not put much hope, but was prepared to try because of the circumstances.
‘And they said every one to his fellow, “Come, and let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this evil is on us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah.”
Then in desperation, when things did not improve, the mariners decided to cast lots in order to find out who among them had angered the gods so much that it had resulted in this evil coming on them. The word for ‘evil' is the same one mentioned with regard to the Ninevites in Jonah 1:2. But here it signifies ‘evil events', that is, catastrophes. And when they did cast lots, the lot fell on Jonah. YHWH had ‘disposed of' the lot in order to indicate the culprit (Proverbs 16:33).
‘Then they said to him, “Tell us, we pray you, for whose cause this evil is on us. What is your occupation, and from where do you come? What is your country, and of what people are you?”
Convinced that they had now found the culprit they asked him to explain why this evil had come upon them, and in doing so asked him for details of his occupation, nationality and native land. They wanted to know what kind of a God they were dealing with..
‘And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew; and I fear YHWH, the God of heaven, who has made the sea and the dry land.” '
Jonah answered in terms that they could understand. ‘Hebrew' was the description used by outsiders of Israelites. It had originally arisen because they were a nomadic people with no permanent ties to the land in which they lived. Habiru was originally a name given to landless and stateless people (e.g. Israel, both in Egypt and when they arrived in Canaan, Abraham ‘the Hebrew', an so on), and had eventually become attached to Israelites as a kind of nickname.
Jonah then explained that he reverenced and worshipped YHWH the God of heaven, Who had made the sea and the dry land. He was admitting that these rough seas could well have been the handiwork of his God.
‘Then the men were hugely afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done?” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of YHWH, because he had told them.'
When the men heard that YHWH was a God of the sea they were terrified, and knowing from what he had said earlier that he was fleeing from ‘the presence of YHWH', they asked him to consider what he had done. It was now clear to them that it was because of Jonah that all this was coming on them.
To flee from the presence of YHWH did not mean that Jonah actually thought that he could get away from God. It rather indicated that he had left the land which belonged to YHWH and in which He dwelt in His temple, so that he could no longer be called into His presence (compare Genesis 4:14).
‘Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may be calm for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous.'
Then they asked him, as one who would know his God's requirements, what they could do to pacify Him so that the sea would become calm, for the storm was getting worse and worse.
‘And he said to them, “Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea, so will the sea be calm for you, for I know that for my sake this great tempest is on you.” '
As a prophet his reply was that, recognising that this great storm had arisen because of him (for his sake), they must throw him into the sea as a kind of appeasement offering to YHWH. Then the sea would become calm for them. he had made the decision that he was ready to die to save the ship and the crew.
‘Nevertheless the men rowed hard to get themselves back to the land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them.'
However, to the men's credit, they were loath to offer him as a human sacrifice, and began to put in every effort to row the ship to the shoreline, probably hoping to disembark Jonah and thus satisfy the gods. In those days ships would often hug the coast, precisely in case of such a storm as this. But it was all in vain, for the storm merely got worse and was clearly acting against them.
‘For which reason they cried to YHWH, and said, “We beseech you, O YHWH, we beseech you, do not let us perish for this man's life, and do not lay on us innocent blood, for you, O YHWH, have done as it pleased you.” '
When all proved vain they recognised that they were left with little alternative, and began to cry to YHWH, as Jonah's offended God, not to cause them to perish because of what this man had done, and because He wanted to take Jonah's life. And they begged that they might not be seen as murderers for what they were about to do, because they were simply doing it because it was YHWH's requirement, and because they were seeking to conciliate Him. It was man's typical, ‘its not my fault God, its yours'. But what they were really planning was murder.
‘So they took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging.'
Then they took up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and no doubt to their great astonishment, discovered that the sea immediately began to quieten down and eventually ceased from its raging. Here was evidence of the mercy of YHWH, for He had heard their cry and had done what they asked, revealing that YHWH was not only the God of Israel but the God of all men, and was the answerer of prayer to all who truly called on Him. This is the first example in the book of God's willingness to respond in mercy to whoever calls on Him, and is the prime message of the book.
‘Then the men feared YHWH greatly, and they offered a sacrifice to YHWH, and made vows.'
And the result was that the men recognised in YHWH a God Who had to be taken into account, and they paid Him due awed reverence, and offered a sacrifice to Him, and made vows, presumably vowing to continue to honour Him in the future. This would no doubt be done once they had landed, possibly by a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Thus Jonah, who had fled because he did not want to take the message of YHWH to foreigners, had by his actions done precisely that. Whether the men continued in the fear of YHWH we do not know. But at least they had had their opportunity.
‘And YHWH prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly (innards) of the fish three days and three nights.'
Meanwhile YHWH had not forgotten YHWH and as God of land and sea had already made provision for Jonah by arranging for a large fish to be in the area, so that as Jonah began to drown in the turbulent seas, the fish might swallow him. And when it did he was inside the fish for ‘three days and three nights', which in Israelite terminology indicated ‘a day or two'. (A ‘day and a night' could refer to part of a day, seeing it as part of the day and night cycle. Compare Esther 4:16 with Esther 5:1). He had not deserted His prophet, but had arranged for his rescue. The word for ‘belly' simply means the innards, and is not necessarily specifically referring to the whale's stomach. They did not know the physiology of whales.
Jonah, who had found himself drowning in the sea, and being dragged down into the depths, was, once he found himself alive and well and able to breathe in what appeared as some kind of chamber, grateful to God, and the psalm in chapter 2 expresses his gratitude. He probably did not quite know what had happened to him, or where he was (he would find that out later), but he knew that he was alive and was therefore confident that if he repented God intended to spare his life. Ironically he found himself in the same position as the Ninevites to whom he had refused to go, as one who was under sentence and deserving of death, but with an opportunity of repentance. The Psalm adequately expresses this position, and is a necessary part of the story. Without it there would be no indication of Jonah's repentance.