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. 8 So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?”
9 He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”
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.)
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?”
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.” (Read the rest of the chapter, here.)
A (re)introduction to the Minor Prophets
The twelve books at the end of the Old Testament are called The Book of the Twelve, or the Minor Prophets. They are shorter in length than the preceding prophetic writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and hence are called “minor” for that reason. I like reading them during Advent (I read Hosea last year and Malachi the year before that) because Advent is a time when we anticipate the return of Jesus, both as a wondrous baby and glorious king. Both events were alluded to by these prophets, and the greater truths evident in the layered history surrounding both Old Testament events and contemporary times continue to make these writings relevant.
An Introduction to Jonah
Jonah getting swallowed by the whale is one of the first Bible stories taught in Sunday School. But there’s a whole second half of the story that I, at least, didn’t remember learning as a child. It’s unique in the Minor Prophets because it focuses upon one linear narrative in Jonah’s life. This linearity is probably one of the reasons it lends itself to Sunday School lessons (along with giant fish and storms and all that cool stuff).
Jonah was written after Israel had regained some of their power and autonomy from Damascus in the early 8th century BC. According to my NIV text notes, Israel had become complacent and vain regarding their special status with God. Prophets like Jonah, Hosea and Amos were sent to warn them out of their spoilt and jealous attitudes. God’s concern for not only Israel, but also the Gentiles, foreshadows Jesus’ arrival and mission. Again, according to my text notes, the book of Jonah “depicts the larger scope of God’s purpose for Israel: that she might rediscover the truth of Xyr concern for the whole creation and that she might better understand her own role in carrying out that concern.” Let me just drive that fact home for a minute: Throughout the Old Testament and the New, God calls first Israel then the followers of Jesus to be priests to the whole world. Their status is special, but not special to the exclusion of everyone else. Instead, that special status is meant as a responsibility to the entire world, a responsibility to be God’s agents on Earth – spreading love and justice and peace to all of Earth’s inhabitants.
Contrasts in Caring
Chapter One of Jonah finds him receiving his charge from God to go and prophesy at Nineveh, a city of Gentiles and enemy of Israel. Jonah flees from this duty; angry, supposedly (as we find out later in the text), that God would send him to warn such a people. He obtains passage on a ship, which is hit by an outrageous storm that is only calmed after Jonah gets thrown overboard by the crew. God takes pity upon Jonah and sends a “great fish” to swallow up Jonah and carry him through the sea. Every step of the way, we see others’ concern for their fellow man, a stark contrast to Jonah’s own callousness.
Take, for example, the captain. He seeks out Jonah, the only man aboard who is not fervently praying through the storm. Side note – I’m wondering if the “deep sleep” that is described in verse five isn’t some sort of depressive state brought on by guilt. Having suffered depression I know how it can cause you to be sleepy and overwhelmed even at the most inopportune times. But back to that captain: his concern is for his crew and the passengers of his ship. “Get up and call on your god!” the captain commands Jonah, “Maybe he will notice us, and we will not perish.”
The relationship between the crew and Jonah is a particularly interesting and educational one. Even after the crew finds out that Jonah is the one who has brought the storm upon the ship, and that Jonah’s god is a god of ultimate divinity, they do not immediately throw him overboard. “Instead,” v. 13 tells us, “the men did their best to row back to land.” You see, familiarity on both sides had instilled a mutual fondness. Jonah offers himself up as a solution. “Throw me into the sea,” he says. Isn’t it interesting that this is a pagan crew, praying to all manner of gods, yet Jonah wants to save them? And isn’t it interesting that they have their salvation right in front of them, yet are reluctant to take it because it means forsaking someone they have come to know personally? I think if more of us reached out to get to know those who are different from us, much as Jonah was forced to do by the proximity of Iron Age sea travel, the more mutual support we would see across all aspects of community. But I’ll step off my soapbox now.
Finally, even God shows concern for Jonah, Xyr wayward prophet, despite having every reason to be mad at him. Instead of drowning in the deep, Jonah is swallowed up by a great fish and carried along in relative (though probably very stinky and dark) safety. Jonah, someone who has forsaken God, is saved by God through no merit of his own but God’s own great love and divine plan.
God is Love
The takeaway? God is patient, God is kind. God sees past religious beliefs, cultural differences, and even personal shortcomings. God acts through the kindness of many different people, and is working through even the recalcitrant among us, like Jonah. God is calling upon us, all of us, to reach out to our neighbor, to care for our community. Because above all, God is love, and God wants to see us foster that love throughout the world. What a wonderful thought for the beginning of Advent, wouldn’t you agree?