Monday of week 27 of Ordinary Time – First Reading


Commentary on Jonah 1:1

The book of Jonah is one of the most delightful in the whole of Bible. It is probably the only book where the author wrote with his tongue firmly in his cheek. While there are marvellous things in the Bible, humour is generally not one of its characteristics.* There is a lot of humour, of the biting kind, in this book. And, what is even more rare, the laugh is mainly on the chief character.

Although it is written in a narrative style, it is not history. It is a didactic story with a moral and a very important moral. The fact that it is a book which can provoke laughter does not mean that its message is to be taken lightly. In fact, it is one of the most radical of Old Testament writings and has been described as being on the threshold of the Gospel. We will see why as we read on.

Today’s reading sets the stage for the unfolding of the story.

As the story opens, the word of Yahweh is addressed to a man called Jonah, son of Amittai. There is mention, in fact, of a prophet Jonah in the Second Book of the Kings, who lived at the time of Jeroboam II (786-746 BC). This story which was written some 300 years after that time is not about him but just uses his name.

As a prophet, Jonah is told to go to the great city of Nineveh and warn them that God is displeased with their great wickedness. According to Genesis, Nineveh was first built by Nimrod (perhaps along with Rehoboth Ir, Calah and Resen) and was traditionally known as the “great city”. About 700 BC Sennacherib made it the capital of Assyria, which it remained until its fall in 612. It was long destroyed by the time this book was written. It would have been about 800 km from Gath Hepher, Jonah’s hometown, a long way for the prophet to travel.

Except for violent behaviour mentioned later on in the story, the “evil ways” of Nineveh are not described. The prophet Nahum later states that Nineveh’s sins included plotting evil against the Lord, cruelty and plundering in war, prostitution and witchcraft and commercial exploitation.  In any case, Jonah, as a pious Hebrew, would take rampant immorality and its rejection by Yahweh as a given in such a great pagan city.

Not only was its immorality to be taken for granted, as far as Jonah is concerned, its people should be left to the fate of all wicked unbelievers. Jonah is appalled at the idea of trying to convert them and does not want to go there. It seems he has no intention of having anything to do with such wicked pagans. They deserve all that God can throw against them.

So Jonah sets off westward in the opposite direction and boards a ship at Jaffa bound for Tarshish to get as far away as possible from both Nineveh and Yahweh – quite a futile thing to do. As Psalm 139 puts it: “Where can I go from your spirit? From your presence where can I flee?… If I take the wings of the dawn, if I settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand will guide me and your right hand hold me fast” (Ps 139:7,9-10). Jonah will soon find how true these words are.

For the Jews ‘Tarshish’ represented the end of the world. The word may be a corruption of Tartessus, a Phoenician mining colony near Gibraltar in southern Spain.  Perhaps the modern equivalent would be Timbuctoo!

The ship has hardly got under way than Yahweh hurls a mighty wind and such a great storm blows up that the ship is in danger of breaking up. This is just one of several interventions by Yahweh in the story. Jonah’s disobedience has not only put his own life in danger but is threatening the lives of a totally innocent crew.

In an effort to save their lives, the sailors throw the cargo overboard to lighten the ship and then each one prays to his own god – perhaps one of them will bring the help they need. One person, however, is not doing any praying. Jonah is below decks fast asleep. He is not only indifferent to his own fate but also that of his shipmates. Maybe he thinks ‘his’ Yahweh will take care of his prophet, even a disobedient prophet.

However, these pagans are shown to be somewhat more religious than Jonah gives them credit for. Certainly his behaviour is in stark contrast to the captain who is using every possible method, including prayer to every known god, to save those on board. And he wakes up Jonah and urges him to call on his god, who might be able to do what the other gods do not seem to be able to do. The “pagan” captain’s concern for the welfare of everyone on board contrasts with the “believing”(?) prophet’s refusal to bring God’s mercy and compassion to the people of Nineveh.

As a last resort, the sailors come to the – correct – conclusion that there is someone on board who is bringing them all this misfortune. They cast lots to find out who it is and – surprise, surprise! – the lot falls on Jonah. In the context of the story, this is no chance accident.

The casting of lots was a custom widely practiced in the ancient Near East. The precise method is unclear, though it appears that, for the most part, sticks or marked pebbles were drawn from a receptacle into which they had been “thrown”. (Something similar is still seen in Chinese temples today.)

Immediately, the sailors begin to interrogate Jonah to find out where he comes from. He replies, “I am a Hebrew, and I worship Yahweh, God of Heaven, who made both sea and dry land.” The sailors would have understood Jonah’s words as being descriptive of the highest divinity. Their present experiences confirm this truth, since, in the religions of the ancient Near East generally, the supreme god was master of the seas.

This is Jonah’s first confessional statement, and, like those that follow, it is thoroughly orthodox. Though orthodox in his beliefs, Jonah refuses to fulfil his divine mission to Nineveh. It is important for us, too, to realise that theological orthodoxy is not enough to fulfil the most important requirements of Christian discipleship. The Pharisees were impeccably orthodox, too.

The sailors are terrified at Jonah’s self-revelation. They now know the cause of their peril. A believer in the god who controls the seas has disobeyed his god and made him angry. And they are all the victims of his disobedience. “Why ever did you do this?” is a rhetorical question that needs no answer. Then, as the sea gets rougher and rougher, they then ask Jonah what they are to do with him in order to restore calm in the sea. It seems as if they are looking for a way to save their lives but without doing harm to Jonah. Once again, the pagan’s care for the Hebrew far surpasses the Hebrew’s care for them. This is all part of the central lesson of the story.

At last, Jonah begins to accept responsibility for the situation. “Take me and throw me into the sea, and then it will calm down for you. I know it is my fault that this great storm has struck you.” At the same time, Jonah’s readiness to die to save the terrified sailors contrasts with his later behaviour when he leaves Nineveh expecting to watch its destruction by Yahweh at a safe distance. Which, of course, to his great chagrin and disappointment does not happen.

Even now, the sailors are still reluctant to do what Jonah suggests, even to save their own lives. Instead, they tried to row hard in order to reach the shore. (It probably was not very far away; ships in those days tended to stay close to the shore rather than risk being caught in the open sea.) The Hebrew uses the picturesque word meaning “to dig” (with the oars) to indicate their strenuous efforts. Again, the reluctance of the sailors to throw Jonah into the sea stands in sharp contrast to Jonah’s reluctance to bring God’s warning to Nineveh of impending judgment.

Finally, and still with great misgivings, the sailors make their prayer to Jonah’s god Yahweh, asking him not to hold them responsible for the death of an innocent man’s life. “For you, Yahweh, have acted as you saw fit.” They then toss Jonah into the raging sea which immediately becomes calm. They have done the right thing. At the same time, the sudden calm fills them with great fear.

Jonah’s God is truly Master of the seas and they offer him a sacrifice and make vows. They know that only the most powerful of gods can control the seas and the wind. (We remember the reaction of the disciples after Jesus had calmed the storm on the lake: “Who is this, that the winds and seas obey him?”).

They are both shocked and afraid that Jonah can be so disobedient to his God and they try to make up for his terrible behaviour. The author also emphasises the piety of the pagan sailors. They are scandalised that Jonah should disobey Yahweh, and are themselves afraid to offend Yahweh by sacrificing Jonah, and then offer worship to Jonah’s God whose power they recognise.

And such is the providence of God. He turns even the disobedience of Jonah into a grace for those sailors, a grace they would not have experienced had Jonah gone to Nineveh in the first place. More of God’s straight writing with crooked lines.

Of course, there is no evidence that the sailors renounced all their other gods as a result of this experience. Ancient pagans were ready to recognise the existence and power of many gods. At the least, however, the sailors acknowledge that the God of Israel is in control of the present events, that he is the one who both stirred up and calmed the storm, and that at this moment he is the one to be recognised and worshipped.

Once again Yahweh intervenes and arranges that a big fish should swallow Jonah, who remained in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. The “big fish” is not likely to have been a whale, which is not found in the Mediterranean. It is not to be confused either with “Leviathan”, the sinister “serpent” of the sea (Amos 9:3) or the “monster of the deep” (Job 7:12 and other texts).

‘Three days and three nights’ may, as in the burial of Jesus (Friday evening to Sunday morning), refer to a period of time including one full day and parts of two others. In any case, the New Testament clearly uses Jonah’s experience as a foreshadowing of the burial and resurrection of Jesus, who was buried in the earth for “three days and three nights” (e.g. Matt 12:40)

While inside the fish, Jonah made a long prayer of distress and appeal to Yahweh, which is not included in our readings. And, on the third day, again at the command of Yahweh, the fish vomits Jonah on to dry land.

He is back where he started. And, not surprisingly, this gives Jonah some time to reflect on his situation. When the next call comes, he will respond differently – up to a point.

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*Interesting, since the Jews are famous for their wit and humour, especially against themselves.

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