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Jonah 1

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Lesson Focus: Jonah runs away from the call to go to Nineveh because he knows that God is merciful and willing to extend grace to those who are undeserving.  He knows that his preaching to the people of Nineveh will work; they will repent and be spared from God’s judgment –Jonah doesn’t want this.

Lesson Outcomes: Through this lesson, students should:

  1. Understand who Jonah is and who the people of Nineveh are.

  2. Confess that God is a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.

  3. Be encouraged to examine their lives to see if they view anyone or any group in the same way that Jonah views Nineveh.

  4. Be encouraged to repent of their desire to see others suffer.

Catch up on the story: It is most likely that the Book of Jonah was written in the post-exilic period when Israel had returned from their captivity in a foreign land.  It is also possible that Jonah was a contemporary of the prophet Malachi.  Generally, during this time (around 475-450 B.C.E), things were characterized by a spiritual depression of sorts.  Even though they had been promised a bright future, the Israelites of Jonah’s day kept questioning when this would take place, when will prophesies be fulfilled?  Israel was now being faithful, but where was God?  If “everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them” (Malachi 2:17), then what good is being good and faithful?  If God is indeed a just God, he should see to it that the rewards for faith in him and for living an upright life are distributed more equitably.  This is part of the major thrust of the book –Why will God save Nineveh when his own people are eking out an existence? 

God Calls to Jonah The story begins with what can only be described as a fairy tale opening.  It does not come across that way in our English translations, but it does in the original language.  The verb used at the opening would be similar to beginning a story with, “Once upon a time…” or, “It came to pass that…” Jonah is the only prophetic text to open this way. Though it begins this way, we should not focus our attention on whether or not this story happened.  It certainly could have, but to focus on the story’s historical truthfulness would be to miss the story’s point. 

So, once upon a time, the word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai… While this book does not open like other prophetic books, it does contain a word from the Lord calling Jonah to go forth on a mission of gospel proclamation. Literally, God tells Jonah to rise up, go, and call out. These three imperatives will come back later in the story.

Jonah certainly does rise up, and go, but not to where God has called him. Instead, he flees. Now, Jonah has good reason to resist God’s all to go to Nineveh. After all, Nineveh is the capital of the Assyrian empire, an empire that caused so much hurt and destruction for God’s people. Nineveh is described as a “great” city, a city of considerable proportion. Much like how Israel’s crying out to God brought about God’s attention and his saving power, so has Nineveh’s wickedness. Their sin has risen from the earth as if it was a vapor and has come before the face of God.

What God is asking Jonah to do would have been similar to asking a Jew to go into the heart of Nazi Germany during WWII to preach a message of repentance to its inhabitants. That’s an extremely difficult task!

So, Jonah turns and runs the other way. “But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” Jonah wants nothing to do with the mission that God has given him. The sense of what Jonah is doing is seeking to run from the relationship that God has with Israel. No one knows precisely where Tarshish is located, but many scholars think it was either in Southwest Spain or Northern Africa. The point is that Jonah is trying to get as far away from the presence of God as he can get. He’s trying to get to the very edge of the known world.

I think Jonah knows that he can never truly get away from the presence of God.  According to one commentator, “Rather, Jonah decides to sever his connections with that context where God’s word and will are clearly made known, namely Israel. He seeks a place not where he would be removed from God’s rule, but where he would not have to continue to hear the word of God’s commissioning him to go to Nineveh.  He seeks to get rid of that ‘chirping in his ears.’” (Fretheim, 80-81)

Jonah’s trying to get to a place where he can’t hear God’s persistent call. Or, at least, maybe God will realize that Jonah is running away with no interest in ever proclaiming anything to the inhabitants of Nineveh, and so God will call someone else to go. As we will see as the story goes on, Jonah has no such luck.

God Hurls a Storm As the ship that bears Jonah begins to make its way out onto the Mediterranean Sea, God hurls a storm at the sea.  This is vivid imagery, to be sure.  The author of this story wants us to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is God, the creator God, who controls the land and the sea, which causes this storm to be. 

This mighty storm batters Jonah’s ship putting it in mortal danger. If the storm does not relent, the ship will be torn to bits. You can almost hear the sound of the wood bending and straining under the stress. The loud creaks and pops heard over the din of the wind would have been very disturbing. The ship’s crew, who we can reasonably assume, are not Israelites; each begins to cry out to their gods. The crew was likely made up of men from various places, places that worshipped a litany of different gods. In addition to crying out to their gods, these devout men do everything humanly possible to save the ship and their lives, even throwing the ship’s cargo overboard. The text tells us this was to lighten the load, but it may also have been an act of sacrifice meant to appease the sea and whatever god controls it.

Meanwhile, while the storm rages about, Jonah goes down into the ship’s hold and falls asleep.  He’s not just sleeping, but fast asleep.  It’s deep and peaceful sleep.  In fact, the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, “humorously depicts Jonah as lying down to sleep and snoring…” (Green, 368). These sailors, their cargo, the ship, and possibly their lives will all be lost, and Jonah is snoring! What nerve!

The author doesn’t tell us anything about the captain of the ship, but I imagine that he’s a bit perturbed that his one passenger is doing nothing. He’s not helping with the boat, trying to save his own life. He’s not calling out to his god for salvation. He’s sleeping. So, the captain goes down to the hold and wakes up the good for nothing man, saying to him, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the gods will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.”

This is the second time that Jonah has been commanded to rise up and call out. The first came from God, the second from the captain. We’re not told how Jonah reacts. He might have acted like a sleepy teenager who pulls the covers up over their head and turns over. We don’t know.

The Sailors Convinced that someone on the boat is responsible for their current peril, the sailors cast lots to see whose fault it is.  Casting lots was a common way of deciding things in the near east. The lot falls to Jonah.  There’s nothing left to be done except to confront the man.  So they do, peppering him with a barrage of questions.  “Why has this calamity come upon us? Where do you come from? What is your people?

Jonah doesn’t give much of a response saying only, “I am a Hebrew…I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and dry land.” With this confession, Jonah declares that the God that he serves is capable of controlling the sea and bringing about such a magnificent storm. It’s as good as admitting that their current situation is his fault.

If the sailors weren’t scared enough, this news makes them even more afraid. “What is this that you have done!” “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” The storm was getting worse as if that were even possible.

I can imagine Jonah giving his response with a deep sigh, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.” Jonah is resigned to accept his fate, but the sailors have done no such thing.

Instead of throwing Jonah into the sea as he has asked, the men begin rowing hard in an attempt to bring the ship back to land. At this point, I don’t know why Jonah doesn’t just throw himself into the sea. This portrait we’re painting of Jonah isn’t too flattering. He just doesn’t care what happens to anyone else. He hasn’t helped. He hasn’t called out to God to save the innocent lives of the sailors.

Contrast that with the effort these sailors have shown. They’ve prayed hard. They’ve worked hard to lighten the ship. They’ve thought carefully about how to solve the situation. They’ve rowed hard to save themselves. These are brave, courageous, and devoutly religious men. Jonah is nothing like them.

The rowing doesn’t work. With each stroke of the oar, the sea grows worse. In sailor’s panic they even cry out to Jonah’s God, the Lord, the creator of land and sea for salvation and forgiveness for what they are about to do. “Please, O LORD, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you.”

Picking up Jonah, they hurl him into the sea, just like God hurled the storm at them, in the same way that they hurled their cargo overboard. Splash! No sooner had Jonah disappeared beneath the waves, the sea ceased its raging. Stunned and amazed, the sailors offer sacrifices to God and make vows to serve God. What they don’t know, is that as Jonah sinks to the bottom, a large fish swallows up Jonah.

So What…? Why does Jonah not go to Nineveh?  Besides the fact that its inhabitants are Israel’s mortal enemies, of course. Why does Jonah remain complacent on the ship in the midst of the storm?

I don’t think that Jonah had a problem with being called by God to proclaim a message of repentance. I think Jonah would have done that gladly for his own people. I think Jonah flees because his theology, his understanding of who God is, of what God’s nature is like, was correct. With the rest of the Old Testament, Jonah could confess about God that God is a “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

Jonah knew that if he went to Nineveh, and if he preached the message that God had commanded him to preach, that the people would repent and turn to God, and God would forgive them, relenting from the punishment that Jonah believed they rightly deserved. This is the last thing Jonah wants to see. Jonah wants to see the city burn. He wants to see the people who are so contrary to everything he believes in suffer in the same way Israel suffered in the Exile. But more on that in a few weeks.

What’s really shocking, is how indifferent Jonah is to the threat to the lives of the sailors with him. It’s apparent that rather than caring for anyone else, Jonah only cares for himself. Even though he can confess with the rest of the Old Testament that is God is gracious, he doesn’t seem to care that God feels that way toward the sailors who will perish if he does nothing. I think Jonah knows that if those sailors pick him up and throw him into the water, that somehow God will save Jonah. I don’t think Jonah wants to be saved if it means Nineveh gets saved, too. He’s willing to sacrifice the lives of the sailors to find out.

If the theme of this book is God’s goodness, his graciousness, then what does it call us to? The world is deeply fractured right now. There is suffering all around us. Some of those who suffer aren’t like us or they don’t agree with us on religious or political things. We’re caught up in the same storm as them, but maybe we’re like Jonah and we’re indifferent. Maybe we know the ship is going down, but we know that God’s graciousness will save us, and will probably save others as well, but we don’t want to stick around to find out for sure.

I think this part of Jonah’s story compels us to ask ourselves the question, Are we like Jonah, indifferent to the suffering of those around us? If so, are we willing to repent? Are we willing to wake up from our slumber to do the work that God has called us to do?

Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

  1. Why does Jonah run away from God’s call to proclaim a message of repentance to Nineveh?

  2. The text tells us that Jonah was trying to get away from the presence of God. What do you think he was really doing? Can you ever get away from the presence of God?

  3. Why does Jonah go down to the ships hold and fall asleep when the storm hits?

  4. What do you think Jonah’s attitude was during the storm?

  5. Compare and contrast the sailors on the ship with Jonah. What do the sailors do? What should Jonah have done?

  6. What do you make of the sailor’s reaction after the storm ceases? Do you think this incident had any long term affects on the sailors?

  7. What do you think Jonah thinks will happen to him after the sailors throw him overboard?

  8. Is the church today like Jonah? Are you like Jonah?

Works Cited: Terence E. Fretheim, The Message of Jonah: A Theological Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing Company, 1977. 

Timothy M. Green, Hosea–Micah: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition, ed. Alex Varughese, Roger Hahn, and George Lyons, New Beacon Bible Commentary (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, 2014).