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Background Considerations:

  • Notion of the Ocean. The ancient world did not have positive feelings toward the ocean, and with good reason. Water out of control was a serious threat, not only due to floods, but also because of the endless and dangerous ocean. These feelings of fear and dread come through in many biblical passages, some of which play with the mythologies of other ancient peoples tied to creation and floods. The Enuma Elish Babylonian creation account has the goddess of the sea, Tiamat, losing a battle to Marduk, the creator god, who vanquishes the ruler of the deep and forever controls the chaos signified by the ocean. References to this story (and the fears behind it) surface in many places in the Bible, especially Job 26:12-14; Pss 74:12-17; 89:8-13 and Isa 51:9-11, and likely explain why in the book of Revelation there will be no sea (21:1) in the new earth. No more chaos, no more disaster, no more nature out of control. Little wonder the mariners (and Jonah) were petrified! Any other dimensions to the story this background information adds?
  • How many gods? For the most part, the Old Testament assumes the existence of lots of gods. Just be sure to worship the strongest one, Yahweh. The same is true for this story: the Lord, the God of heaven competes and wins hands down over the deities claimed by the mariners. How would ancient listeners to the story have understood the struggle on the sea?
  • Casting lots. A sure indication that the ancient world was characterized by superstition with which we are uncomfortable in the modern world. It was part of their everyday experience to wonder about what kind of mischief forces beyond their control were up to, and to act in ways intended to control the unease. Would we use this method today to determine God’s will? Why did the lots come out correct? Were the dice loaded?
  • Natural events in God’s cause. As with many biblical stories, God used natural phenomena in the story of the mariners in order to accomplish the task. Are these then miracles or not? What is a miracle, a sign? Does it have to be inexplicable to be a miracle? Consider the plagues of Egypt as a parallel. Or the events of Exodus 20. Or Judges 5.
  • Throwing things around. Repetition shows up again here with lots of tossing (Hebrew tul): the Lord tosses a great wind “to the sea” (1:4); the men toss vessels “to the sea” (1:5); Jonah says that the mariners ought to
    pick him up and toss him “to the sea” (1:12); the mariners pick him up and toss him “to the sea” (1:15).

Relevant Biblical Passages

  • Read through the entire book of Jonah.
  • Jonah 1:7-16. The account is an amazing narrative. Read it with the background comments listed above in mind and see what jumps out at you from the story itself. A recent commentary might also prove helpful (something like James Limburg, Hosea-Micah, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching [Atlanta: John Knox Press], 1988).

Contributions to the study of Jonah

  • Example of the mariners. Part of the irony of the story of Jonah comes via the faith of the mariners. Worshipers of other gods, they quickly recognize the power of Yahweh, make vows to and worship him. And Jonah? Hmmm. They also typify the Ninevites who later also repent and worship. And Jonah?

Lessons for Life

  • Maybe we can learn something from the most unlikely sources?!

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