|The Book of Jonah|
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Go to Bible: Jonah 1
|Jon 1:1||- (top)|
“Get up.” The Hebrew word translated “Get up” is qum (#06965 קוּם), and although qum has a wide semantic range and many different meanings, “get up” is a meaning that figures prominently in the Book of Jonah.
God told Jonah to get up and go to Nineveh (Jonah 1:2), and Jonah did get up, but to flee from God to Tarshish (Jonah 1:3). Then on the boat the captain told Jonah to get up and pray (Jonah 1:6). After Jonah was vomited out by the fish God told Jonah a second time to get up and go to Nineveh and Jonah did (Jonah 3:2-3). Then, after hearing of Jonah’s prophecy, the king of Nineveh got up off his throne and dressed in sackcloth and sat in ashes.
“Nineveh.” Nineveh was located a little east of the east bank of the Tigris River in Mesopotamia, and the ancient ruins are now in the suburbs of the modern city of Mosul in Iraq. The name “Nineveh” is a transliteration of one of the names of the goddess Ishtar. Nineveh provided a great source of learning about the ancient Near East because when it was excavated more than 16,000 clay tablets and fragments comprising some 10,000 texts were discovered there covering many different subjects including epics, legends, rituals, hymns, prayers, lists of gods and temples, letters, and historical texts, some even written in two languages, helping us to understand the ancient languages.
Nineveh is over 400 miles from the Phoenician coast and the mouth of the Orantes River, which is one of the places where Jonah would likely have been vomited out by the whale (or great fish), or he may have been vomited out further north, west of Carchemish. This is important to understand because Jesus Christ twice mentioned Jonah as being a sign, but the two signs are different. Jonah was a sign to Jesus’ generation because he was dead for three days and three nights then got up (Matt. 12:40), and Jonah was a sign to the people of Nineveh because he walked alone into the capital city of an enemy country and boldly spoke the Word of God to it at the risk of his life (Luke 11:29-30). The people of Nineveh would have known nothing about him being dead in a whale, and would not have believed if he told them. [For more on the two signs of Jonah, see commentary on Matt. 12:40].(top)
“But Jonah got up to flee to Tarshish.” Jonah was a great prophet, so why did he flee? Jonah knew that his country and the people he loved were caught up in great sin, and he knew that a day of reckoning was coming for Israel. The prophet Ahijah had prophesied years before that because of its sin, Israel would be destroyed by being scattered “beyond the Euphrates River” (1 Kings 14:15). Now it seemed that woeful day had come.
In Jonah’s lifetime, the only power that was able to scatter Israel beyond the Euphrates River was Assyria. Egypt was south, not north, and Syria was not far enough north to be “beyond the River.” But Assyria was poised to attack and defeat Israel and carry them beyond the Euphrates, except they had some internal struggles that might have kept them from being so aggressive. In that political environment, suddenly the word of Yahweh came to Jonah that he was to travel the over 600 miles to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria and preach against it. Although Yahweh said for Jonah to preach in Assyria because their wickedness had come up to Him, Jonah knew that all the pagan countries were wicked in the sight of God. Jonah put the history together and realized that if he preached to Nineveh and they changed, then they would come down and attack and destroy Israel and carry the people away to pagan lands (which is exactly what happened, 2 Kings 17:5-6, 18).
Not wanting Israel to be destroyed, and perhaps hoping that God would give Israel more time to repent if he did not act to hasten their destruction, Jonah fled to Tarshish rather than obeying God. God, however, intervened and via the fish incident got Jonah to go to Nineveh. Jonah did preach to Nineveh, the people there did repent and were spared, and Jonah, seeing the inevitable future destruction of Israel, was angered by the Ninevites’ repentance (Jonah 3:5, 10; 4:1). But Jonah was right; the Assyrians did attack Israel, conquer it, and scatter the Israelites “beyond the Euphrates River.”
“away from the presence of Yahweh.” The phrase, “from the presence of Yahweh” is literally, “from the face of Yahweh,” but in this case “face” is used idiomatically and means “presence.” The belief of many people was that individual gods lived in different places. Yahweh was the God of Israel, so the belief was that if Jonah could get away from Israel there was a chance that he could get away from Yahweh. [For more on people believing that different gods lived in different places on earth, see commentary on 1 Kings 20:23].(top)
“But Yahweh hurled a great wind upon the sea.” The vocabulary, that Yahweh “hurled” (the Hebrew is tuwl, #02904 טוּל) or “threw,” the same word is used for throwing a spear) a great wind shows us that the storm was not natural. It does not always happen that God strongly intervenes when someone wants to disobey Him, but in this case He did. God intervened in Jonah’s life by hurling a great wind onto the sea, and in Jonah 1:15 the sailors intervened to save themselves and the ship by hurling (same Hebrew word) Jonah into the sea.
“that the ship threatened to break up.” The intensity of the storm was such that the ship is personified in the Hebrew text, and the text could literally read: “the ship thought it would break up,” or, “the ship seriously considered breaking up.” Most lexicons and version render the Hebrew idiomatically, that the ship was “about to break up.”(top)
“to lighten it for them.” Although the versions differ as to how to translate this, the sailors threw the cargo over to lighten the load “for them,” that is, the sailors saw the cargo as a huge danger to them and the ship, so for their own sake they threw it overboard.(top)
“Get up! Call on your god!” It is ironic that it is a pagan sailor who has to urge Jonah to pray. This is interesting because even if Jonah was not concerned for his own life he should have been concerned for the life of the ship’s crew. It is possible that Jonah was so sound asleep and/or was not used to sailing and was below deck that he was not aware of the danger to the ship and crew. The Bible only tells us he was asleep. In Jonah 1:2 God told Jonah to “get up,” and here the captain does, using the same words.
It is noteworthy that the captain said, “Call on your god.” The captain was an experienced man and had just come from Joppa, the port of Israel at that time. He likely knew that Yahweh was the god of Israel and would have also known that none of the crew of his ship were worshippers of Yahweh. The captain was concerned for his crew and ship, and did not want to let there be any god of anyone on the ship who was not appealed to for help, so he demanded that Jonah get up and pray to his god, Yahweh. The phrase, “Call on your god,” refers to prayer (see commentary on 1 Cor. 1:2).(top)
“And they said to one another.” The decision to cast lots did not come as a result of a meeting but was someone’s idea that then got passed back and forth among the crew until there was a general consensus of what they should do.
“cast lots.” There were various ways to cast lots. In this case, exactly how they did it is not described and not vital to the story.(top)
|Jon 1:8||- (top)|
|Jon 1:9||- (top)|
|Jon 1:10||- (top)|
“What should we do to you.” Different gods had different punishments for sin, and the sailors were not followers of Yahweh, so they asked Jonah what his god would require of him so the storm would stop.
“was getting rougher and rougher.” The Hebrew text uses an idiom: the sea “was walking and storming,” meaning that it was growing rougher and rougher, getting worse and worse. The different translations in the different English versions reflect that fact that a choice has to be made as to how to translate the Hebrew.(top)
“Pick me up and throw me into the sea.” The lives of the sailors and the wellbeing of the ship were at risk because of Jonah, and it seems at this point that he knew that his only option was to be thrown overboard to die in the ocean. Although we might think Jonah could have said, “Row me to land and let me off the ship,” his option to be thrown into the sea proved to be correct when the men tried to row him to shore but could not. This is an unusual case because God does not require the death penalty for disobedience to Him, but in this instance God was setting up a type that would be clarified almost 800 years later when Jesus was three days and three nights in the grave and spoke of the sign of Jonah (Matt. 12:40).(top)
“get the ship back to the land.” The Hebrew text does not supply an object, but simply reads, “to bring back to land.” The implied object seems to be “the ship,” which is supplied in many versions. From the perspective of the sailors, getting the ship to land even in the storm would not have been impossible. In those ancient times, the ships did not have any reliable way to tell where they were once they were out of sight of land if it was cloudy, and most ships were quite small, so the custom was to sail along the coast in the sight of land. So it was likely that the sailors could see the land they were trying to get to, but the storm kept them from reaching land.(top)
“this man’s life.” The Hebrew for “life” is nephesh (#05315 נֶפֶשׁ), more generally “soul,” but here correctly understood as “life.” [For more on nephesh and soul, see Appendix 7, “Usages of ‘Soul’”].
“do not hold against us innocent blood.” The Hebrew is more literally, “Do not put on us innocent blood,” that is, “Do not hold us accountable for shedding innocent blood.” The sailors were afraid that if they threw Jonah overboard, the same god that was angry at Jonah would be angry at them. They were not familiar with Yahweh, and most pagan gods were capricious and vengeful.(top)
“and hurled him.” This is the same word as “hurled” in Jonah 1:4 (see commentary on Jonah 1:4).
“and the sea stopped its raging.” This was clearly a miracle. The storm did not simply abate over time, but as soon as Jonah was in the water the storm stopped. This was clearly a sign to the sailors of the power and presence of Jonah’s God, Yahweh. The reduplication of the vocabulary in Jonah 1:16 shows the intensity of the sailors thoughts and actions: they feared Yahweh with fear, sacrificed a sacrifice, and vowed vows.(top)
“the men feared Yahweh with great fear.” The reduplication of the vocabulary in Jonah 1:16 shows the intensity of the sailor's thoughts and actions: they feared Yahweh with fear, sacrificed a sacrifice, and vowed vows. This is one of the places in Scripture when “feared Yahweh” clearly does not mean “have respect for Yahweh,” but means “were afraid of Yahweh.” These pagan sailors would have been very superstitious men—most ancient sailors were—and they had just seen the tremendous and miraculous power of Yahweh to make a deadly storm on the sea and then stop that storm, and that frightened them. Their fear of Yahweh, and desire to appease him and get safely back to port caused them to offer a sacrifice right then and there on the ship. Although there were not priests or Levites and they did not know the Mosaic Law, they sacrificed the way they would have in their religion, doing the best they could. They also vowed vows. Since they did not know Yahweh, the vows likely were vows to do more for Him when they got back to port, for example, offer more proper offerings.(top)
“great fish.” Although the REV translation reads “fish,” we do not really know what swallowed Jonah. The reading “fish” comes from Jonah 1:17, but the Hebrew text allows for other sea creatures besides fish, including whales.” Today we very carefully classify life into things like phyla, genus, and species, and if the book of Jonah was written in modern times we would know exactly what swallowed Jonah. But the ancient classification of animals and sea life was much less exact than ours, and it was based on different standards. For example, we make a distinction between a “fish” and a “whale” based on things like whether it breathes air with lungs or via gills. Thus, a “fish” can be big or small, but they all have gills. Similarly, a “whale” can be big or relatively small—the dwarf sperm whale grows to only 8 feet and is much smaller than many “fish”—but all whales have lungs. But the ancient cultures and vocabulary did not make those exact distinctions, so we cannot tell from the ancient Hebrew (and Greek too) vocabulary whether what swallowed Jonah was a fish or whale, all we really know about the creature is that it was big enough to swallow Jonah whole.
Also, the text says, “Yahweh prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah,” so it is also possible that the creature that swallowed Jonah was not normal, but was some kind of aberration that God prepared so Jonah could be swallowed whole and be in the creature for three days and nights without being substantially damaged. The lack of exact knowledge of what swallowed Jonah explains the difference in the English versions. Although almost all English translations of Jonah 1:17 read “fish,” the identity of the creature in Matthew 12:40 is much more diverse, which seems strange since it seems that what swallowed Jonah according to the book of Jonah would be reproduced in what Jesus said about Jonah, but nevertheless the English versions differ: “fish” (HCSB, ESV, NIV, NLT); “whale” (ASV, KJV, NAB, RSV ); and “sea monster” (CJB, NASB, NJB).
“and Jonah was in the belly of the fish.” Jonah died inside the fish and was dead for three days and three nights, just as our Lord Jesus was dead in the grave for three days and three nights (see commentaries on Matthew 12:40 and Jonah 2:1). Sadly, the vast majority of the Christian world does not know about Jonah dying inside the fish and the Christian art is most unhelpful. Although most show Jonah kneeling in prayer, some pictures show Jonah in the fish sitting beside a campfire, while one picture that is likely for children showed Jonah with a chair and TV set!(top)