Jonah 1:4-17 – Sailors and Angels

With COVID not going away anytime soon, we will be reading Jonah through these emails only. For today we are going to look at Jonah 1:4-17.

The Gentile Sailors:

Among Biblical stories, Jonah is unique in that every person we meet, except for the eponymous prophet, is a gentile. One of the great themes of Jonah is the gentile’s recognition of the Jewish God as the one, only, and true God. This is the fulfillment of the message of the later prophets that all nations will gather before the Jewish God. (Isa. 49:6, Micah 4:2). This prophecy, of course, finds its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus. (Luke 2:32). In the sailors, we see a foreshadowing of the gentiles (like us) coming into a full knowledge of the God who was first disclosed to the Hebrew people through Abraham and Moses.

What we see on the boat with the gentile sailors is a foreshadowing of what will occur in Nineveh at the end of the story, and ultimately, what occurs in Acts when non-Jews begin to come into the church. (See, Acts 10:35). The story of the sailors is the entire story of Jonah in a microcosm. Like God in verse 2 who instructs Jonah to “arise” and to “cry out” as to the “evil,” so the captain of the boat in verse 6 and the sailors in verse 7 instruct Jonah in the same way – arise, cry out to your God, and inquire as to the source of this evil. This time Jonah obeys.

The key verse in our reading today is Jonah’s confession in verse 9 that “I am a Hebrew, and fear the LORD, the God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land.” Prior to this verse, the sailors each cried out, in fear, to their own god as they tossed their wares overboard. v.5. After Jonah’s confession, however, the men cry out to Jonah’s God in fear and worship as they throw Jonah overboard. v.14. Jonah’s confession of God brings about a conversion as to the whole boat. And like the King of Nineveh’s statement in 3:9, the reason for the men’s cry to and fear of God is so that they will not perish because of God’s anger. v.14.

Within our story, it is important to understand the type of conversion the men, and later the King of Nineveh, undergo. Under Torah, there is one Law for Jews and gentiles who may be living in their midst. Lev. 24:22, Deut. 31:12. A gentile convert comes under the Law. However, in Jonah, there is no indication that the sailors or the Ninevites must obey the Law, they merely must recognize the sovereignty of God. If we fast-forward to the early church, this issue is the source of the conflict in most of the epistles – must gentile converts obey the Law, or must they simply recognize Jesus as the Christ. Jonah answers this question. The only requirement is to cry out to God – for “everyone who calls upon the name of the LORD will be saved.” Rom. 10:13

Going Deeper:

The Old Testament stories should always challenge us to find the deeper spiritual meaning. The first chapter is a warning to us when we conduct our lives like Jonah. God calls Jonah (and us) into a deeper relationship with him and to a specific task. Jonah flees from God and God’s instruction into a tempestuous chaos. Like Jonah, the natural and consequent result in fleeing from God is that life becomes chaotic, and we are tossed like a ship caught in a tempest upon the sea. In Hebrew, the word for “sailor” is pronounced the same as the word for angel (mal-lawkh vs. mal-awk). And so it is, that even when we flee from God’s presence into the chaos, we are still surrounded by angels. Often, we will find, that even in fleeing from God, God’s purpose is achieved (in Jonah’s case the conversion of a group of gentiles). And we will also find that we are often brought back to God through the actions of others, even though those others may not recognize God or their role in God’s plan. Finally, the first chapter of Jonah tells us that no matter how far we run, and no matter how great the storm, God will always provide a place for us when the chaos swallows us up.

Look deeply in this first chapter and see those times when your life has mirrored that of Jonah. In looking back, hopefully, you will be able to see where God acted to bring you home.

May God be merciful to us and bless us, *
show us the light of his countenance and come to us.
Let your ways be known upon earth, *
   your saving health among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God; *
   let all the peoples praise you.
Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, *
   for you judge the peoples with equity
   and guide all the nations upon earth.

Psalm 67:1-4

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