Jonah 1:13. The sailors now understand that Jonah’s great sin has led them all into great danger, but they have no desire to commit human sacrifice, and so rowed hard to return to the shore. The term rowed hard is used elsewhere of digging holes in a wall (Ezek 8:8; 12:5ff), tunneling into a house (Job 24:16), and trying to burrow into sheol to escape the wrath of God (Amos 9:2). So the word refers to a desperate and feverish attempt to escape the wrath of God.[ref]Sasson, 130.[/ref] In the case of the sailors, they are trying to burrow through the wrath of God in the storm.
Some have criticized this part of the story, since all mariners worthy of their wages know that the worst thing to do in a storm is head toward shore. In a storm such as this one, the boat and all who were on it would get dashed to pieces upon the shore if they reached it. Some suggest that this proves that the story of Jonah is invented, and the author who made this story knew nothing of proper sailing procedures.[ref]Ibid., 141-142, 341.[/ref] Others have argued that the sailors knew they were about to drown in the storm, and so decided to test their luck on the shore, though even that would likely result in their death. Finally, there is the theory that the sailors were not trying to land on shore, but were trying to get as close as possible before throwing Jonah overboard, thereby giving him a fighting chance to reach shore on his own.
The word return (Heb. shuv) is often the word used for “repent” and as repentance is a key theme in the book of Jonah, it is interesting that the first time the word is mentioned, it is used in connection with sailors trying to get the boat back to land. It is interesting that this is the first use of this word because it well illustrates the basic concept of repentance. In Hebrew thinking, repentance consists of two elements: turning away from evil and turning toward good.[ref]Harris et al., 909.[/ref] Since the storm has been referred to as “evil” (1:7-8), the attempt to leave the sea illustrates the first element of repentance, that of turning away from evil. Furthermore, since the sea holds death, getting to land would mean life. So getting to land illustrates the second aspect of repentance, turning toward good.
More curiously, and this relates to another prominent theme in this story, Jonah has just implied to the sailors that his God is a sea-god. As was shown in verse 12, by telling the sailors to cast him into the sea, Jonah was implying that such an action would hand him over to God. It would be a form of human sacrifice. So the sailors are getting some bad ideas about God. They have described the sea as evil, and Jonah has told them to commit human sacrifice, which they likely also viewed as an evil practice. By trying to return to land, they are symbolically trying to leave Jonah’s evil God behind, and get back to the safety and security of their own deities.
The reader who sees these symbolic connections between God, the evil of the sea, what Jonah is telling the sailors about God, and the concept of repentance in their attempt to return to land are being prepared to have their view of God challenged as the rest of the story of Jonah unfolds. If repentance is a primary theme in Jonah, so also is the question about the nature and character of God. Some readers may have to repent of their view of God, and accept a new view. More challenging still, the reader’s traditional view of God, which was considered good, may turn out to be evil, while the new view of God, which was traditionally considered evil, may turn out to be good. Readers who see these questions being raised in the text discover that the storm on the written page is now raging in their own mind, as everything they thought they knew about God is now in question.
Despite the best attempts of the sailors, they could not return to land, for the sea was growing even more tempestuous around them. The sea is getting wilder and more life threatening, thwarting the efforts of the sailors to get the safety of the shore. The impossibly of the sailors to return to shore is placed theologically parallel to the impossibility of Jonah in escaping God’s direction upon his life.[ref]Sasson, 341.[/ref] So the sailors are finally left with no alternative but to do what Jonah has asked. Yet first, they do something rather surprising.
Other chapters from Jonah
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Also check out The translation of Jonah in the Grace English Bible
For full Bibliographic Data for the books listed below, go to the Jonah Bibliography