Jonah 1:8. Since the lot singled out Jonah as the one responsible for this storm, they bombard him with “religiously loaded questions”[ref]Allen, 208.[/ref] First, they seek to know the reason that this evil has come upon them. As in verse 7, they refer to the storm as evil (Heb., raa; cf. 1:2, 7; 3:7-8, 10; 4:1-2, 6). The reader knows the storm is from God, and must ask themselves whether or not the storm is evil. From the sailor’s perspective, the storm appears evil, but from God’s perspective, it is divine discipline upon a disobedient prophet. Jonah knows this, but since he refused to defend the honor of God by going to Nineveh, will he defend God’s honor to the sailors by admitting his fault and justifying God?
Next they ask, “What is your business?” This question could be understood in two ways. First, it could be that they want to know what his job is. At that time, occupations were frequently connected with certain deities. Craftsman and laborers would often join guilds, and part of the responsibilities of being in a guild was to pay honor to the god of that guild. Furthermore, certain occupations were more honorable than others, while some jobs, such as making tents or tending sheep, were viewed as particularly shameful. The sailors figured that if they could learn Jonah’s occupation, this might help explain the reason for the storm that has come upon them.
The other possibility is that they want to know what Jonah is doing on their ship. In this case, the question could be translated “What is your business on this ship?” Though he paid the fare to have them take him to Tarshish, they now want to know why he was traveling to Tarshish. Leaving your hometown, people, and family was generally considered deviant behavior in an honor-shame culture.[ref]John J. Pilch, The Cultural Dictionary of the Bible (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1999), 171.[/ref] In this context, this second way of understanding of this question is more likely.[ref]Alexander, 105; Bewer, 36; Sasson, 114.[/ref] Now that the sailors know that their lives are threatened because of Jonah, they want to know why he got on their ship. Usually only merchants hired out ships, and the sailors know Jonah is not a merchant because he did not bring any cargo on board. So they want to know what he is doing on their ship.
The third question they ask is, “Where do you come from?” As with the other questions, the sailors are trying to figure out which god Jonah offended. Storms were always viewed as having a divine cause, and were usually the result of one deity or another being angry. Since most people believed that the gods were connected to a particular location, when the sailors ask Jonah where he comes from, they are also trying to figure out which deity Jonah has offended.
Fourthly, they ask, “What is your nationality?” This question is closely associated with the final question, “Who are your people?” If the men on the ship can learn where Jonah is from, and who his people are, then they can know which god those people serve, and possibly determine which god is angry at Jonah.
So with every question asked, the sailors are trying to learn which god Jonah has offended. They believe that if they can learn the identity of this god, then they might better know how to appease this god so that they might live. Behind all their questioning is the prominent question in the book of Jonah: What is God like? Is God the type of God who sends storms to kill people? If so, can He be appeased through human action? Is He the type of God who exacts revenge upon His children when they disobey? Is He a God of the Israelites only, or is He God over all people? Is He a God who forgives? Ultimately, what is the character of Jonah’s God? These are the unspoken questions behind the questions the sailors ask.
So what is it that Jonah tells them about the God he serves?
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