Jonah 1:9. This is the central verse in chapter 1. The structure of this chapter forms a chiasm with 1:9 at the middle.[ref]See Alexander, 106-109; Hannah, 1465.[/ref] As such, the reader is intended to note with great care what Jonah says about himself and about God.
Jonah begins by answering their last question first, the question about his nationality and people. “I am a Hebrew,” he answered. Jonah answered their last question first because in his mind it is the most important. For Jonah, his national identity as a Hebrew, as a member of the chosen nation of God is of utmost importance. Jonah is proud of being one of God’s chosen people on earth.
The sailors would have known some information about the Hebrews, for they had just docked at Joppa, and likely had done some business with Hebrew merchants. They doubtless would have seen some of the ways that the Hebrews worshiped their God and heard some of what the Hebrews believed about Him. Though there was much idolatry in Israel at this time, they might have found it curious that no shrine or temple to the God of the Hebrews existed in Joppa. To the average foreigner, the Hebrew form of worship seemed very odd and even irreligious. To properly worship a deity, one needed to go to a shrine or temple and make sacrifices or leave gifts there for the deity. But since the Hebrew people did not generally erect shrines all over the place or build temples in every city, many foreigners thought that the Hebrew people did not care enough about their God to provide numerous places of worship for Him. If they were told that God had instructed them to not build temples and shrines in every city, the only other conclusion a foreigner could come to was that God did not care much for His people, since He made it so difficult for them to worship Him. However, the text does not say what the sailors thought about all this, or what they knew (or didn’t know) about the God of the Hebrews.
But Jonah goes on to explain more about his God. He says, “I fear Yahweh.”Jonah tells them the name of his God, Yahweh, and claims that he fears Yahweh. To fear God does not mean to be afraid of Him, but to respectfully obey Him. It “indicates an ongoing activity of awe before the Lord, of piety in His presence, of obedience to His word, and of saving faith (Gen 22:12; Exod 20:20; Prov 1:7). Yet Jonah’s actions contradicted his words.”[ref]Radmacher et al., eds., 1066.[/ref] He was despising the Lord’s honor, disobeying God, endangering the life of the sailors on board this ship, and—as will be seen in the next few verses—slanderously misrepresenting God. The reader is left wondering if Jonah really believed he was fearing God in his actions.
After making the claim to fear Yahweh, Jonah tells the sailors a little bit about Him. He first says that Yahweh is the God of heaven. This was an ancient title for God (cf. Gen 24:3, 7) which became more popular during the Persian period and after the exile.[ref]Allen, 209.[/ref] When modern Western readers read it, they think of “heaven” as the city of light and gold where God dwells and where believers will spend eternity. But this is not what Jonah meant by heaven, or what the sailors would have understood him to say. People at that time thought of the heaven as the sky, that is, the place where birds flew, where clouds floated, and where the sun, moon, and stars traveled on their courses. To speak of Yahweh as the god of heaven indicates that God controls everything that goes on in the sky. In light of the present situation, this title indicates that God was in control of the wind which caused this terrible storm. Jonah may also be referencing one of the patron deities of the sailors, Baal Shamem, “Master of the Heavens.”[ref]Alexander, 105; Walton, 107.[/ref] If so, Jonah is telling the sailors that Yahweh is in charge of the heavens; not Baal Shamem.
But Jonah continues. Not only does his God control the weather, He also made the sea and the dry land. As with naming Yahweh as the God of heaven, Jonah may be showing that Israel’s God outranks both Yamm and Baal Hadad.[ref]Walton, 107.[/ref] The message is that Yahweh is the creator God. He made the sea and was in control of it, and He made the dry land (cf. Ps 95:5). Jack Sasson also points out that while Hebrew usually orders three elements as “heaven…earth…sea,” Jonah reorders them to cleverly tell the sailors that God can stop the winds in the heaven to give them calm on the sea so that they can reach land in safety.[ref]Sasson, 119.[/ref]
The basic truth that Jonah told the sailors is that His God created the world, and was in the control of the weather. Most pagan deities were only in control of a small portion of the world. One deity would rule the ocean, while another would rule a portion of land, and a third would control the weather. Jonah is essentially saying that His God is the God of weather, the God of the sea, and the God of the land. While all of this is true, it is certainly not the entire picture of who God is or what God is like, but apparently, Jonah feels he has given sufficient information to these pagan sailors to show them that resistance was futile, and it may be best to fall asleep and wait for death to come, just as he had done. Through his calm confession of faith, Jonah is obviously trying to set himself apart from the blind panic of the pagan sailors,[ref]Ibid., 118.[/ref] but ironically, Jonah’s words are not reinforced by his actions. Nothing he has done up to this point in the book shows that he actually fears Yahweh. To the contrary, it is the sailors who have acted upon their faith, and who continue to do so in the following events. Jonah has admitted that it is because of him that “their cargo has been lost, their ship is about to be destroyed, and they may well lose their lives,”[ref]Hyers, 99.[/ref] Yet despite the sailors having every reason to despise and hate Jonah for the damage he has caused, they continue to treat him with patience and grace. Their actions are clearly set in contrast to those of Jonah.
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