Commentary on Jonah 1

English Translation

1Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2“Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” 3But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.

4But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. 5Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. 6So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”

7And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. 8Then they said to him, “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” 9And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” 10Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them.

11Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. 12He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” 13Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. 14Therefore they called out to the LORD, “O LORD, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you.” 15So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. 16Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.

17And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. (ESV)

Notes

1Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying,

Jonah son of Amittai, from Gath-hepher, is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:23-27 and is described as a prophet of the Northern Kingdom under Jeroboam II (786-746 BCE) who prophesied the restoration of Israel’s border. The name “Jonah” means “dove” and therefore suggests flight and passivity, apt characteristics for Jonah in the first two chapters. The name “Amittai” means “trustworthy” and hints at the irony that pervades the book. Jonah demonstrates his untrustworthiness by shirking his prophetic call (1:3)1.

2“Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.”

Jonah’s call to travel from Israel to another land to deliver a message is unparalleled among the biblical prophets. Nineveh was Assyria’s capital in the latter days of its empire. The Assyrian Empire destroyed the Northern Kingdom in 722 BCE and forced Judah to become a vassal state (2 Kings 17:5-6; 16:7-18). Nineveh itself was destroyed in 612 BCE by the Babylonians. Nineveh’s evil ways are not described in detail but in 3:8 the king calls on the people to turn from their evil ways and the violence that is in their hands.

3But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.

The location of Tarshish is not known for certain. Jonah begins his descent down to Joppa on the Mediterranean coast. This implies that Jonah was fleeing west, in the opposite direction of Nineveh. Jonah’s reason for fleeing from the presence of the LORD is given in 4:2; he fears that God will show mercy to the Ninevites.

4But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up.

God’s sovereignty over nature is displayed throughout the book (1:17; 2:10; 4:6-8).

5Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep.

The fact that each mariner cries out to his own god indicates that they were pagans.

6So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”

The captain’s concern contrasts with Jonah’s lack of concern for warning Nineveh.

9And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”

Jonah appears unaware of the futility of fleeing from the God who created both the sea and the dry land. His answer becomes the means of the pagans’ knowledge of the LORD (1:16).

12He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.”

Jonah shows a willingness to die to save the lives of the mariners. Later, he shows a callous disregard for the inhabitants of Nineveh. Jonah may also be displaying an acceptance of death for his disobedience.

13Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them.

The Hebrew word translated “rowed hard” means “to dig” (with oars). This indicates their strenuous effort2. The other mariners, like the captain, show a concern for Jonah that Jonah will not show towards the Ninevites.

15So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging.

The LORD hurled the great wind (1:4), the mariners hurled cargo overboard (1:5), and now they finally hurl Jonah overboard.

16Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.

This does not necessarily mean that the pagan mariners renounced other gods. Ancient pagans could recognize the existence and power of many gods. The mariners are recognizing the LORD’s control of the present events.

17And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

The phrase “the LORD appointed” also occurs in 4:6-8. The Hebrew word dag is the only Hebrew word available for “fish” so it is impossible to identify the species of fish that swallowed Jonah3. The Hebrew verb “to swallow up” always has a negative meaning in the Bible (Exodus 15:12; Numbers 16:30) so here the fish initially appears as an instrument of divine judgment4 but is later shown to be an instrument of salvation. Note that God saves Jonah before Jonah repents.

Bibliography

NJBC: Raymond E. Brown, New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 1990

NIVSB: Kenneth Barker, NIV Study Bible, 1995

HCSB: Wayne A. Meeks, HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, 1993

HCBC: James L. Mays, HarperCollins Bible Commentary, 2000

1[NJBC] 582

2[NIVSB] 1360

3[HCBC] 657

4[HCSB] 1376

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