"He answered, 'I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.'" (Jonah 1:9)
Refresh your memory by reading Jonah 1. We will focus this time on Jonah 1:4-17.
The Book of Jonah has a few other characters besides Jonah himself. The sailors, for instance, who unknowingly put their lives at stake by taking Jonah aboard their ship. These innocent bystanders lost most of their goods in an effort to keep their ship from sinking. A violent storm ensued and the sailors were introduced to Jonah's God that night. Imagine being one of those sailors the moment you realized that you had to throw a man (Jonah) overboard in order to save your own life and the lives of your shipmates.
These heathen sailors would have had their own patron deities (personal or family gods), but they also would have implored whatever cosmic deities (universal gods) were popular in the day. They could usually identify divine activity as such, but it was another matter altogether identifying which god was acting and why. Don't get me wrong! I am in no way implying that there were actually other gods to identify. The only other "god" (little "g") that can be identified is our enemy, Satan. Each of the sailors would have called out to his own personal patron deity in hopes that the patron deity could influence the actions of the cosmic deity at work -- the cosmic deity causing the storm about to take their lives. The more deities that were contacted the better their chances of getting help from one of them. So, the captain decides to ask Jonah to call upon his god. (I say "god" little "g" because at this point the captain has no understanding of who Jonah's God is.) The captain goes below deck to speak to Jonah, and, lo and behold, Jonah is sleeping. It's not that Jonah doesn't realize that they are now sailing in the midst of a life-threatening storm. It's just that Jonah doesn't want to go to Nineveh. That is Jonah's state of mind. Death to himself and the ship's crew is better than going to Nineveh and allowing God the opportunity to be merciful with Israel's enemy. As if Jonah could stop God somehow from showing mercy. "For he says to Moses, 'I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.'" (Romans 9:15, NIV) We cannot stop God! The thought of dying in this storm is so much better in Jonah's mind that he is able to sleep. Have you ever made the comment, "I would sooner die than ________________ (insert your worst nightmare here)!" That place right there. That's where Jonah was at.
The sailors cast lots to determine who would be first to disclose information about themselves. The assumption was that someone had done something terrible to make one of the gods angry enough to bring such a storm. The assumption was, in essence, true. One of the passengers did do something to make the God of the universe angry. The lot fell on Jonah. This is one of the most fascinating things that I've come to realize about God. He uses whatever tools we have, whatever our understanding at the time to accomplish His intent. He is not threatened by these so-called "other gods." God does not compete. He is not an ego-maniac. He is God. His purpose and intent will be accomplished and at the moment it is, all eyes will be on Him. He never loses control of a situation. In this case, He uses the tradition of casting lots. That was the sailors way of making difficult decisions. It was a custom practiced by most cultures of the day, including Israel. The sailors are naturally curious about who Jonah is and where he comes from and what exactly he did to make his God so angry. Jonah answers the sailors in such a way that explains his God as the Creator of heaven and earth -- just the sort of "god" who could bring such a storm! All eyes are on Jonah now and they blame him for their destruction. Jonah's flight from God has put them all in jeopardy and Jonah knows it.
How the sailors deal with Jonah and his God's anger is typical during this time in history. The people of the day believed that the actions of the gods were neither honorable nor reliable. In fact, it was believed that their actions were somewhat whimsical and always arbitrary. They worshiped gods that were childish in behavior -- gods that could not be trusted. Make no mistake! This is NOT the character of the God of Israel -- the One true living God! They believed that each god could be appeased in a different way, so they approached Jonah for an idea of how they might appease his God. Jonah's advice to the sailors was simple and to the point: "Pick me up and throw me into the sea." (vs. 12, NIV) Well, the sailors weren't enthusiastic about murder, so they made a last ditch attempt to row back to shore. The attempt failed because the sea grew even wilder than it was before. God was demanding Jonah's obedience.
Reluctantly, the sailors throw Jonah into the sea. In an act of desperation (and because, to them, a god is a god), the sailors cry out to the Lord Jehovah for mercy. "O Lord, please do not let us die for taking this man's life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O Lord, have done as you pleased." (vs. 14, NIV) As soon as the sailors throw Jonah overboard the sea grew calm. At this, the sailors feared the God of Israel, sacrificed to Him and made vows to Him. There is no indication as to what they sacrificed or what the vows entailed. One thing is certain, they recognized Jonah's God as the God in control of the present situation and the One to be worshiped at the moment. The sailors probably made a vow to remember this divine event each year on its anniversary. This does not mean that they gave up worshiping their other gods. It only means that they included Jonah's God among those they already worshiped. But, hey, it's a start. They've now been introduced to the One, true God.
Jonah was cast into the sea and swallowed up by a big fish. Jonah more than likely assumed he would die as soon as he was thrown into the sea. Most certainly, he did not expect to live the next few days of his life in the belly of a big fish. (Mercy: not getting the punishment we deserve.) Jonah's overt disobedience to God deserved the punishment of death. This big fish was more willing to do the bidding of its Creator than was Jonah. I love the various translations of the last verse in chapter 1. The NIV states it this way: "The Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah . . . ," as if the fish was an act of rescue on God's part. (I love that! That's so like the God I know to provide a rescue.) The ESV states it, "And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah." This one kind of gives me the picture of God's creatures lining up waiting for their assignment from God -- maybe even eager to be asked. Jonah was appointed a task and the fish was appointed a task. Hmmm. What Jonah and the great fish had in common in regards to their tasks was that neither task was pleasing to either one. Jonah did not want to go to Ninevah because the Ninevites had certainly left a bad taste in his mouth. The great fish couldn't have liked the idea of swallowing up a whole man, clothes and all, when what he really enjoyed swallowing was shrimp. (I'm assuming here that the great fish was, in fact, a whale.) Aah! I love the Word. It's an ocean of fun!
Questions for reflection:
If you were one of the sailors that night would you have been able to and willing to throw someone overboard if it meant saving your life and the lives of your shipmates?
Have you ever felt like God's ways seemed whimsical or arbitrary? What truths does the Bible give us about this?
How would you share with those sailors about your God? What would you share that might convince them that He is the Creator of heaven and earth?
Have you ever shared your God with someone who served a different god?