Taking it In
Jonah’s fellow shipmates as it turns out do assume that he is going to drown, so they try to steer clear of ditching Jonah to the sea. Again, this could be an instance to applaud the non-Israelite sailors and it may also point to their recognition that Yahweh doesn’t want to take Jonah’s life, Yahweh wants to use it, instead. God wants Jonah to speak and this puts another quandary to the story. They try to steer the ship back to land. When folks would sail the Mediterranean in those days they tried to stay closer to the shore so that there would be less chance of getting shipwrecked. As another precaution they would also carry oars and sails but this was more to deal with getting stuck rather than getting wrecked. Anyhow, Jonah has introduced (more or less) his companions to Yahweh and they all decide to pray. There are a few different aspects to this prayer: There is a naming of Yahweh by these foreign sailors that begins with an “Oh,” and is followed by a “please.” There is the actual petition they put forward, twice, which probably reflects the size of the “pickle” they’re in. They’re facing catastrophe because of Jonah but they still don’t want to send him to his death because they’ve shown to be, at least what we have seen, of good character, but it is also the case that they don’t want to put themselves in more danger by making Yahweh even more angry!
Working it Out
If we were in the sailors’ shoes or sandals, many of us would probably not hesitate to throw Jonah overboard considering the alternative being smite by the Lord of Israel. But unusually, these Gentile sailors tried their best to save the life of this Hebrew prophet who had been sent by Yahweh to save the lives of the people in Nineveh (the capital of Assyria no less, one of Israel’s major enemies. A detail not to forget!). It really comes down to one word in the text, “instead.” Instead of saving their own skin and making Jonah walk the plank, they risked their own lives to save him. In other words, they were playing the role that Jonah should have been playing all along. So the first point to “work out,” is that we are presented with many “instead” moments during our days, weeks, and so on. Will we take the ship wheel and act, or will we throw everyone overboard just so we can be “saved” or spared?
Secondly, this marks a major turning point in the story because earlier in v. 6 the captain called on Jonah to, “call upon your god…” It might have very well been that he was instructing his other shipmates to do the same to their gods. But the Gentile sailors instead move to praying to Yahweh, the God of Israel, in v. 14. And calling Yahweh, “Yahweh,” no less! This was a major prayer for a non-Israelite. In fact, it could have been seen as blasphemous. We can’t miss that. Perhaps undeservedly and unwittingly so, but God was working through Jonah even when he was trying to run away. The very mission he is trying to run away from in turning foreigners and Gentiles to God, is the one that is being accomplished. If God can work through Jonah while he is deliberately running away, God can most certainly work through us even if we miss our call, run away from our call, or completely misinterpret our call. God will work whether we are in the way, out of the way, or on the way!