The Unusual Question the Sailors Asked Jonah and What it Tells Us About God

Jonah-seaRead these verses from Jonah 1:4-8 and see if you pick up on the unusual question they ask Jonah,

Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.

But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.”

Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?”

Did you catch the question they asked him? They asked him “who is responsible for making all this trouble for us?” Well, the lot fell on Jonah…so obviously he is the problem but they don’t believe that is all there is to it. Notice, they cast lots to find out who is responsible…the lot fell on Jonah…so one would think he is responsible but clearly they think something else is going on here that Jonah has the answer to.

Part of the answer lies in the fact that Jonah had already told them he was running away from his God. The question Jonah has an answer to is not what Jonah has done to cause this (they already have some idea about that) but who is actually responsible for the storm. Obviously, the only one who can be responsible for a storm must be some sort of divine being who controls things like that.

The answer they are looking for can also be surmised from the rest of their questions regarding his nationality and work. Nationality and work were often tied up into the gods one worshiped. So the “who” they are looking for is the name of a god. Once they know that name, they can try to find a way to appease whichever god it might be “who is responsible for this calamity.”

What makes this even more obvious is Jonah’s answer and their reaction,

He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”

This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.)

There was a view in the ancient world that gods had spheres of influence and responsibility. Baal was god of the storm. Asherah was queen of heaven. Jonah tells them Yahweh is “God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Jonah answered their question…his God controls the heavens (wind and rain) and the sea (waves) and that answer scares them even more.

Once you have the responsible party pinned down to a diety the only reasonable solution is to find out how to appease that “god” and that is what they ask Jonah next and what Jonah tells them how to accomplish,

The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?”

“Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.

Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.” Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.

Our God is not like the limited false gods of the ancients. Our God is maker of all things and his sphere of influence and power encompasses everything. That is not something ancient people were all that used to hearing and out of that revelation came conversion. God’s first converts in the book of Jonah were not in Ninevah…they were on a pagan boat out in the stormy sea and Jonah wasn’t the messenger…he was the message. What God did to Jonah was the message that convicted these men of the reality of Yahweh, that He is not a regional “god” or a god confined to a certain sphere or influence and responsibilities…He is the One, true God and is over all things.

What does that mean for us? It means we cannot confine God to a box or a pre-approved set of responsibilities or areas of influence. God is Lord over every single area of our lives…and so we submit to Him and try hard not to compartmentalize our spirituality to a church building or to Sunday.

4 Responses to The Unusual Question the Sailors Asked Jonah and What it Tells Us About God

  1. … the article seems to end in mid-sentence?????

  2. Jim Campbell says:

    “What does that mean for us?” There’s a lot more underpinning that question than you have addressed. You’ve only laid out the required Christian believer response; whereas, the scenario you expanded on was not the giving of a scare to some apostatic Hebrew sailors, but possible consequences of the appeasing conviction of superstitious non-Hebrew mariners. It’s seldom in the West that we have to deal with converting pagans these days. A much more typical situation is trying to convince secular agnostics that their continuing existence is in the hands of God., that it could be over in a flash, and that there is a real unavoidable Judgement to be faced Jonah’s ship-mates could be prevailed upon because, like most sailors, they had a superstitious dread that God, or some god, manifested Himself in the awesome power of heavy seas and storms. Until their boat has been rocked, I’m afraid that most of today’s secularists will carry on regardless. Moreover, these old-time mariners lived in a world where God did intervene in the lifes of human beings.- the Bible witnesses this. So, it was prudent to fear the Divine: even if you hadn’t had an encounter with spirit powers yourself, you knew a man who knew another man who had! Today, even many of our own churches preach a message that you better believe by handed-down faith (the Old Tracks) because God won’t be ostensibly intervening till the Second Coming. In our search for a commonly acceptable scriptural consistency it certainly looks like we’ve rationalized God out of featuring directly in these later days of the pre-Rapture Church. Today’s apostatic secularists might think again if confronted by something that was beyond their ability to explain; but, if only told to have blind faith and not trust in their own hard-won proven skills and abilities – even if these things are not much – then I’m afraid most will carry on in the way they’ve been doing. They are the creations of a God who created them to be like Him: if He trusts in His abilities to influence things, why would they not?

    • Matt Dabbs says:

      Your assessment is not only correct of non-Christians but also of many Christians…that many people across the board need something to wake them up and realize there is more to life than what can be explained by science and reason. It often takes being humbled before we are open to the possibility that we might not have everything figured out as well as we thought we did.

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