Jonah's first call from God and his response. Contrast between Jonah and the sailors.
The opening of the book, the word of the LORD came to Jonah, is a common one for a prophetic narrative that is embedded in a book, but it does not occur elsewhere as the opening of
a book, so from the start, Jonah is different. This opening suggests to the readers that the book begins, as it were, “in
the middle,” and that much of the background of the story is not told in the book. It is up to them to fill the gap. Jonah son of Amittai: The name of the prophet is identical with that of a prophet mentioned in 2 Kings 14.25
, who prophesied in the days of Jeroboam II, king of Israel. It seems possible and even likely that the text here serves to
encourage its readers to identify the two, or at least to fill the mentioned gap with their knowledge about the prophet in
Kings, who is depicted as one who prophesied territorial conquests for Israel.
Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the conqueror of Samaria in 722 BCE; it was itself destroyed by the Babylonians and their allies in 612. Numerous prophetic texts characterize the Assyrians
as extremely cruel and savage. Although this unflattering characterization pervaded much of biblical literature, the book
of Jonah, which calls them Ninevites, never Assyrians, describes them as sinners who fully repented. The choice of words for
this (first) call of Jonah reverberates in the second divine call (
To flee to Tarshish, from the perspective of the readers a faraway place (cf. Isa. 66.19
) in the opposite direction from Nineveh. Tarshish may have been in the Tarsus region on the southern coast of Turkey, but
many other places have been suggested including Tartessus in Spain. Joppa was just outside Israelite territory, on the Mediterranean at the northern border of Philistia. Its modern name is Jaffa/Yafo
(near Tel Aviv in modern Israel), and it is still a port. Jonah found a ship “coming from Tarshish” rather than going to Tarshish, as usually translated. Many scholars accept the translation he paid the fare but there is good reason to prefer “he paid its hire” (that is, he hired the ship and its sailors; cf. already b. Ned. 38a). In other words, he was “lucky” to find a ship just coming to port and hastened so much that he hired everyone so as
to leave for the sea, on the spot.
Jonah first went down to the port, and then went aboard (lit. “down to”) the ship.
Once in the ship he went down into the hold of the vessel. Eventually he will go down into the deep of the sea. Jonah fell asleep, but his was a “deep sleep,” perhaps akin to a trance.
Cast lots, a way to determine the divine will.
Jonah speaks to the sailors in terms they can relate to. He tells them he is a Hebrew, a term sometimes used when speaking
to non‐Israelites, and he identifies God as the creator of the sea and land, putting the sea first, since that is the important
element to the sailors.
The sailors' reverence for and fear of the LORD is explicitly emphasized by the expanded repetition of v. 10 in v. 16
, and by the description of their actions. They seem convinced that the storm was due to Jonah's presence, but they are more
than reluctant to “murder” a prophet even if he is a fugitive servant of the LORD. In fact, the LORD has to force them to heave Jonah overboard, a point that is emphasized and embellished in Midrash Tanḥuma and Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer. Even then they are afraid of being held responsible for the death of the prophet. To be sure, God knows that their action
will not lead to Jonah's death, but rather serves as a necessary step for the completion of Jonah's mission and of God's overall
intention. But the sailors do not know that. As for Jonah, he probably thought that death was the best available way out of
his mission. Had he died, he would have successfully escaped from God's call. Of course, the readers know that God will not
let this happen. As soon as Jonah is thrown overboard, they expect a divine action aimed at saving Jonah from death. Their
expectations are fulfilled.
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