The Mediterranean Sea is beautiful.
I have seen it from the shores of Greece, Alexandria, and Israel – the waters are clear, the breezes are cool, and the view is breathtaking. Life as we know it began around the Mediterranean. The Sea brought life and luxuries. Trade and travel could take place between nations and continents because of the Sea. Countless myths and legends revolve around the Mediterranean. The Western world has come to almost romanticize that particular body of water.
|The Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt|
But there was nothing captivating or romantic about the Sea for the Jews. From the earliest days, the Israelites had an aversion to large bodies of water. “The Sea” represented evil, chaos, danger, wildness. The sea could not be tamed. The sea was where demons lived. The sea was no place for a good Jewish boy to be.
That’s why many of the stories in the gospels are quite shocking as they take place on/in/around the Sea of Galilee.
And that’s why it would have been unthinkable for a prophet of God to head down to Joppa, a sleazy sea port, to flee from the Lord on the water.
The impact was not lost on the original audience. Jonah was “going down” into chaos, physically and spiritually.
The seasoned sailors hoist the anchors, open the sails, and head out onto the Sea to deliver the cargo all the way to Spain. These experienced seamen would never have set sail had they seen any sign of a storm on the horizon. Remember, they are sailing West from Israel to Spain – the same direction from which most storm systems would approach. It’s not like a storm could sneak up behind them.
At least not under normal circumstances.
Little did the ship captain know that he was carrying some very dangerous cargo indeed.
Suddenly and out of nowhere, the storm to end all storms was unleashed upon the Sea. The Hebrew says literally, God “hurled” the storm at the ship. Experienced sailors know what to do in the midst of a storm. I’m sure they had drills, routines, procedures, etc. A common storm was nothing to them. But this was no common storm. This was a storm that threatened to rip the vessel to pieces. This was a storm that made the sailors stare their own mortality in the face. This was a storm that caused fear and panic even in the captain. There was nothing they could do but cry out to whichever god would listen.
This was a nightmare of a storm. This was hell.
I can imagine the clouds so thick they black out the sun. I can imagine torrential rain beating against my face. Swells twenty or thirty feet tall rocking the boat so furiously that I can’t get my footing. One moment the bow is pointed straight up to the heavens, the next the bow is plummeting down toward the watery depths. Waves crash over the side of the vessel, filling my mouth and lungs with salt water. Lightning flashes all around me with a disorienting strobe effect. My stomach is churning, my feet are slipping, my eyes are stinging, and I can’t even hear myself yell over the violence of the wind and cracks of thunder.
And then there’s Jonah – below deck and sound asleep.
The sailors are doing everything they can to save themselves and the ship. The cargo hold is filled to capacity with spices and oriental goods. That cargo is their livelihood. If they don’t deliver the goods, they won’t get paid. But with their lives on the line the choice is obvious. Crates and baskets, bundles and barrels go plummeting over the side into the drink. The ship is lighter but the groans and creaks from the boards grows louder. Some planks in the hull give way under the strain and the Sea comes rushing into the vessel.
Hope is fading.
The captain wakes Jonah and urges him to call on his god. The sailors regroup to find out who is responsible for this storm. The lot falls to Jonah. All eyes are on him – all the exhausted, terrified, sea-sprayed eyes. They shout their questions above the storm, demanding an explanation from Jonah. Who are you? Where do you come from? From what people are you?
Jonah replies, raising his voice as if shouting to the storm itself, “I am a Hebrew, and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.”
Terrified, the sailors shouted, What have you done?
[Pause. Pretty much all polytheistic civilizations had a god of the sea, like Poseidon/Neptune. Those gods could control the seas, the sea creatures, even the storms. But Jonah doesn’t say God controls the sea. Jonah’s God created the sea. The Creator God always trumped the lesser gods. Jonah’s God, YHWH, was/is the highest supreme deity without any geological or societal boundaries.]
The sailors asked Jonah what they should do. Should they pray? Sing? Dance? Offer sacrifices? What? What can they do to appease Jonah’s God?
Throw me overboard.
No. We’re not into human sacrifice, they say. There must be another way, they say. Everyone grab an oar! they say.
Even though Jonah had no interest in saving their lives (he was content to sleep through the whole thing!). Even though it was Jonah’s fault they were in this hellish storm. Even though Jonah had no regard for his own life. Even though they could all still die. The sailors still did everything they could to keep from killing Jonah.
These pagan sailors who had never heard of YHWH had more courage and integrity than the prophet of YHWH!
Finally, when they realized the futility of trying to row to shore against the storm, the did what Jonah had told them to. But not before they had prayed to the Lord asking his forgiveness in what they were about to do.
They grabbed Jonah, brought him to the side of the boat, and threw him overboard. I can imagine a giant wave breaking over him as if the sea were swallowing the sacrifice. Jonah would not be seen by these men again.
Then as suddenly as the storm came upon them, the clouds dissolved, the winds became calm, and the waves leveled out. With their ship and their crew mates intact, the sailors sailed off into the blue.
They had been through hell and came out the other side – rejoicing and praising YHWH, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.
How’s that for a conversion story?