I’m using the Revised Standard Version in this post unless otherwise noted. The numbering of Jonah differs slightly from that of the NAB. For this reason some references to the RSV are followed by a reference to the NAB.
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Notice of copyright must appear on the title or copyright page of the work as follows:
“Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1952 [2nd edition, 1971] by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”
1 Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying,
Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah. Verse 1 employs a typical phrase often found in the prophetic literature to introduce a prophet’s activity or mission (e.g., 1 Sam 15:10; 1 Kings 6:11); a quotation from a prophet (Jer 7:1, Jer 11:1); a prophet’s claim to ministry (Jer 1:4, 11; Ezek 6:1). It can also serve as (or at least as a part of) the superscription to a prophetic book (Hosea 1:1; Joel 1:1; Micah 1:1; Zephaniah 1:1). While many take the verse here as a superscription it is in fact akin to the usage of passages such as 1 Sam 15:10 and 1 Kings 6:11 previously mentioned. It introduces the action of the prophet. The work is very much concerned about Jonah, but not with the content of his message as such. In the entire book Jonah is never identified as a prophet, and the book itself contains only one very brief prophetic oracle (Jonah 3:4).
The name Jonah means “dove”, a bird which sometimes was used to symbolize fickleness in the Old Testament (Hosea 7:11). Jonah is certainly presented in this work as silly and capricious. In Psalm 55:7 the poet wishes he were a dove so that he might take flight, flee from a treacherous friend. Jonah will flee from the covenanted God of his people as if the Lord had betrayed him for offering the great enemy of the people, the Ninevites (i.e., the Assyrians) the opportunity to repent (Jonah 4:1-3). The sound of those who mourn a disaster is sometimes compared to the cooing of doves (Isaiah 38:14), but Jonah will complain because a disaster has been averted.
(the LORD said) 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” (Literally, “before my face”)
3 But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence (literally, “from the face”) of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence (from the face) of the LORD.
The Lord’s very first words introduce one of the major satirical elements of the book. The word and conceptual links and contrasts in these two verses are many, and I’ve tried to convey some of the significance with color coding. God says to the prophet arise, go to Nineveh…for their wickedness has come up before me. But Jonah’s response is exactly the opposite! He rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went on board (Literally, “went down into it”), to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.
Notice how the prophet completely reverses what the Lord’s intentions were in commanding him to arise and go to Nineveh. He rose up only to flee, and words and phrase such as went down, from, going to, etc all relate to this flight. Twice the flight is represented as being from the presence of the LORD, which forms a contrast with the statement that the Ninevites wickedness has come up before God.
The reason for the prophet’s response is not given until chapter 3:10-4:2~When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them; and he did not do it. But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, “I pray thee, LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repentest of evil. When the Prophet learned that the Ninevites wickedness was before God (i.e., present to him), the prophet left the presence of God, knowing that these pagans were being marked out for God’s mercy and love. The book was written primarily as a critique of those who refused to believe that God can show mercy to whomever he chooses, even one’s own most violent enemies: should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle? (Jonah 4:11).
4 But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up.
The words But the LORD indicate that God is responding to the prophet’s flight. To stop his prophet’s retreat and get him to do his bidding the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea. Jonah should have known that the sea would offer him no escape from the Lord: there shall be no flight for them: they shall flee, and he that shall flee shall not be delivered. Though they go down even to hell, thence shall my hand bring them out: and though they climb up to heaven, thence will I bring them down. And though they be hid in the top of Carmel, I will search and take them away from thence: and though they hide themselves from my eyes in the depth of the sea, there will I command the serpent and he shall bite them (Amos 9:1-3, Douay-Rheims Translation).
Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me (Psalm 139:7-10).
It is interesting to note that a storm at sea precedes our Blessed Lord’s entrance into Pagan territory in the Gospels (see Matt 8:23-34; Mark 4:35-5:2; Luke 8:22-41).
5 Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god; and they threw the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep.
And each cried to his god. As the devout pagan mariners cry to their respective gods Jonah continues his flight from the Lord.
And they threw (literally, ‘hurled”) their wares that were in the ship into the sea. As yet the sailors are unaware that it is the Lord God-whom they don’t know-who has hurled a great wind at them and caused the tempest (see the word “hurled” in verse 4). As yet they are also unaware that it is NOT their wares that were in the ship that is a danger to them, rather, it is the fleeing prophet who has gone down into the inner part of the ship that is the problem.
Note the re-occurrence of the word down, already used a few times in verse 3 to relate to that flight: he went down to Joppa and went on board (literally down into) the ship. Now he has gone down even further, into the inner part of the ship where he has lain down and gone fast asleep.
The prophet is sleeping the sleep of the righteous who trust in God’s power to save: I lie down and sleep; I wake again, for the LORD sustains me (Psalm 3:5. 3:6 in NAB). In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for thou alone, O LORD, makest me dwell in safety (Psalm 4:8. 8:9 in the NAB). As he himself will come to admit, his sense of security is a false one (see Jonah 1:12).
6 So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call upon your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we do not perish.”
Arise, call upon your god recalls the command God had given to Jonah in verse 2: Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry (literally “call”) against it; for their wickedness has come up before me. The prophet has not listened to the Lord his God, will he listen to the pagan captain? Notice what the captain’s motivation is in asking Jonah to pray to the Lord: Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we do not perish. But is is precisely the fact that the Lord God is willing to save even pagans which is behind Jonah’s flight from Him! The captain is asking Jonah to do for the pagan sailors what God had asked him to do for the pagan Ninevites. On the basis of what unfolds in verse 7 we can probably conclude that Jonah did not respond.
7 And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah.
Getting no help from Jonah the sailors decide to cast lots in order to determine who has caused their predicament. This practice was known in both Hebrew and Pagan cultures and is often mentioned in the Bible (e.g., Num 26:55; Joshua 14:2; 1 Sam 10:20-24; Matt 27:35 and its parallels; Acts 1:26; etc.). The lot identifies Jonah as the culprit and leads the sailors to ask their questions in the next verse.
8 Then they said to him, “Tell us, on whose account this evil has come upon us? What is your occupation? And whence do you come? What is your country? And of what people are you?”
9 And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew; and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”
The prophet’s reply to their questions is ironic, and perhaps not altogether truthful. He applies to himself the term Hebrew, a word seldom used in the Old Testament to designate the Israelites once they had come into and secured the promised land. A Hebrew is a foreigner, someone without land, outside civilized centers, etc. Having left the Holy Land the prophet has reverted back to the state of his ancestors who were despised as foreigners and treated as slaves.
The prophet further declares that I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land. His words are a confession of faith, but also full of irony. The faithful who fear the Lord are obedient (Deut 5:29) and stand in awe and reverence towards God (Psalm 33:8; Psalm 55:19; Lev 19:14; etc.); something Jonah has been loath to do.
The confession that the Lord is the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land is also ironic, for the prophet to to the sea in order to escape the God he knows is its master! Recall Amos 9:1-3 and Psalm 139:7-8 I quoted above, commenting on verse 4.
10 Then the men were exceedingly afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them.
The fear of the pagans is motivated by what Jonah has done in fleeing from the presence of the Lord. The fear Jonah claims to exhibit towards his God does not exist, and it is this that causes the pagans to fear-to fear the God they don’t even know. Once again their devotion, however minimal and darkened it might be, is contrasted with Jonah’s which is thoroughly hypocritical. Their question what is this that you have done? echoes God’s question to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:13. It is the question a prophet might ask a sinner (1 Sam 13:10-14). No one can escape their disobedience, not even a prophet of God.
11 Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous.
12 He said to them, “Take me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.”
13 Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them.
What shall we do to you? In the Old Testament it is common to see people inquire of a prophet concerning what is the best course of action to take in a dangerous situation. The most dangerous situation is sin against God, and it is the case that sometimes people ask what they must do in this situation (Luke 3:10; Acts 2:37). But the situation the sailors find themselves in is not their doing, rather it is Jonah’s, hence they ask: what shall we do to you?
The prophet responds to their question by bidding them to Take me up and throw me into the sea. The word translated here as “throw” would be better translated as “hurl,” for it recalls the word used to describe God’s hurling the great wind at the ship (verse 4), and the mariners hurling their wares overboard to lighten the ship (verse 5).
Some scholars interpret the words of Jonah as noble, but in fact, he is still trying to escape God and the mission God gave him. His words take me up recall the very first word God spoke to him “arise.” His words throw me into the sea reminds us that his descent into the ship (verse 3) and, latter, his descent into the inner parts of the ship, were attempts to get away from God’s presence and escape his mission. Having shown contempt for the lives of others-the Ninevites and the sailors-he now shows contempt for his own life.
The pagan sailors understand this, thus they row hard to bring the ship back to land.They are attempting to save both themselves and Jonah, in contrast to Jonah who would rather not save neither himself or the Ninevites. In spite of their hard rowing the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them.
14 Therefore they cried to the LORD, “We beseech thee, O LORD, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood; for thou, O LORD, hast done as it pleased thee.”
15 So they took up Jonah and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging.
Their own attempt at saving themselves and Jonah have failed, therefore, they cried out to the LORD. Having begun to respond to their situation by calling on their own gods (verse 5), then by bidding Jonah to call on his (verse 6), then asking Jonah what they should do concerning him (verse 11) they themselves now call on the LORD, the God of Jonah, the God Jonah has not yet addressed.
It appears that they have come to the conclusion that God does indeed wish Jonah to be tossed overboard, but not for the reasons the prophet had in mind. This fact becomes evident in Jonah 2:3 (2:4 in the NAB)~For thou (God, not the sailors) didst cast me into the deep. Jonah wanted to escape from his mission by dying in the sea, but God wanted him there in order to bring him to repentance.
What Jonah wanted was evident to the sailors, hence their attempt to avoid it. What God wants is unknown to them and so they act according to the light given them. They have come to conclude that Jonah’s God will act as he desires, not thwarted or checked by the contradictory desires and endeavors of men: for thou, O LORD, hast done as it pleased thee. They decide to place their fate and Jonah’s in God’s hands with a prayer.
15 So they took up Jonah and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging.
16 Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.
Having originally avoided casting Jonah into the sea so that he might not fulfill his mission (see note on verse 12 above), the sailors cast him into the sea in accord with God’s desire and the sea ceased from its raging. The reverential fear of the Lord which the prophet had falsely claimed for himself in verse 9 is now attributed to the pagan sailors who feared the LORD exceedingly. They offered what was, apparently a thanksgiving sacrifice to the LORD and made vows. What these vows (promises) were we are not told. Jonah, who until now has experienced the same things as the sailors, will have to nearly die before he is brought to the thought of offering sacrifices and vows (Jonah 2:9; 2:10 in the NAB). Once again the pagan’s come out looking better than the Prophet.
17 (2:1 in the NAB) And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. The word appointed indicates God’s mastery over all creation, men, beasts, plants. He can do with them what he will, and this is a major theological component of the book’s overall message. An important caveat is, of course, that man has free will, thus necessitating the need for preachers of repentance, acts of repentance, punishment for sin, etc.
A great fish. Neither the Hebrew or Greek text identifies the beast as a whale though the words used in both translations can be so understood they are much more generic.
And Jonah was in the belly of the whale for three days and three nights. This becomes the sign of Jonah in Jesus preaching (Matt 12:38-42). The sign Jesus speaks of is often associated solely with the resurrection but, as the context makes clear, much more is implied. The sign of Jonah is seen in the intransigence,unbelief and lack of repentance of the scribes, pharisees, and all who imitate them.
2:1 (2:2 in NAB). Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish,
2:10 (2:11 in NAB). And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.
In the reading, the actual prayer of Jonah is passed over since neither his prayer nor the necessity of prayer is the theme of today’s readings. The Responsorial takes up Jonah’s prayer with the response: “You will rescue my life from the pit, O Lord.” As is usually the case the response verse helps indicates the Mass theme: The God who rescues others from danger and death expects us to do the same as the sinner Jonah and the despised Samaritan (today’s Gospel reading) do (see Lk 10:25-37).