Saturday, October 31, 2020

Mining the Minors: Jonah (6)

It is of at least mild interest to certain commentators to note which names of God are used by the writers of various Old Testament books. For example, it is a notable feature of the book of Ecclesiastes that the personal name by which God makes himself known to Israel is never used there. Given the content of Ecclesiastes, this authorial choice makes perfect sense.

Can we deduce anything equally significant from the names of God used in the book of Jonah? You be the judge.

The Names of God in Jonah

In Jonah, both the personal, covenant name “the Lord” [YHWH] and the generic “God” ['elohiym] are used throughout, in one case as a compound [YHWH 'elohiym]. “The Lord” occurs 26 times, and “God” exactly half that.

However, the distribution of these two names throughout the book does not appear to be entirely random. In the early exchanges in the book, God is consistently referred to as “the Lord” in relation to his prophet, while in relation to Nineveh in chapter 3, God is consistently referred to generically. I would not make too much of this, but perhaps the lack of a personal noun throughout the third chapter is an indication that the repentant Ninevites were not so much entering into a meaningful relationship with Israel’s God as they were simply delaying the inevitable ... which in fact turns out to be the case.

By way of contrast, the sailors in chapter 1 begin by referring to “your god” and end up calling out “O Lord” in prayer, making vows and offerings to YHWH. This movement from the generic to the personal may indicate a growing awareness of the distinctiveness of the God of Israel and his supremacy above all other “gods”, and their willingness to bow the knee to him.

Like the sailors, in the eleven verses of chapter 4, Jonah also prays “O Lord” [YHWH]. In this last chapter, God’s personal name appears six times; the generic 'elohiym five. I’m not sure there is anything of significance to be read into that: it may simply be a matter of varying up the noun to make the passage more readable.

Meanwhile, back to chapter 1 ...

Jonah 1:4-6 — Sleeping Away the Storm
“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. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was 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. So the captain came and said to him, ‘What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.’ ”
‘The Lord Hurled’

Most of God’s dealings with mankind are accomplished through intermediaries of one sort or another, be they the observable laws of science — what we might call the governing principles of the natural world — or the human authority structures which God has established. Direct interventions by God in the affairs of men are rare things. The book of Jonah is known for the most unusual of these, which is Jonah’s three days and nights in the belly of a great fish.

However, Jonah contains not one but seven remarkable events attributed to God’s direct intervention:
  1. The Lord hurled a great wind (1:4)
  2. The Lord appointed a great fish (1:17)
  3. The Lord spoke to the fish (2:10)
  4. God relented (3:10)
  5. The Lord God appointed a plant (4:6)
  6. God appointed a worm (4:7)
  7. God appointed a scorching east wind (4:8)
We will deal with these as we come to them rather than as a group, but suffice it to say that in the first instance, the Lord “hurled a great wind upon the sea”. This was no natural storm brought about by air pressure differentials or the usual basic hurricane ingredients of moisture, unstable air and lift. God himself superseded the natural processes. The same God who calmed the sea in the gospels stirs it up in Jonah. Storms are not generally miraculous. This one was.

The word “hurled” sounds like an emotional act, but it is simply descriptive. The Hebrew is tuwl, and is used of spontaneous bursts of anger like Saul’s throwing of a javelin at David, but also of unemotional acts like the casting of a die into one’s own lap, which would presumably be done with a little more care. The same word is used three other times in Jonah with respect to casting the ship’s wares and eventually Jonah into the sea, both of which it appears were done with a measure of regret rather than anger.

Each Cried Out

The mariners were afraid, aware on some level that this was no normal tempest. Each of them “cried out to his god”, suggesting that there was a mixture of ethnicities aboard ship and a variety of gods invoked. Thus YHWH would shortly demonstrate to the mariners his supremacy over not just one but many false gods. Their fear is evident from their prayers, which proved insufficient to the situation, and later in their attempts to lighten the ship by hurling its cargo overboard, a truly desperate act which also proved insufficient.

Jonah’s testimony under these circumstances is remarkable, especially considering he was at the time out of fellowship with his God and on the run from his service. Nevertheless, while everyone else quaked, panicked and prayed, Jonah decided to take a nap. This is probably not because he failed to recognize in the storm God’s direct intervention, but in spite of it. If we read between the lines a sort of weary inevitability in Jonah’s actions here, it is probably because we have had similar experiences with God. I know I certainly have.

The Hound of Heaven

It comes as no surprise to those of us who know God to find that the “Hound of Heaven” will not be resisted. Francis Thompson writes:

“I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind ...”

Like Jonah, the poet ran. Thompson goes on to describe God’s implacable pursuit:

“But with unhurrying chase, and unperturb√®d pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat — and a Voice beat more instant than the Feet —
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’ ”

This last line well describes Jonah’s experience. The sea betrayed him. The weather betrayed him. Eventually, the sailors would be obliged to throw him overboard. Even his attempt to snooze through the tempest would be interrupted by the irate captain of the ship, who found Jonah’s apparent indifference to the plight of his ship and its crew quite unreasonable.

And indeed, there is something about hearing God’s footsteps on our trail that comes as a relief to the child of God. Sure, we may not want to do the thing God requires of us. We may temporarily resist. But if it feels awful to flee and be pursued until we submit to the will of our heavenly Father, imagine our horror should God actually leave us to our own devices! Thankfully, in the case of the true child of God, this never happens. We can count on our Father’s unflagging determination to remake us in the image of his Son despite our best efforts to avoid it.

Awake, Sleeper

Meanwhile, the captain of the vessel was coming to grips with the fact that all the prayers he and his crew had offered to the various deities they worshiped were not getting the job done, so he turned to the very last possibility left to him, this passenger taking a nap below decks. Who was Jonah’s God, he wondered, and might this God succeed where all other gods had failed?

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