Saturday, November 07, 2020

Mining the Minors: Jonah (7)

Students of ancient religions will likely recall that the vast majority of non-Israelites (and, frankly, far too many Israelites too) were pantheists, and that the vast majority of the gods these people worshiped actually possessed very limited portfolios.

In the Ancient Near East, every major city had its own patron deity. The Egyptians had literally dozens of them, each with specific areas of responsibility. So Montu was their god of war, Neper their god of grain, Osiris their ruler of the underworld, Nut their sky goddess, Ash their god of the Libyan desert, and so on. The Sumerians had more than 3,000 deities, major and minor, including Ashur, god of wind and Nergal, god of plagues. The gods of all major ancient religions divvied up responsibilities over the world in this way, and the effect of this multiplicity of gods was invariably to lessen the impressiveness of any individual deity.

Even the Canaanite god Baal, named 63 times in our Old Testaments and a major factor in Israelite idolatry, was primarily known as a fertility god.

How does this relate to our study of Jonah? Read on, my friend ...

Jonah 1:7-10 — A Major Problem
“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 on Jonah. Then they said to him, ‘Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?’ 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. 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.”
So They Cast Lots …

Among Hebrews there is a long history of lot-casting that goes back at least as far as the Law of Moses and probably long before that. From time to time God condescended to reveal his will to the leaders of his people through the seemingly-random practice of casting lots. So the Israelite high priest cast lots to select animals for sacrifice. The land of Canaan was divided among the twelve tribes by casting lots, and subdivided into family plots through the same process. In David’s day, the duties of the Levites were assigned to them by casting lots, and in Nehemiah’s day, the citizens of Jerusalem were chosen by lot.

Lot-casting was not a Hebrew distinctive: history tells us people from many nations engaged in it, and even the Bible contains references to non-Hebrew lot-casting, such as Haman in the book of Esther or the Roman soldiers at the cross of Christ.

It is unlikely that the lot-casting engaged in by the mariners in Jonah held any deep religious significance for them. The vessel Jonah boarded in Joppa was almost surely a foreign one. Its mariners worshiped a variety of foreign deities, and thus could point to no particular divine instruction that would give them any real confidence in the outcome of the roll of a die, polished stick or pebble. They were simply superstitious, as men have been throughout history, and having no other way of assigning blame for their problems, they decided to select a scapegoat by casting lots.

The Lot Fell On Jonah

The writer of Jonah does not come out and say that God responded to the lot-casting of the mariners by directly influencing the outcome of the lot, but that would not be an unreasonable inference for us to draw. In any case, the result of the process was that Jonah was singled out. The finger of blame pointed squarely at him.

One feature of the narrative I find immensely interesting is that Jonah from the very beginning seems quite resigned to his fate. Although he has chosen to flee from the presence of God and from his assigned task, he has not abandoned his religion and does not behave as a heretic or apostate. He is bluntly honest with his traveling companions about where he is going and what he is doing. He falls asleep with no trouble at all right in the middle of great peril with full confidence that despite being on the run from God, nothing can happen to him apart from God allowing it.

Here, upon being fingered by the outcome of the lot, he does not make the least attempt to deny responsibility or avoid the inevitable consequences of his choices, and shortly he will volunteer to be thrown overboard to save his shipmates. These would seem to be indications of genuine, character-transforming devotion to God and they strongly suggest his flight to Tarshish was an uncharacteristic act. Despite his reluctance to obey God’s voice, Jonah is no Balaam.

The Real Question

The mariners have a series of four questions for Jonah, to which he does not reply directly for the most part. Rather than answering precisely what they have asked, Jonah answers the question that is most relevant.

It strikes me this is a fine model for Christian testimony, and one that we see repeatedly in the teaching ministry of the Lord Jesus. He often responded to a question with a question, answered questions he had not been asked, or declined to answer questions he was asked, probably because the question that is asked is not always the issue that really needs addressing. So Jonah skips right by questions about his home and occupation. Even the word “Hebrew” is not terribly specific (Edomites, Ishmaelites and Moabites were just as much Hebrews as Judeans and Israelites), and I suspect Jonah only offers that bit of information in order to get to the really important point, which is that he is a worshiper of YHWH, the God of Israel, “who made the sea and dry land”.

Jonah is quite literally about to get himself into deep water here, but he makes no effort to avoid it. In fact, he is quite helpfully nudging the whole process along. Note that the subject of Jonah’s God has not even been explicitly introduced. It is Jonah who brings God into the picture. In doing so, he reminds us that if we genuinely know the Lord, the marks of our interactions with God remain much more a part of who we are than we might realize, even when we are not in right relationship to him. Nobody who truly knows God is ever exactly like the unbelievers around him, even when their resemblance to their Lord is blurred by sin.

The God of the Sea and Dry Land

There is more to the way Jonah identifies YHWH to the mariners than may be evident to the modern reader on first pass. The statement that he is “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” may slide right by us without explicitly declaring its relevance; after all, such descriptions of God are quite common in scripture.

However, if we keep in mind the very limited areas of sovereignty thought to be possessed by the various deities these mariners worshiped, Jonah’s statement takes on greater significance. In identifying his God with heaven, the sea and the earth, Jonah is declaring him to be the God of Everything. The prophet is basically telling the mariners, “I worship a God who trumps all your little tin-pot deities put together, and he happens not just to be in charge of the waves washing over the side of this boat, but he actually made them from scratch. Oh, and incidentally, he’s angry with me …”

Jonah puts it a little more circumspectly, but that’s essentially the message he is conveying.

Understandably the mariners are appalled. The seriousness of their plight is now apparent. If Jonah is really the problem, then the storm battering their ship is not about to go away on its own.

Photo of the Stele of Qadesh courtesy the Louvre Museum [CC BY-SA 2.0 FR]

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