Studying Jonah: Part VII

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iii. The sailors respond to Jonah, 1:4–16

1:4. The consequences of Jonah’s rebellion against Yahweh are revealed in the remaining verses of the opening chapter. God himself took action once the ship cast off from Joppa and hurled a great wind upon the sea and there was a great storm on the sea. The author reverses the normal Hebrew word order (i.e., verb–subject) to emphasize that it was indeed the Lord who is responsible for this storm (1).

The winds and waves are so severe, says the text, that the ship was about to break apart. Literally, the expression is that the ship “thought to break apart” (חִשְּׁבָה לְהִשָּׁבֵר). It has been suggested that the personification of the ship adds the boat to the list of God’s accomplices standing in the way of his prophet’s rebellion, thus transforming Jonah’s vehicle of supposed escape a preventative instrument (2).

1:5. How bad was this storm? It was powerful enough that the sailors (הַמַּלָּחִים) were afraid, and each cried out to his own god. In the Old Testament to be a sailor was a profession (cf. Ezek. 27:9, 27, 29). The root of the word is מֶ֫לַח, salt, and from where the more modern idiom of “old salt” finds its origin and refers to an experienced sailor. All that to say, the men carrying the stow-away prophet to Tarshish were not on their maiden voyage, rather, they had lived much of their lives on the sea. Probably, they had seen their share of winds and storms. However, this particular storm is like nothing they have ever experienced before and much more than these particular “old salts” know how to deal with. 

Having tried everything they can think of, these weathered seamen begin crying out to any and every god they can think of. In their desperation and perceived helplessness, the men on board the ship each begin calling out to their own particular deity. Having perhaps all come from different nations and backgrounds, the crew brought with them an eclectic religious background as well. There is a sense in which here the scared seamen are leaving no divine stone unturned. Allen describes these panicked pleas as “S.O.S. prayers” (3). They were left with no other option by to cry out to all the deities they could think of, hoping one was responsible and, hearing their cries, would relent.

Fear is a running theme throughout this section of the narrative (vv. 4–16). The table below shows the author using the word to describe the experiences of the sailors as well as Jonah.

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A shift can be noticed in the object of the fear, i.e., what is being feared, as the narrative progresses. Facing a dramatic storm, the seasoned sailors fear the winds and the now-fragile ship as it groans under the strain of the waves. However, after Jonah’s declaration of his fear of, not the storm, but the God of the storm, the sailors are said to begin to shift their fear from the winds and waves to the divine power driving them (4). By the end of the chapter, it is explicitly stated that the men feared Yahweh with great fear (1:16).

They threw the cargo that was on the ship into the sea to make it lighter for them. It would seem the sailors either forgot to pray to the god who was responsible for the storm or their prayer was not sufficient to appease. Either way, the prayers did not work and the storm seemed to be winning the day. Water was being taken on at a rate that the ship was starting to sink and so the men began throwing items overboard in an effort to stay afloat. The root of the verb “to throw” (טול) is the same used to describe God’s sending of the storm-causing wind in verse 4.

What exactly the crew decided to toss into the sea is not clear. These items were likely a combination of their own personal cargo and cargo that they were being paid to deliver from port to port (5). It may be the case that the cargo was intended to be an appeasing sacrifice to whichever god had been angered and was now causing such a gale. In any case, this was a costly move and one that would only be considered as a last resort. These men were now grasping at straws for their survival.

Standing in stark contrast to the panic and desperation ensuing on deck, Jonah had gone down into the ship’s hold, lain down, and fallen into a deep sleep. The type of sleep Jonah was experiencing, רדם, refers to a particularly deep slumber (cp. Gen. 15:12; 1 Sam. 26:12; Ps. 76:6; Dan. 8:18; 10:9). One would assume it would have to be a deep sleep in order to keep from waking up because of all the noise from above.

1:6. Jonah’s peaceful slumber is disturbed by the ship’s captain (רַב הַחֹבֵל, lit. “the greater sailor”; “shipmaster” [kjv] ) who, perhaps understandably, ask, What are you doing in a deep sleep? How could someone sleep through such a racket? And, why is Jonah not up on the deck beseeching his god-of-choice along with the rest of the panicked crew members?

Get up! Cry out to your god!. The captains’ command includes two imperative verbs, the irony of which could not have been lost on the prodigal prophet. The very  reason Jonah was on the ship in the first place was because Yahweh had already given him a command (v. 2) that included two imperative verbs: “get up” (קוּם, i.e. arise!) and “cry out” (קְרָא). And now, even though Jonah’s desire was the flee from Yahweh’s presence, he was being charged by a pagan sailor to appeal to that very God! As the words of the captain cut through the prophet’s grogginess, the familiarity of his language must have been like daggers of guilt to the rebellious prophet. It was as if each word choice of the oblivious, fearful captain was selected as a mocking jab at the stowaway.

The captain, of course, is oblivious to the potency of his vocabulary. He is interested solely in survival. Perhaps that god may consider us and we won’t perish! The great sailor wants Jonah to join on deck the chorus of desperate prayers for deliverance. It is clear that, as of yet, the gods who have been addressed by the frightened crew have not been appeased to the point of relenting. Or, perhaps there is another god whose existence of which the sailors are yet unaware. Did not someone come aboard in Joppa? Perhaps it is his god with whom we must make peace! Interestingly, the thought process of this pagan sailor is later paralleled by that of the pagan king in Nineveh (3:9) (6). It is a desperate, what-have-we-got-to-lose cry for help that does not lack in sincerity.

1:7. Each man said to his mate. As is often the case, the common realization of powerlessness and fear of death unites the sailors. 

Men, who have been the most inveterate enemies … by an unforeseen circumstance, have been brought together, and overtaken by a general calamity, their enmity has ceased, animosity has been forgotten, and, looking upon their united consultation, and effort, you might have imagined them to be the closest of friends (7). 

Come, let us cast lots. With the ejection of cargo and divine petitioning not having their desired results, the crew comes to the conclusion that there must be an individual among them with whom the god responsible is displeased. While the hearer/reader of this account is already aware of the guilty party, the sailors remain in the dark and, thus, they turn to the casting of lots to lift the fog of mystery. In the ancient world, this was one of many common methods of gaining insight into the divine will (8). While it is difficult to determine what exactly what the practice looked like, the intended and perceived result is clear: the individual(s) singled out by said lots was assumed divinely selected (9).

That we may learn on whose account this trouble has come upon us. The men wanted to know on whose account, literally, “this evil” (cf. esv, rsv, av, rv) had struck them. The same word (רָעָה) is used in verse 2 to describe the level of judgement-bringing wickedness (רָעָה) that has been achieved by Nineveh. Thus, it was the evil of Nineveh for which Jonah was sent to minister, but now it is the evil of the storm for which Jonah was responsible because he refused to minister. The irony, again, is thick.

So they cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. That the sailors turn to the casting of lots for the identification of their onboard trouble-maker has been suggested as unusual for the context and adds to the irony and playfulness of the narrative (10). Indeed, the scene is difficult to picture. The storm is repeatedly described as great, the wind is howling and the waves striking the ship which, in turn, is about to break apart. And yet, with this chaotic backdrop, the sailors turn to an almost playful, yet desperate task of lot casting. 

Of course, it serves as no surprise to the hearer/reader that the lot falls on Jonah, identifying him as the responsible party. As if the wind and storm were not enough proof, the falling of the lots serve as more evidence of God’s complete control and sovereignty over all events occurring. 

1:8. With the storm still raging and the ship still being tossed around like a cork, Jonah has been outed as the one responsible for the calamity. He is immediately put on trial by the frightened sailors. The questioning is rapid-fire. 

Tell us on whose account this trouble has fallen upon us. This demand seems superfluous as the one to blame has already been identified via lot casting. But, perhaps the sailors sought confirmation of what the lots indicated (11). It appears they were not prepared to fully leave their fate in the hands of a superstitious method that they may have seen fail in the past.

The questions that come next are intended to learn about this mysterious passenger. What is your occupation (12)? From where do you come? What is your country? From what people are you? The sailors are trying to establish a motive for the angered god and, thus, establish a possible method of appeasement and subsequent deliverance.

1:9. Jonah responds from the defendant’s chair by first identifying himself as a Hebrew (13), a term “commonly used in foreign contexts to refer to an Israelite” (cf. Gen. 40:15; Exod. 1:19) (14). The word Jonah uses here to identify his people of origin, i.e. עִבְרִי, is the broad term which is typically reserved for Hebrews speaking to foreigners (15).

Second, Jonah identifies the God whom he serves: I fear Yahweh, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land. Jonah uses the covenant name of God and makes it clear that him who he fears (i.e., worships, serves) is the God who created the sea that is currently raging against them and threatening their lives. He is also the God who created the dry land that they currently crave. In other words, Jonah is leaving no doubt in the sailor’s minds that it is his God, Yahweh, who is responsible for the storm and, if they are to survive and see land again, it will likewise be at the mercy of Yahweh.

It is interesting to note that all but one of the sailor’s questions (1:8) are answered by Jonah: What is your occupation (16)? While he was able to confess his religion, his people group, and his responsibility for the storm, Jonah seems unable (unwilling?) to confess his profession as Yahweh’s prophet. “His witness had been silenced; the very work for which he had been created lay incomplete. He had no word from God to give” (17).

However, in light of Jonah’s actions to this point of the narrative—his disobedience, his determination to run from the presence of the Lord, etc.— this seemingly faithful confession may remain unconvincing to hearers/readers of this narrative. The audience may have to deal with conflicting emotions. On the one hand, relief can be felt in that Yahweh’s prophet is confessing truths that are consistent with what one would expect of someone in that line of work. On the other hand, however, the lingering awareness of the circumstances surrounding said confessions, e.g., rebellion and disobedience, leave the hearer/reader uncomfortable.

1:10. The answers Jonah provides hit the sailors hard and the men feared a great fear (וַיִּירְאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים יִרְאָה). Here a cognate accusative (i.e., both the verb and direct object of that verb come from the same Hebrew root) is used to add force to the statement of fear (18). Thus, the phrase could be rendered exceedingly afraid (ESV, ASV, KJV, NKJV), terrified (NIV, NLT), or even more afraid (NET, NRSV) (19). Fear becomes a significant and oft used word in the narrative of Jonah and will be further highlighted later.

There is a deep dread that sweeps over the deck of the ship. At this point, however, it is difficult to determine whether the object of the sailor’s fear is Jonah’s Lord God of heaven, a fear for their lives in the midst of a seemingly unbeatable storm, or a combination of the two (20). As will be demonstrated, the fear of the crew is in a state of shifting and focusing, verse 10 being a noteworthy transitional point in that progression.

The men ask Jonah, almost in disbelief, What have you done? While, apparently, Jonah had already mentioned at some point that he was fleeing from God, it is only now that the sailors are coming to grips with the full weight of the prophet’s transgressions against Yahweh.

1:11. Filled with terror, the sailors scramble to find a solution and, hopefully, save their lives and their ship. They ask Jonah himself for guidance: What should we do to you so that the sea will become calm for us? He has admitted that it is on his account that the storm is upon them. It is the God whom he both serves and has run away from that is behind their circumstances. They know much but still do not have a solution to the ever-worsening situation.

Since the sea was becoming even more stormy. This growing intensity is indicated by two participles, “which together convey consistent intensity” (21). The storm has not stopped from its worsening. Through the progressive storm Yahweh desires to make his intentions clear: his pursuit of the fleeing, disobedient prophet will be unrelenting and his longing for submission to the task given Jonah is insatiable. The bottom line is that nothing the sailors can do will distract Yahweh from his will.

1:12. Pick me up and throw me into the sea. Jonah is clear in telling the sailors what they need to do next. He instructs them to lift him up, just as they did with the cargo in verse 5, and throw him overboard and into the sea. Only then will the wind calm and the waves flatten. Jonah knows what the men now understand: that it is on account of the prophet this great storm has come upon them. Jonah is reporting to the men that for them to survive his life must be sacrificed. His clear admission of guilt in verse 12 (I know that I am to blame for this great storm which has come to you) answers the sailor’s desire from verse 7 (that we may learn on whose account this trouble has come upon us) and, inso doing, forms an inclusion, wrapping together in a neat package the contents of verses 7 through 12 (22).

While Jonah’s counsel to throw him into the sea may seem near-suicidal, some have argued there is more going on than a simple death-wish. Rees, for example, suggests that, since the sea represented danger and as the prophet had just recently been in the safety of the ships’ haul, his request to be thrown overboard should be seen as an authorial decision to emphasize the narrative’s move from security to chaos, from protection to exposure (23). Certainty the prophet is experiencing a shift toward increasing danger, ultimately because of God’s sovereignty and his own disobedience, but the suggestion that his request to be hurled like cargo overboard be seen as evidence to this end seems contrived. The request for death, alternatively and simply, appears more consistent with the mindset of the prophet in the rest of the narrative (cf. 4:3, 8, 9).

1:13. While the answer to their problem and their ticket to safety has been revealed, the sailors are not yet willing to accept that murder is the only way out of the situation. Instead of immediately tossing the prophet to the waves, they grab the ores of the ship and pull hard in an effort to to return to dry land, the land, they just learned, that was created by the God responsible for the storm (v. 9). Almost in response to their increased effort, the storm worsens. The hearer/reader can almost hear Yahweh saying to them, “I will not be denied my will.” Their efforts on the ores are quickly recognized as futile. The audience is being given a growing sense that the offering of God’s prophet is the only way to appease God’s storm.

As Youngblood has observed, the verb choice rendered here as rowed is not the typical choice for that action (24). Instead, חתר is used which is more frequently translated “to dig” (e.g. Job 24:16; Ezek. 8:8; 12:5, 7, 12). That observation begs the question, why the odd verb choice for a fairly common action? The author goes on to offer a fitting suggestion: 

In Amos 9:2 it even refers to digging one’s way to Sheol. It is this last occurrence of the term that bears significantly on the author’s choice of this verb in Jonah 1:13a. The verb “to dig” suggests a double entendre. Though the mariners are attempting to “row” their way back to dry ground, in reality they are only digging a hole to Sheol into which they will eventually have to cast Jonah (25).

1:14. Sasson identifies this verse as the heart of the opening pericope (26). Where as in verse 5 the pagan crew call out to their own gods for mercy, now they call out specifically to Yehweh with two requests and an admission. The first request is that the men ask God to not take their lives in the storm on account of this man, speaking of Jonah. As has been the case throughout the dramatic episode, the sailors seek deliverance from the calamity that has come upon them. They want to live.

In their second request, the crew asks God to not hold us responsible for his innocent blood. Labeling Jonah innocent does not mean they thought he was without guilt. He clearly is guilty as even he has admitted. Rather, this request is to go unpunished should they heed Jonah’s request of throwing him into the raging waters (27). 

Finally, the verse ends with an admission of God’s sovereignty: You, O Yahweh, have done as you have pleased. In one concise declaration, these men are forced to announce that God is in control and that, in contrast, idols and false gods offer nothing (28). Their captain had already hinted at his recognition of this reality (v. 6) and Jonah, likewise, will have to later come to admit his acceptance of this truth (coming in chapter 4).

1:15. Seemingly out of options, the sailors take the prodigal prophet's advice and so they lifted Jonah up and threw him into the sea and the sea stopped raging. They realize now Jonah’s statement had been true: That it was either their lives or his. Interestingly, these pagan who had been, up until moments ago, praying to false gods, are now used by the one true God to accomplish his plans and purposes, something that was necessary only because Jonah, the one character who actually knew God, would not. Said otherwise, in throwing Jonah overboard the sailors “achieved the intent for which Yahweh had first tossed the gale upon the sea” (29), and, as Jonah said would happen, the storm immediately calmed. 

1:16. Then the men feared Yahweh with great fear. Even with the result being predicted, the dramatic and obviously divinely caused weather change places the pagan sailors in awe (ירא). Again we have fear being stressed in the narrative although the object of that fear is becoming increasingly focused.

A significant progression of a proper view of and response to Yahweh has been unfolding throughout this saga. While once the sailors called out to a random pantheon of unnamed gods, now they worship (וַיִּירְאוּ) Yahweh and offered sacrifices to Yahweh and they vowed vows (cf. Ps. 116:17–18). “The sailors now understand everything about God and divine power [and] demonstrate this recognition by two activities, a sacrifice and a vow” (30). Simply stated, the pagans come to understand who God is and they, thus, respond to him appropriately. 

The fear, sacrifices, and vows of the sailors will be the first in a number of instances throughout the book of Jonah in which, unlike the Israelite prophet himself, other characters (indeed, even animals!) seem eager to turn to Yahweh. “In the Book of Jonah, everybody seems more ready for a relationship with God than does the prophet himself” (31).

This recognition of and response to God is a key concept of the opening pericope. It has been suggested that even the structure of the chapter emphasizes this progression. Lohfink was among the first commentators to draw attention to this possibility and, in 1961, published the following structural suggestion (32):

A 1:4–6
B 1:7f
Centre 1:9–10aα
Bʹ 1:10aβ, 11
Aʹ 1:12–16

Lohfink’s suggestion places the following statement at the centre of the pericope: “He said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land. Then the men became extremely frightened.” This certainly highlights the revelation of the identity of Yahweh and the desired response to that revelation. 

While criticized, Lohfink's proposed structure gained traction in the literature and eventually became the basis for a more detailed structural outline put forth by Pesch (33):

1 Narrative and ‘fear’ motif: vv. 4–5aα
2 Sailors’ prayer: v. 5aβ
3 Narrative: vv. 5b, c–6aα
4 Captain’s speech: v. 6aβ, b
5 Sailors’ speech (1): v. 7a
6 Narrative: v. 7b
7 Sailors' speech (2): v. 8
Centre Jonah’s confession
and ‘fear’ motif: vv.
VII Sailors’ speech (II): v. 10aβ, b
VI Narrative: v. 10c
V Sailors’ speech (I): v. 11
IV Jonah’s speech: v. 12
III Narrative: v. 13
II Sailors’ prayer: v. 14
I Narrative and ‘fear’ motif: vv. 15–16a

As can be seen, both Lohfink and Pesch saw the ship narrative as funnelling the audience toward the centre and main focus, namely, verses 9–10a.

Almost fifty years later, Alexander published an alternative perspective on the structure of this same passage (34):

A Yahweh hurls a wind on the sea; the storm begins; sailors
fear and cry to their gods (vv. 4–5a)
B Jonah sleeps; cry to your god; we shall not perish;
divine sovereignty (vv. 5b–6)
C that we may know on whose account (v. 7)
D the sailors question Jonah (v. 8)
E I fear (v. 9)
Eʹ the sailors fear (v. 10)
Dʹ the sailors question Jonah (v. 11)
Cʹ I know that it is on my account (v. 12)
Bʹ sailors strive for land; sailors cry to Yahweh; let us not
perish; divine sovereignty (vv. 13–14)
Aʹ sailors hurl Jonah into the sea; the storm ceases; sailors fear
Yahweh and sacrifice (vv. 15–16)

Once again, students of the biblical text can see via these suggested breakdowns of the chapter that the author, guided by the Holy Spirit, seems to have been drawing the attention of the audience toward both a proper view of God (one Jonah did not have and one that the pagan sailors developed) and a proper response to his character, i.e., fear.


  1. The term itself that is used here, סער, often refers to storms of divine origin (Ps. 83:15–16; Jer. 23:19; 25:32; 30:23; Amos 1:14). 

  2. Youngblood, Jonah, 73.

  3. Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah, 206.

  4. Baker, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, 113.

  5. Cf. 1 Sam. 10:22; 17:22; Jer. 46:19; Ezek. 12:3–4

  6. Baker, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, 115.

  7. Joseph Exell, Practical Readings in the Book of Jonah (London: Counted Faithful, 2017), 29.

  8. For biblical examples, cf. Lev. 16:8–10; Josh. 7:16–21; Judg. 20:9; 1 Sam. 10: 19:21; 14:38–43; Neh. 11:1; Prov. 16:33; 18:18; Acts 1:26.

  9. Bryan D. Estelle, Salvation Through Judgement and Mercy: The Gospel According to Jonah (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2005), 49–50.

  10. Brent A. Strawn, “Jonah's Sailors and Their Lot Casting: A Rhetorical-Critical Observation,” Biblica 91 (2010): 66–76.

  11. Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah, 208–09.

  12. This may also be understood as “What is your business on this ship?” (cf. gnb) (Baker, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, 116).

  13. “In keeping with the idiom of the day, Jonah takes up their last question first (Estelle, Salvation Through Judgement and Mercy, 50). See also Sasson, Jonah, 115.

  14. Baker, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, 116.

  15. Sasson, Jonah, 115.

  16. Ferguson, Man Overboard! The Story of Jonah, 25.

  17. Ibid.

  18. Baker, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, 116.

  19. See other uses of the cognate accusative in 1:16; 3:2; 4:1; and 4:6.

  20. Sarah Ruden, The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2017), 111.

  21. Youngblood, Jonah, 81.

  22. Baker, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, 117.

  23. Anthony Rees, “Getting Up and Going Down: Towards a Spatial Poetics of Jonah,” The Bible and Critical Theory 12 (2006): 45.

  24. Youngblood, Jonah, 82.

  25. Ibid.

  26. Sasson, Jonah, 131.

  27. Ibid., 133.

  28. Estelle, Salvation Through Judgement and Mercy, 54.

  29. Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah, 212.

  30. Sasson, Jonah, 138.

  31. Ruden, The Face of Water, 110.

  32. Norbert Lohfink, “Jona ging zur Stadt hinaus (Jona 4,5),” BZ 5 (1961): 185–203.

  33. Rudolf Pesch, “Zur konzentrischen Struktur von Jona 1,” Bib 47 (1966): 577–81.

  34. Baker, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, 120.