We left Jonah on the boat to Tarshish, sleeping peacefully in his below-decks’ hammock, but that peace is about to be rudely disturbed. God has Jonah firmly fixed in his sights, and not only outdoes his Greek rival Poseidon, but even transcends the thunderbolts of Zeus, when he hurls such a horrendous gale onto the sea that the ship (in the original Hebrew) is likened to a person that “thinks to break apart”, rather than endure such a pounding. Nothing happens by half in this extraordinary tale.
The crew has two options, one ‘practical’ and one ‘theological’. They seem to think the first is the best bet and so, to help stabilise the ship, throw all the cargo overboard, but no joy! Second best is “praying to their gods”, but the problem here is their sheer number. It’s a case of battering on the doors of as many as possible. They might be lucky enough to catch the attention of one who’s either responsible for the storm, or able to guess who is, and who’s open to persuasion to bring some helpful influence to bear. Still no joy!
Wait a minute! What about that passenger, unbelievably, and seemingly impenetrably, fast asleep below decks, despite this life-threatening onslaught. Could he have something to do with this out-of-a-clear-blue-sky tempest? Jonah is unceremoniously awakened but, fair’s fair, there’s first a casting of lots to see if the gods will point the finger at any particular person, and they do! Jonah’s moment of reckoning has come.
The truth comes out. Jonah has a special God from whom he’s disobediently running away, a God “who made the sea”. Well, there we have it – what more need be said? A great deal, as it happens, as to what now needs to be done. In days of old, offended gods were thought to require, not just a mere apology, but some kind of tangible recompense. Has Jonah anything to suggest? He has! “Throw me into the sea, and it will calm down. I’m the cause of this terrible storm.”
Jonah, the prophet of God, is not setting a particularly creditable example. He disobeys and runs from his God, while the sailors cry out to theirs. He sleeps, while they struggle to save the boat from sinking. When he suggests being thrown overboard, they balk at the idea of drowning a fellow human being, and redouble their efforts to get back to dry land, but to no avail. When finally left with no other option, they cry out to Jonah’s God, “Don’t hold us guilty for killing an innocent man. All this happened because you wanted it to.” The instant the dreadful deed is done, “the sea calmed down”. So impressed are the sailors that “they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made all kinds of promises”.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The sailors weren’t ‘converted’ to the God of the Hebrews. They added him to their list of deities. There’s safety in numbers, after all. But out of all this humour, a trenchant point is emerging. How should a profession of religion chiefly reveal itself? It will, of course, involve a number of beliefs. Jonah says, “I worship the Lord God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” and, in his next set of adventures, he’ll utter a ‘prayer’ that will outline a further set of beliefs. But in his attitudes and behaviour, he’s falling far short of his profession and, arguably, is morally and spiritually outshone by the ‘heathen’ sailors. If religion is about ‘loving your god with all your heart, and your neighbour as yourself’ then the ship’s crew are better exemplars of that than Jonah is.
Nowadays it so often seems that, religiously, there’s an undue and unhelpful focus on beliefs. There can be a first and foremost ‘tick box’ approach. If you don’t tick the ‘right’ boxes then god help you – from contempt and dismissal, suspicion and mistrust, anger and rejection, and even hatred and murder at the worst. It doesn’t seem to register that if that’s what ‘beliefs’ lead to, they’re not a blessing but a curse. What finally matters most of all is not what people believe – they can be free to choose whatever hits their spot – but how we behave towards one another. As one the ‘good books’ puts it, “faith without works is dead”. Good riddance to that kind of ‘faith’.