Jonah is thrown overboard to appease the gods
Jonah 1:1-2 Jonah (whose name signifies a ‘dove’ - the ancient symbol of a messenger of peace) is told by the LORD to go and take God's message of peace and repentance to a heathen nation (see also Jesus's reference to the 'sign of Jonah' in Matthew 16:4 & Luke 11:29-32).
He is to take this message of peace and repentance, and prophesy against the wickedness of the people of Nineveh – the capital of Israel’s arch-enemy Assyria. Jonah is, in fact, unique – he is the only prophet in the Old Testament who is sent not to Jews (God’s ‘chosen people’) but to Gentiles (non-Jews).
A Dove with an olive branch - an ancient symbol of peace
Jonah 1:3 Jonah recoils at the thought of confronting the godless Assyrians so he leaves his home at Gath Hepher near Nazareth in Israel (see 2 Kings 14:25) and heads off in the opposite direction towards the coast. On arriving at the port of Joppa (modern-day Jaffa), he embarks on a cargo ship heading north along the coast to Tarshish - a reference NOT to Spain on the farthest shores of the Mediterranean Sea (as claimed by some Bible commentaries) but to the much nearer non-Jewish Kingdom of Tyre, whose trading ships were known as ‘Ships of Tarshish’ (see Isaiah 23:1 & the feature on Ships of Tarshish).
In Jonah's day, Jews believed that God actually lived in Israel and Judah (in the Temple at Jerusalem), and you could 'escape' from God by travelling to any pagan land.
Jonah 1:4-5 A storm breaks out and threatens to sink the ship. The sailors are terrified and plead to their gods. These would have been the Baals and Asherahs worshipped widely in Tyre and neighbouring Sidon (see Jezebel kills the prophets & Elijah escapes).
To lighten the ship, they throw the cargo overboard. (The cargo was probably heavy clay amphorae filled with grain from the Nile Valley in Egypt – see Isaiah 23:1-3). Jonah, meanwhile, is sleeping below the decks.
Mosaic of a Roman sailing ship at Capernaum, Galilee
Jonah 1:6 The ship’s captain finds Jonah asleep. He wakes him and urges him to pray for deliverance.
Jonah 1:7-16 The sailors draw lots to find out who's to 'blame' for the storm and the lot falls on Jonah. Jonah admits that he's running away from the LORD, the God of Israel, so the sailors agree to throw Jonah overboard as a sacrifice to appease the gods.
Johah 1:17 Jonah is swallowed by a large fish (the Bible doesn't call it a 'whale' - a sea creature which doesn't exist in the Mediterranean) and he remains alive in the stomach of the fish for three days and three nights.
(In reality, of course, there is no species of fish in which a person can stay alive underwater; but as this story is a parable, the presence of a mythical fish is all 'part of the story'.)
Jonah 2:1-9 Jonah prays to the LORD from inside the fish.
Jonah 2:10 The LORD hears Jonah’s prayer and forgives him for going against his will; and the fish promptly spews Jonah up alive on the shore.
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