Friday, March 1, 2013

Jonah's suicide - ultimate escape or noble sacrifice?

The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?”

“Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”

Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before.Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.”

Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.
Jonah 1:11-16 NIS
Jonah's life is at the end. The attempted escape from the will of God has turned sour and not only he but the entire crew of the ship and other passengers are in mortal danger in stormy seas.

The sailor's distress is very real and gives us the feeling that the writer of the Book of Jonah knows about men at sea. When there is perfect storm it is overwhelming in a way we on safe ground find hard to imagine and many turn to God in prayers and promises. For example, many Finnish churches on coastal regions have votive ships - models of ships promised to God when life is in danger in stormy sees. Wretched has been the fate of many sailor's wife standing on the rocks during stormy night waiting for her husband and sons return from the perilous fishing trip.

Jonah's suicide as escape
Unable to escape to the safety of faraway Tarshis and seeing what misfortune his attempt has brought Jonah volunteers to be thrown to the sea.

Putting his own life to end Jonah can cheat life, cheat God and avoid His will so clearly expressed to him - go and preach to the men of Nineveh.

This is a human wrestling with God on the final front of earthly life. The ultimate escape from an impossible situation.

Jonah's suicide as noble self-sacrifice
Jonah realized that the only way to calm the monstrous sea is to throw a human sacrifice to the waves. Such a belief was deeply rooted among the Canaanites and other ancient inhabitants of the Mediterranean region as we shall later see in more detail.

The prophet has lost the purpose of his calling - to proclaim the Word of God - and his life has no more meaning. The blind justice in casting lots had picked him up - he did not volunteer as the guilty one - and the truth has been told in awesome and awful words that make the sailors shake in terror.

Jonah gives up on life "but at least, let my death have some value". So he gives the tragic advice - "sacrifice me to the monstrous sea, throw me in there. In this way your lives will be saved."

Sailor's code of ethics
The Book of Jonah does its best to free the terrified sailors from responsibility. Instead of blaming the non-Hebrews the writer emphasises the moral stand of these pagans. They refuse the horrific offer and do their best to manage the boat threatened by the wind and waves. Only when everything is lost and they know that the ship will surely sink they agree.

The moment Mr Jonah thrown overboard dives to the waves the wind calms.

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