Saturday, July 24, 2010
"Salvation is at the LORD'S discretion ..." (Jonah 2.9)
What Did Jonah Buy? A Brief Study
When the Lord God called Jonah to cry out to Nineveh he was so upset he lost his mind for all intents and purposes. The writer informs us that Jonah wished to flee from the presence of the Lord and this is dramatized by his flight to Tarshish. According to Isaiah 66.19 Tarshish was a place that knew neither the fame nor glory of the Lord. Jonah thinks this is the one place he can fly to to avoid the Lord.
In his desperation to escape a God that forgives too easily, indeed one who “delight(s) to show mercy” (cf. Micah 7.18), Jonah flees to a port named Joppa. Jonah’s madness begins to be evident to the ancient Hebrew for they were not a seafaring people. Jonah however simply will use any means necessary to get to Tarshish … a place that knows not the glory of the Lord. The narrator tells us that Jonah “found a ship heading for Tarshish, paid for his trip” (v.4), some versions render the text as “paid the fare” (NIV).
The question is: what did the desperate Jonah purchase? The text in question reads as follows, “wayyaqom yona libroah tarsisa millipne YHWH wayyered yapo wayyimsa ‘oniya ba’a tarsis wayyitten sekarah wayyered bah labo’ immahem tarsisa millipne YHWH.” The words to consider are bold. The narrator does not say that Jonah “paid his fare,” rather we are told the Dove “paid its hire.” This particular wording lead the ancient rabbis to believe that Jonah was a wealthy man. For example Rabbi Romanus said the hire of the ship took four thousand gold denarii! Rabbi Yohanan comments that Jonah hired out the entire ship.
The text does not commit us to deciding on the wealth of Jonah rather narrator focuses our attention on the extreme that Jonah is willing to go. The Dove is desperate! That Jonah hired out the ship rather than simply bought a ticket is confirmed by the surrounding narrative itself. First, the story speaks only of Jonah and the crew. There are no other passengers on the ship. Second the term sakar refers to the “wages” of the crew thus by hiring the ship Jonah is really hiring the crew. Jack Sasson searched through ancient material and comments that the idea of paying a fare as a modern passenger would did not develop until Roman times (Anchor Bible: Jonah, p. 84). Sasson goes on to comment that a person who “hired a ship and its captain had the right to change its destination and, in some cases, its specific function” (ibid). These insights from Sasson seem to reflect the narrative accurately.
The scene painted for us by our narrator then is this. Jonah, the Dove, flies with incredible haste in the direction of one place he believes he can be safe from the “presence of the Lord.” When he, the land lover, sees a ship he does not waste time negotiating ... he simply hires the whole vessel and cannot draw anchor quickly enough!!
Jonah forgot one important thing though, “where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139.7). But Jonah was out of his mind. That is the “absurdity” of the prophet in this book.