The book of Jonah may well have had a long journey in Israel’s oral history before it was written down. The story has been honed and perfected, not a useless word in it. This is not to say that there is any license or other story-teller manipulation of the original facts and meaning of the book. Only that there is not a wasted word in this dramatic and powerful piece of Hebrew literature. I love the story and I love the way it is presented.
Jonah is a very interesting character, to say the least. Why he responds to the command of God with such extremity is the key to understanding the book. A willingness to forsake all – family, friends, home, status, the presence of the Lord – is mind boggling. It must have taken a very determined act of the will to prepare and carry out such a desertion of everything he had ever loved and considered dear. Then there is the long road trip to the port of Joppa. Once there he would need to pay the ship’s fare to Tarshish. Maybe he would need to pay the fares for all the unpaid berths on the ship in order for this commercial vehicle to leave now, immediately, before the Lord figured out what was he was doing.
Exhausted from his flurry to separate from Israel, to abandon the presence of the Lord, and the hurried road trip to Joppa, Jonah quickly descended into the hold of the ship and fell into a deep sleep. This was not an ordinary sleep. This is the deep sleep of Sisera who slept while Jael drove a tent peg threw his temple into the ground. (Judges 4:21) This sleep can also be compared to the deep sleep that God-the-surgeon caused to fall upon Adam, anaesthetising him, before removing a rib from his side. Jonah was totally out. Not even the tossing and turning caused by a storm at sea was going to wake this exhausted and depressed prophet.
But Jonah’s “No!” to God’s command to go and prophecy to Nineveh would have a disastrous impact on innocent sailors. His disobedience has implications for the world around him.