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Bible Commentaries

Keil & Delitzsch Old Testament Commentary

Jonah 1

Mission of Jonah to Nineveh His Flight and Punishment - Jonah 1

Jonah tries to avoid fulfilling the command of God, to preach repentance to the great city Nineveh, by a rapid flight to the sea, for the purpose of sailing to Tarshish (Jonah 1:1-3); but a terrible storm, which threatens to destroy the ship, brings his sin to light (Jonah 1:4-10); and when the lot singles him out as the culprit, he confesses that he is guilty; and in accordance with the sentence which he pronounces upon himself, is cast into the sea (Jonah 1:11-16).

Verses 1-2

The narrative commences with ויהי , as Ruth (Ruth 1:1), 1 Samuel (1 Samuel 1:1), and others do. This was the standing formula with which historical events were linked on to one another, inasmuch as every occurrence follows another in chronological sequence; so that the Vav (and) simply attaches to a series of events, which are assumed as well known, and by no means warrants the assumption that the narrative which follows is merely a fragment of a larger work (see at Joshua 1:1). The word of the Lord which came to Jonah was this: “Arise, go to Nineveh, the great city, and preach against it.” על does not stand for אל (Jonah 3:2), but retains its proper meaning, against, indicating the threatening nature of the preaching, as the explanatory clause which follows clearly shows. The connection in Jonah 3:2 is a different one. Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian kingdom, and the residence of the great kings of Assyria, which was built by Nimrod according to Genesis 10:11, and by Ninos, the mythical founder of the Assyrian empire, according to the Greek and Roman authors, is repeatedly called “the great city” in this book (Jonah 3:2-3; Jonah 4:11), and its size is given as three days' journey (Jonah 3:3). This agrees with the statements of classical writers, according to whom Νῖνος , Ninus , as Greeks and Romans call it, was the largest city in the world at that time. According to Strabo (Romans 16:1, Romans 16:3), it was much larger than Babylon, and was situated in a plain, Ἀτουρίας , of Assyria i.e., on the left bank of the Tigris. According to Ctesias (in Diod. ii. 3), its circumference was as much as 480 stadia, i.e., twelve geographical miles; whereas, according to Strabo, the circumference of the wall of Babylon was not more than 365 stadia. These statements have been confirmed by modern excavations upon the spot. The conclusion to which recent discoveries lead is, that the name Nineveh was used in two senses: first, for one particular city; and secondly, for a complex of four large primeval cities (including Nineveh proper), the circumvallation of which is still traceable, and a number of small dwelling-places, castles, etc., the mounds (Tell) of which cover the land. This Nineveh, in the broader sense, is bounded on three sides by rivers - viz. on the north-west by the Khosr, on the west by the Tigris, and on the south-west by the Gazr Su and the Upper or Great Zab - and on the fourth side by mountains, which ascend from the rocky plateau; and it was fortified artificially all round on the river-sides with dams, sluices for inundating the land, and canals, and on the land side with ramparts and castles, as we may still see from the heaps of ruins. It formed a trapezium, the sharp angles of which lay towards the north and south, the long sides being formed by the Tigris and the mountains. The average length is about twenty-five English miles; the average breadth fifteen. The four large cities were situated on the edge of the trapezium, Nineveh proper (including the ruins of Kouyunjik, Nebbi Yunas, and Ninua) being at the north-western corner, by the Tigris; the city, which was evidently the later capital (Nimrud), and which Rawlinson, Jones, and Oppert suppose to have been Calah, at the south-western corner, between Tigris and Zab; a third large city, which is now without a name, and has been explored last of all, but within the circumference of which the village of Selamiyeh now stands, on the Tigris itself, from three to six English miles to the north of Nimrud; and lastly, the citadel and temple-mass, which is now named Khorsabad, and is said to be called Dur-Sargina in the inscriptions, from the palace built there by Sargon, on the Khosr, pretty near to the north-eastern corner (compare M. v. Niebuhr, Geschichte Assurs, p. 274ff., with the ground-plan of the city of Nineveh, p. 284). But although we may see from this that Nineveh could very justly be called the great city, Jonah does not apply this epithet to it with the intention of pointing out to his countrymen its majestic size, but, as the expression g e dōlâh lē'lōhı̄m in Jonah 3:3 clearly shows, and as we may see still more clearly from Jonah 4:11, with reference to the importance which Nineveh had, both in the eye of God, and with regard to the divine commission which he had received, as the capital of the Gentile world, quae propter tot animarum multitudinem Deo curae erat (Michaelis). Jonah was to preach against this great Gentile city, because its wickedness had come before Jehovah, i.e., because the report or the tidings of its great corruption had penetrated to God in heaven (cf. Genesis 18:21; 1 Samuel 5:12).

Verse 3

Jonah sets out upon his journey; not to Nineveh, however, but to flee to Tarshish, i.e., Tartessus, a Phoenician port in Spain (see at Genesis 10:4 and Isaiah 23:1), “from the face of Jehovah,” i.e., away from the presence of the Lord, out of the land of Israel, where Jehovah dwelt in the temple, and manifested His presence (cf. Genesis 4:16); not to hide himself from the omnipresent God, but to withdraw from the service of Jehovah, the God-King of Israel.

(Note: Marck has already correctly observed, that “this must not be understood as flight from the being and knowledge of God, lest we should attribute to the great prophet gross ignorance of the omnipresence and omniscience of God; but as departure from the land of Canaan, the gracious seat of God, outside which he thought, that possibly, at any rate at that time, the gift and office of a prophet would not be conferred upon him.”)

The motive for this flight was not fear of the difficulty of carrying out the command of God, but, as Jonah himself says in Jonah 4:2, anxiety lest the compassion of God should spare the sinful city in the event of its repenting. He had no wish to co-operate in this; and that not merely because “he knew, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that the repentance of the Gentiles would be the ruin of the Jews, and, as a lover of his country, was actuated not so much by envy of the salvation of Nineveh, as by unwillingness that his own people should perish,” as Jerome supposes, but also because he really grudged salvation to the Gentiles, and feared lest their conversion to the living God should infringe upon the privileges of Israel above the Gentile world, and put an end to its election as the nation of God.

(Note: Luther has already deduced this, the only true reason, from Jonah 4:1-11, in his Commentary on the Prophet Jonah: “Because Jonah was sorry that God was so kind, he would rather not preach, yea, would rather die, than that the grace of God, which was to be the peculiar privilege of the people of Israel, should be communicated to the Gentiles also, who had neither the word of God, nor the laws of Moses, nor the worship of God, nor prophets, nor anything else, but rather strove against God, and His word, and His people.” But in order to guard against a false estimate of the prophet, on account of these “carnal, Jewish thoughts of God,” Luther directs attention to the fact that “the apostles also held at first the carnal opinion that the kingdom of Christ was to be an outward one; and even afterwards, when they understood that it was to be a spiritual one, they thought that it was to embrace only the Jews, and therefore 'preached the gospel to the Jews only' (Acts 8), until God enlightened them by a vision from heaven to Peter (Acts 10), and by the public calling of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13), and by wonders and signs; and it was at last resolved by a general council (Acts 15), that God would also show mercy to the Gentiles, and that He was the God of the Gentiles also. For it was very hard for the Jews to believe that there were any other people outside Israel who helped to form the people of God, because the sayings of the Scripture stop there and speak of Israel and Abraham's seed; and the word of God, the worship of God, the laws and the holy prophets, were with them alone.”)

He therefore betook himself to Yāphō , i.e., Joppa, the port on the Mediterranean Sea (vid., comm. on Joshua 19:46), and there found a ship which was going to Tarshish; and having paid the s e khârâh , the hire of the ship, i.e., the fare for the passage, embarked “to go with them (i.e., the sailors) to Tarshish.”

Verses 4-5

Jonah's foolish hope of being able to escape from the Lord was disappointed. “Jehovah threw a great wind (i.e., a violent wind) upon the sea.” A mighty tempest ( סער , rendered appropriately κλύδων by the lxx) arose, so that “the ship thought to be dashed to pieces,” i.e., to be wrecked ( השּׁב used of inanimate things, equivalent to “was very nearly” wrecked). In this danger the seamen ( mallâch , a denom. of melach , the salt flood) cried for help, “every one to his god.” They were heathen, and probably for the most part Phoenicians, but from different places, and therefore worshippers of different gods. But as the storm did not abate, they also resorted to such means of safety as they had at command. They “threw the waves in the ship into the sea, to procure relief to themselves” ( להקל מעליהם as in Exodus 18:22 and 1 Kings 12:10). The suffix refers to the persons, not to the things. By throwing the goods overboard, they hoped to preserve the ship from sinking beneath the swelling waves, and thereby to lighten, i.e., diminish for themselves the danger of destruction which was so burdensome to them. “But Jonah had gone down into the lower room of the ship, and had there fallen fast asleep;” not, however, just at the time of the greatest danger, but before the wind had risen into a dangerous storm. The sentence is to be rendered as a circumstantial one in the pluperfect. Yark e thē hass e phı̄nâh (analogous to hark e thē habbayith in Amos 6:10) is the innermost part of the vessel, i.e., the lower room of the ship. S e phı̄nâh , which only occurs here, and is used in the place of אניּה , is the usual word for a ship in Arabic and Aramaean. Nirdam: used for deep sleep, as in Judges 4:21. This act of Jonah's is regarded by most commentators as a sign of an evil conscience. Marck supposes that he had lain down to sleep, hoping the better to escape either the dangers of sea and air, or the hand of God; others, that he had thrown himself down in despair, and being utterly exhausted and giving himself up for lost, had fallen asleep; or as Theodoret expresses it, being troubled with the gnawings of conscience and overpowered with mourning, he had sought comfort in sleep and fallen into a deep sleep. Jerome, on the other hand, expresses the idea that the words indicate “security of mind” on the part of the prophet: “he is not disturbed by the storm and the surrounding dangers, but has the same composed mind in the calm, or with shipwreck at hand;” and whilst the rest are calling upon their gods, and casting their things overboard, “he is so calm, and feels so safe with his tranquil mind, that he goes down to the interior of the ship and enjoys a most placid sleep.” The truth probably lies between these two views. It was not an evil conscience, or despair occasioned by the threatening danger, which induced him to lie down to sleep; nor was it his fearless composure in the midst of the dangers of the storm, but the careless self-security with which he had embarked on the ship to flee from God, without considering that the hand of God could reach him even on the sea, and punish him for his disobedience. This security is apparent in his subsequent conduct.

Verses 6-8

When the danger was at its height, the upper-steersman, or ship's captain ( rabh hachōbhēl , the chief of the ship's governors; chōbhēl with the article is a collective noun, and a denom. from chebhel , a ship's cable, hence the one who manages, steers, or guides the ship), wakes him with the words, “How canst thou sleep soundly? Arise, and call upon thy God; perhaps God ( hâ'ĕlōhı̄m with the article, 'the true God') will think of us, that we may not perish.” The meaning of יתעשּׁת is disputed. As עשׁת is used in Jeremiah 5:28 in the sense of shining (viz., of fat), Calvin and others (last of all, Hitzig) have maintained that the hithpael has the meaning, shown himself shining, i.e., bright (propitious); whilst others, including Jerome, prefer the meaning think again, which is apparently better supported than the former, not only by the Chaldee, but also by the nouns עשׁתּוּת (Job 12:5) and עשׁתּון (Psalms 146:4). God's thinking of a person involves the idea of active assistance. For the thought itself, compare Ps. 40:18. The fact that Jonah obeyed this awakening call is passed over as self-evident; and in Jonah 1:7 the narrative proceeds to relate, that as the storm had not abated in the meantime, the sailors, firmly believing that some one in the ship had committed a crime which had excited the anger of God that was manifesting itself in the storm, had recourse to the lot to find out the culprit. &#בּשׁלּמי בּאשׁר למי (Jonah 1:8), as שׁ is the vulgar, and in conversation the usual contraction for אשׁר : “on account of whom” ( בּאשׁר , in this that = because, or followed by ל , on account of). הרעה , the misfortune (as in Amos 3:6), - namely, the storm which is threatening destruction. The lot fell upon Jonah. “The fugitive is taken by lot, not from any virtue in lots themselves, least of all the lots of heathen, but by the will of Him who governs uncertain lots” (Jerome).

When Jonah had been singled out by the lot as the culprit, the sailors called upon him to confess his guilt, asking him at the same time about his country, his occupation, and his parentage. The repetition of the question, on whose account this calamity had befallen them, which is omitted in the lxx (Vatic.), the Socin. prophets, and Cod. 195 of Kennicott, is found in the margin in Cod. 384, and is regarded by Grimm and Hitzig as a marginal gloss that has crept into the text. It is not superfluous, however; still less does it occasion any confusion; on the contrary, it is quite in order. The sailors wanted thereby to induce Jonah to confess with his own mouth that he was guilty, now that the lot had fallen upon him, and to disclose his crime (Ros. and others). As an indirect appeal to confess his crime, it prepares the way for the further inquiries as to his occupation, etc. They inquired about this occupation, because it might be a disreputable one, and one which excited the wrath of the gods; also about his parentage, and especially about the land and people from which he sprang, that they might be able to pronounce a safe sentence upon his crime.

Verses 9-10

Jonah begins by answering the last question, saying that he was “a Hebrew,” - the name by which the Israelites designated themselves in contradistinction to other nations, and by which other nations designated them (see at Genesis 14:13, and my Lehrbuch der Einleitung, §9, Anm. 2) - and that he worshipped “the God of heaven, who created the sea and the dry” (i.e., the land). ירא has been rendered correctly by the lxx σέβομαι , colo, revereor; and does not mean, “I am afraid of Jehovah, against whom I have sinned” (Abarbanel). By the statement, “I fear,” etc., he had no intention of describing himself as a righteous or innocent man (Hitzig), but simply meant to indicate his relation to God - namely, that he adored the living God who created the whole earth and, as Creator, governed the world. For he admits directly after, that he has sinned against this God, by telling them, as we may see from Jonah 1:10, of his flight from Jehovah. He had not told them this as soon as he embarked in the ship, as Hitzig supposes, but does so now for the first time when they ask about his people, his country, etc., as we may see most unmistakeably from Jonah 1:10. In Jonah 1:9 Jonah's statement is not given completely; but the principal fact, viz., that he was a Hebrew and worshipped Jehovah, is followed immediately by the account of the impression which this acknowledgement made upon the heathen sailors; and the confession of his sin is mentioned afterwards as a supplement, to assign the reason for the great fear which came upon the sailors in consequence. מה־זּאת עשׂית , What hast thou done! is not a question as to the nature of his sin, but an exclamation of horror at his flight from Jehovah, the God heaven and earth, as the following explanatory clauses כּי ידעוּ וגו clearly show. The great fear which came upon the heathen seamen at this confession of Jonah may be fully explained from the dangerous situation in which they found themselves, since the storm preached the omnipotence of God more powerfully than words could possibly do.

Verses 11-12

Fearing as they did in the storm the wrath of God on account of Jonah's sin, they now asked what they should do, that the storm might abate, “for the sea continued to rage.” שׁתק , to set itself, to come to a state of repose; or with מעל , to desist from a person. הולך , as in Genesis 8:5, etc., expressive of the continuance of an action. With their fear of the Almighty God, whom Jonah worshipped, they did not dare to inflict a punishment upon the prophet, simply according to their own judgment. As a worshipper of Jehovah, he should pronounce his own sentence, or let it be pronounced by his God. Jonah replies in Jonah 1:12, “Cast me into the sea; for I know that for my sake this great storm is (come) upon you.” As Jerome says, “He does not refuse, or prevaricate, or deny; but, having made confession concerning his flight, he willingly endures the punishment, desiring to perish, and not let others perish on his account.” Jonah confesses that he has deserved to die for his rebellion against God, and that the wrath of God which has manifested itself in the storm can only be appeased by his death. He pronounces this sentence, not by virtue of any prophetic inspiration, but as a believing Israelite who is well acquainted with the severity of the justice of the holy God, both from the law and from the history of his nation.

Verses 13-14

But the men (the seamen) do not venture to carry out this sentence at once. They try once more to reach the land and escape from the storm, which is threatening them with destruction, without so serious a sacrifice. יחתּרוּ , lit., they broke through, sc. through the waves, to bring (the ship) back to the land, i.e., they tried to reach the land by rowing and steering. Châthar does not mean to row, still less to twist or turn round (Hitzig), but to break through; here to break through the waves, to try to overcome them, to which the παρεβιάζοντο of the lxx points. As they could not accomplish this, however, because the sea continued to rage against them ( סער עליהם , was raging against them), they prayed thus to Jehovah: “We beseech Thee, let us not ( &#אנּא אל־נא ) perish for the sake of the soul of this man ( בּנפשׁ , lit., for the soul, as in 2 Samuel 14:7 after Deuteronomy 19:21), and lay not upon us innocent blood,” - that is to say, not “do not let us destroy an innocent man in the person of this man” (Hitzig), but, according to Deuteronomy 21:8, “do not impute his death to us, if we cast him into the sea, as bloodguiltiness deserving death;” “for Thou, O Jehovah, hast done as it pleased Thee,” - namely, inasmuch as, by sending the storm and determining the lot, Thou hast so ordained that we must cast him into the sea as guilty, in order to expiate Thy wrath. They offer this prayer, not because they have no true conception of the guilt of Jonah, who is not a murderer or blasphemer, inasmuch as according to their notions, he is not a sinner deserving death (Hitzig), but because they regard Jonah as a prophet or servant of the Almighty God, upon whom, from fear of his God, they do not venture to lay their hand. “We see, therefore, that although they had never enjoyed the teaching of the law, they had been so taught by nature, that they knew very well that the blood of man was dear to God, and precious in His sight” (Calvin).

Verses 15-16

After they had prayed thus, they cast Jonah into the sea, and “the sea stood still (ceased) from its raging.” The sudden cessation of the storm showed that the bad weather had come entirely on Jonah's account, and that the sailors had not shed innocent blood by casting him into the sea. In this sudden change in the weather, the arm of the holy God was so suddenly manifested, that the sailors “feared Jehovah with great fear, and offered sacrifice to Jehovah” - not after they landed, but immediately, on board the ship - “and vowed vows,” i.e., vowed that they would offer Him still further sacrifices on their safe arrival at their destination.

Verse 17

(Heb. Ch. 2:1). “And Jehovah appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah.” מנּה does not mean to create, but to determine, to appoint. The thought is this: Jehovah ordained that a great fish should swallow him. The great fish (lxx κῆτος , cf. Matthew 12:40), which is not more precisely defined, was not a whale, because this is extremely rare in the Mediterranean, and has too small a throat to swallow a man, but a large shark or sea-dog, canis carcharias , or squalus carcharias L. , which is very common in the Mediterranean, and has so large a throat, that it can swallow a living man whole.

(Note: The aqualus carcharias L. , the true shark, Requin , or rather Requiem , reaches, according to Cuvier, the length of 25 feet, and according to Oken the length of four fathoms, and has about 400 lance-shaped teeth in its jaw, arranged in six rows, which the animal can either elevate or depress, as they are simply fixed in cells in the skin. It is common in the Mediterranean, where it generally remains in deep water, and is very voracious, swallowing everything that comes in its way - plaice, seals, and tunny-fish, with which it sometimes gets into the fishermen's net on the coat of Sardinia, and is caught. As many as a dozen undigested tunny-fish have been found in a shark weighing three or four hundredweight; in one a whole horse was found, and its weight was estimated at fifteen hundredweight. Rondelet (Oken, p. 58) says that he saw one on the western coast of France, through whose throat a fat man could very easily have passed. Oken also mentions a fact, which is more elaborately described in Müller's Vollständiges Natur-system des Ritters Carl v. Linné (Th. iii. p. 268), namely, that in the year 1758 a sailor fell overboard from a frigate, in very stormy weather, into the Mediterranean Sea, and was immediately taken into the jaws of a sea-dog ( carcharias ), and disappeared. The captain, however, ordered a gun, which was standing on the deck, to be discharged at the shark, and the cannon-ball struck it, so that it vomited up again the sailor that it had swallowed, who was then taken up alive, and very little hurt, into the boat that had been lowered for his rescue.)

The miracle consisted therefore, not so much in the fact that Jonah was swallowed alive, as in the fact that he was kept alive for three days in the shark's belly, and then vomited unhurt upon the land. The three days and three nights are not to be regarded as fully three times twenty hours, but are to be interpreted according to Hebrew usage, as signifying that Jonah was vomited up again on the third day after he had been swallowed (compare Esther 4:16 with Esther 5:1 and Tob. 3:12, 13, according to the Lutheran text).

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The Keil & Delitzsch Old Testament Commentary is a derivative of a public domain electronic edition.
Bibliographical Information
Keil, Carl Friedrich & Delitzsch, Franz. "Commentary on Jonah 1". Keil & Delitzsch Old Testament Commentary. 1854-1889.