A LOVE SUPREME

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Fearing a great fear

Jonah 1:11-17


So they said to him, "What should we do with you that the sea might grow calm for us?!?" For the anger of the sea was becoming more and more intense.
Jonah replied, "Pick me up and hurl me into the sea. Then the sea will become calm, because I know that it is on my account that this immense storm has struck you."
Nevertheless, the men worked hard to row back to dry land, but they could not prevail because the storm continued to worsen and rage against them.
So they cried out to Yahweh and said, "We pray, O Yahweh! Please do not let us die on account of this man's life, and do not hold us guilty of innocent blood. After all, you, Yahweh, have done what pleases you.”
So they lifted up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the raging sea grew calm.
At this the men were terrified of Yahweh, and they sacrificed an offering to Yahweh also making vows.
But Yahweh provided a great fish to swallow Jonah and Jonah remained in the bowels of the fish three days and three nights.


I find interesting the "fear" we see in this passage.

Jonah is the man to whom the lot has fallen. He knows what to do. The sailors are growing desperate, their lives hang in the balance. They implore Jonah to tell them what to do. And Jonah tells them: Throw me over.

Is there any feeling in Jonah as he says this?? That is what I wonder. Is he apathetic and sedated? Does he even care, anymore, whether he goes overboard? Or perhaps he is beginning to repent?

I tend to lean towards the apathy. I tend to think Jonah is still at this point ready to go overboard and face his death. After all, what does he have to look forward to if he lives? He is a prophet on the run. He would be an alien in some strange land.

This isn't enough for the sailors who try to chug it back to the land. The interesting thing is that in this scenario going back to land is about the worst thing to do. The ship would wreck and be torn apart. So, why do the sailors go back to land? Did they lose all common sense and reasoning? Did they lose their sixth sailor sense? Sasson has an interesting suggestion:

But, as centuries of nautical common sense taught, steering a ship to shore when in the midst of a storm is a foolish, even suicidal enterprise! To the contrary, a ship must at all costs not be driven to the coastline where it will surely wreck. It could be, of course, that the difficult circumstances led the sailors to lose their cunning, skill, and knowledge. The sailors, however, could have been reasoning that if they steered ashore in the midst of a storm, it should prove them no longer willing to shelter God’s errant prophet. Surely this powerful deity would not allow them harm as they rowed ashore! With faith in divine mercy and justice, the sailors were betting their lives on the success of this measure. (142)

So, maybe the sailors were trying to demonstrate to Yahweh that they were ready to return the prophet-on-the-run. Surely this terrible God would reward such an effort. After all, if they chucked Jonah overboard they would have innocent blood on their heads. And the blood of a prophet, no less. And how would this incredible "Yahweh" respond to someone who threw his prophet into the sea??!! No, the sailors are desperate for any other solution. But there is no other. They must "hurl" Jonah into the raging sea.

The anger of the sea grows calm.

The sailor's reaction?

The Hebrew text in verse 16 is fascinating. It literally reads something like, "the men feared a great fear." The same Hebrew word (yare) is used both as a verb and a noun, and on top of that the author throws in the adjective "great!" to describe the fear! Theses sailors are struck and shaken to their core as a result of this experience. So, they do what any ancient would do: they offer sacrifices and make vows. We do similar things today when we find ourselves at the tail end of traumatic events. We dedicate ourselves to God and replot the course of our lives.

What were these sacrifices offered?? What were their vows? There is some grammatical indication that these might have been lavish sacrifices. No surprise from me if they offered up anything and everything they possibly could! These men had seen the mighty hand of Yahweh, and they "feared a great fear."

But there is also a minor point here that is important for understanding the sailor's fear: The sea was a strange and mysterious domain. Before scientific revolutions and technological advancements allowed us to build boats or to predict weather patterns the ancients were at the mercy of the waves and the elements, which seemed to have a mind of their own. This god of Jonah's - this "Yahweh" - must be a god of incredible power for him to control the sea. The sailors' gods were either powerless or simply on vacation. But the mighty arm of Yahweh made the sea do its bidding. He controlled it and manipulated it like a skilled potter with his clay. Yes, it was time to acknowledge the power of this "Yahweh" and to fear this great power.

This note about the ancients also sheds light on the impact of Jesus' mastery of the sea. In Matt 8:27 and Mark 4:41 the disciples tremble that "even the sea" obeyed Jesus. Who was this man who could tame the strange and terrifying sea!??!

I wonder....Is there room to "fear a great fear" in these days? We have calculated the elements and mastered the sea (well, except for that nasty little Titanic episode!). But for most of us we have a certain control over our lives. We are not subject to the tossing waves or the anger of the sea. What need have we to fear Yahweh? Or to offer sacrifices? Or to make and fulfill vows? What does it mean to "fear a great fear"? Or must we, in these days, fear vicariously through the ruddy sailor's of Jonah's story?

Fear of God is, for the most part, gone in these days. Most of us who do fear God prefer to focus on grace and love. And perhaps this isn't something to lament. For example, there are those who have experienced much fear at the hands of an abusive father or spouse. Do these really need another angry father? Is there not enough fear in this world?

Perhaps this is the case. Perhaps we need smaller doses of fear and greater doses of mercy and grace in a world that is thirsty and parched of love. Nonetheless, I still wonder about whether or not I don't need "the fear of God" put in me once in a while. Because to fear God is, in many respects, to be forced to put ourselves at God's mercy and provision. The end result, at least for the sailor's, was a dedication to Yahweh. Perhaps we need large doses of love, and yet we also need small doses of fear?

5 comments:

ktismatics said...

The stormy sea, the great wind, the great fish -- all are distinctly unpleasant natural phenomena that the heathen sailors associate with the gods. Gods were capricious and dangerous, so all you could do is hope to appease them.

It's interesting that all the sailors agreed that casting lots was a good procedure for finding the source of trouble. It's a good way for the gods to speak through an instrument that won't distort the message -- like, say, a human prophet.

Rene Girard points out that the Judeo-Christian tradition is perhaps unique in its identification with the sacrificial victim. You could imagine this story being told by the sailors: there was trouble at sea because one of the gods was angry; we sacrificed a man to appease this god; the sea became calm; now we live to serve that god. But the story doesn't follow the sailors who were saved from the sea. Instead it follows the one who was swallowed up by the sea so that the others might live.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Absolutely. The sacrifice motif is so central. And I like that you highlight that, b/c it is interesting to note how the story follows Jonah - the sacrificial victim. Jesus picks up on this motif (Matthew 12:40) when he becomes a sacrifice to save many, and like Jonah remains in the heart of the deep for three days and three nights. Also like Jonah, Christ is delivered and proceeds to provide hope for many. But, er, unlike Jonah, Christ does not become upset when people repent and God shows them mercy!

(By the way, where is the sermon snippet from our friend, Father Mapple?)

ktismatics said...

And now behold Jonah taken up as an anchor and dropped into the sea; when instantly an oily calmness floats out from the east, and the sea is still, as Jonah carries down the gale with him, leaving smooth water behind. He goes down in the whirling heart of such a masterful commotion that he scarce heeds the moment when he drops seething into the yawning jaws awaiting him; and the whale shoots-to all his ivory teeth, like so many white bolts, upon his prison.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Yes! There it is!


You know I also came across a Rabi's version of Jonah being tossed into the sea. He said that the sailor's first dipped Jonah's legs into the sea and it became calm, so they pulled him out - but then the sea began to rage again! The next time they dipped Jonah in up to his chest and the sea again became calm, so they pulled him out yet again - but the sea began to rage again! Finally, they just hurled him over!

Melody said...

The whole love/fear issue is confusing to me. In the OT fear definately seems to outweigh love, but that turns around almost entirely once you hit the NT.

In a lot of ways it can be hard to reconcile the God of the OT with the God who died on the cross for us...but, actually, Jonah is not one of books that makes me feel that way...the ending is compassion itself...and Jonah's reaction makes me wonder if I draw the wrong conclusions from all the blood shed and threats of blood shed earlier in the OT because Jonah seems well aquainted with God's love and forgiveness to the point of exasperation with thinking God goes too far