Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Pagan Sailors' Religious Beliefs in Jonah 1

I am going through the Book of Jonah for my daily quiet time.  In my reading this morning, something puzzled me, but I was unable to articulate why it was puzzling me.  I had a hard time formulating my question, let alone arriving at any answers!  But I checked out a commentary, and that cleared things up a bit.

In Jonah 1, God tells Jonah to go to the wicked city of Nineveh and preach against it.  Jonah does not want to go, so he hops on a ship to Tarshish.  On his journey, a fierce wind threatens the ship and those on it, and each shipman is crying out to his god.  The shipmaster finds that Jonah is sleeping and tells Jonah to cry out to his (Jonah’s) god.

This passage looks pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?  So why was I confused?  Well, as I said, I was struggling to articulate to myself why exactly I was confused, but I knew that the topic of my confusion concerned how the book was portraying the pagan shipmen’s religious beliefs.  Each person has a god.  Each person is crying out to his god in hopes that the tempest will go away.  Moreover, they seem to believe that each person’s god exists—-the pagan shipmaster did not tell Jonah to cry out to any pagan gods but rather to cry out to his own (meaning Jonah’s) god.  It sounded to me like a belief in patron deities, in which each person has a god looking out for him or her.  But why cry out to one’s own personal god?  Why not cry out to the god of the sea, who is responsible for what goes on there?

The IVP Bible Background Commentary clarified to me my question and offered a reasonable answer:

1:5 each cried to his own god.  Patron deities were rarely cosmic deities, so the sailors would not have thought that their personal or family gods had sent the storm.  In the polytheistic context of the ancient world, one could generally identify divine activity with confidence, but it was another matter altogether to discover which god was acting and why.  The sailors call out to their gods in the hope that one of their patron deities might be able to exert some influence on whichever god has become disturbed enough to send the storm.  They are calling out for assistance, not in repentance.  The more contacts made the better, so the captain awakes Jonah so that he could also call upon his patron deity.”

So they were calling upon their patron deities because they thought that these deities may have connections with whatever cosmic deity was causing the storm.

Questions still remain in my mind, though.  Okay, Jonah tells them that the Hebrew God is god of sea and land and is the one causing the storm.  The shipmen agree that the Hebrew God YHWH is the one causing the storm and they eventually make vows and offer sacrifice to the Hebrew God.  But the IVP Bible Background Commentary denies that this means that they abandoned polytheism and converted to monotheism.  It says that “the sailors may have vowed to offer a memorial sacrifice of some sort to Yahweh each year on the anniversary of this event.”  They still probably continued to worship their own gods, though.

Where, now, is my confusion?  I wonder what exactly they thought about YHWH, during the time that they accepted that YHWH was the one causing the storm and also when they offered sacrifice and vows to YHWH.  Did they come to agree with Jonah that YHWH was the god of the sea and land?  How would that impact their religious worldview?  One would think that the God of the sea and land is pretty significant and high up in the divine hierarchy.  Would YHWH take the place of their cosmic deities, in their minds?  Or could they still go on believing in their cosmic deities, while seeing YHWH as higher than them in the hierarchy?  Or maybe they just believed that YHWH was simply another cosmic deity and that Jonah was wrong to see him as the God of sea and land, even though they acknowledged that Jonah’s god was the one causing the storm.


  1. It's been a while, James. The IVP commentary makes assumptions about polytheism and monotheism that are completely unwarranted. They impose a 'I know what this is' conclusion onto a story! Without considering the fear, the ignorance, or the fact that Jonah is called to preach to Nineveh about their deeds not their religion. The salt-seafarers are carefully named - then they become mortals and their fear is aroused - the first step to obedience (obedience is not just some set of explanations). And they wake Jonah up - how about that image - as the disciples woke Jesus up when he was asleep in the boat. You might get a kick out of the music for the passage here.

  2. Thanks for that link, Bob, and for your insights.


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