The sailors said to one another, ‘Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.’ So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, ‘Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?’ ‘I am a Hebrew,’ he replied. ‘I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.’ Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, ‘What is this that you have done!’ For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so.
This part of the story tells of the sailors trying to discern the divine will and purpose by casting lots. This practice was also part of Israel’s religious tradition right down to New Testament times (see Acts 2:26). The lot falls on Jonah, identifying him as the cause of their predicament. We see the innate humanity of the sailors who don’t immediately respond with anger (or worse) but ask Jonah to explain who he is and question him about what’s going on.
Jonah’s replies are extraordinary and he fails to answer most of their questions. He identifies as a ‘Hebrew’, the term used of the community enslaved in Egypt before God’s people encountered the covenant God at Sinai and were formed into Israel. His words about the nature of that God , whom he names as the one he worships, belie what he apparently believed when fleeing the land of Israel (God’s realm of influence according to the polytheistic worldview of 8th century Israel) to escape the presence of the LORD.
The last sentence of our passage doesn’t correspond with any words attributed to Jonah in his dialogue with the crew. Nonetheless, what he does say affects the sailors deeply; they realise that defying the will of this God is not a very good idea! They are really scared now.
Jonah has spoken the truth about the creative power and presence of God; but his behaviour thus far hasn’t demonstrated such belief. Nor have we had any words of contrition from Jonah. Jonah is the only one who hasn’t prayed.
I wonder whether we are ever guilty of proclaiming the truth about Christ but failing to live as though we believe it. And I know that my prayer life needs to improve, in good times and bad – what about yours?
Creator God, we often struggle to recognise your ongoing work in our world and to discern what you are saying to us today.
Open our hearts and minds, our eyes and ears, to the promptings of your Spirit; and help us to recognise Christ active in the lives of those around us.
Help us to be people of prayer at all times, because only through our relationship with you do we become our true selves. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge