Sunday, June 26, 2022

Two Sleepers

Under the late May sun, Captain Ashtar-rom of Tyre watched with pride as his men carried amphorae full of grain onto the ship. They'd docked in the inland harbor east of the Philistine town Yafo.1 They'd stopped to sell goods, take on a few sailors, and restock their food supplies before hitting the open waters.2 Ashtar-rom prided himself on his diverse crew: men from Sidon, Gebal, Be'rut, Qart-Hadasht, Yafo. And he prided himself on his new ship. Sixty feet long, the juniper-wood hull was freshly caulked with pitch. A cedarwood mast towered high, with its linen-paneled square sail ready to deploy to catch the wind. When the wind wasn't cooperative, the ship was equipped with brand-new oaken oars. The ship's prow was flanked with eyes embodying the ship's protective spirit, while the stern had the finest quarterdeck descending into a capacious hold beneath the cypress-wood deck whose patterned design of ivory chips made for a pleasing distraction on longer voyages. His ship was far sturdier than the kind his forefathers used to sail – it carried heavier cargoes on longer journeys.3

And that was exactly the plan. The cargo hold below deck was loaded with amphorae full of wine by the ton, plus ceramics, purple-dyed cloth, cedar-wood, and more, to take on the trip out to Tartessos on the southwest coast of Spain, where they'd barter for high-quality silver, gold, iron, lead, and tin to bring back and sell at a higher profit.4 The demand for precious metals and exotic goods was at a bit of a lull the past few years – things weren't well in Assyria, their major market – but Ashtar-rom was confident it'd resurge soon enough.5

But as he mentioned Tartessos – 'Tarshish,' they called it – to his crew, it caught the attention of a stranger, who approached Ashtar-rom. Speaking in the local tongue, the man pleaded to pay for passage there – said he was putting some distance between himself and his master. Well, the wages he offered the ship were good, so why not? Aboard he came – just in the nick of time, the ship nearly ready to leave port. Within the hour, Ashtar-rom was standing in the ship's bow, pouring a bowl of wine into the harbor, calling on his gods to bless their summer voyage, with promises to bring votive offerings to the temple in Tyre at journey's end next year.6

Days went by. They were in open waters now, and the Great Sea was calm and fine. Their passenger, a sullen and unsociable man, was an annoyance, but Ashtar-rom blamed it on seasickness and his unfamiliarity with their language. The skies were clear, at least, and sailing couldn't be better, a steady wind in their sail. But then, suddenly, out of nowhere, the wind picked up – picked up too much. It came, not in a straight line, but all around them, a whirlwind, a mighty tempest. Whipped into a frenzy, the waves sank and lifted, sank and lifted. Ashtar-rom had been in his fair share of storms at sea – he was hardly new to this – but he'd never in his life felt waves like this. The wind speed kept increasing. Twenty miles an hour, now thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, seventy. Immediately the sailors take down the rapidly tattering sail, to stem the ship's lurching back and forth. The storm seems to be forming all around them. The sea-spray and heavy rocking are wetting and weakening the timber of the boat, as beneath their feet the wood creaks and hisses and groans (Jonah 1:4).

The captain's heart starts pounding. This is no ordinary storm. He can see panic swelling in the eyes of the crew, as the realization begins to take shape that this could be their final hour. Ashtar-rom isn't sure who he hears let out the first shout, praying to the protective spirit imbued in the ship. Soon, crewmen are shouting out to this god and that. They cry to the sea gods who ride their hippocamps through the surf.7 Ashtar-rom prays to his name-sake, the warrior-goddess Ashtart, the morning and evening star, the divine patron of her people. They cry to Lady Tinnit, goddess over the moon, whose soft light guides sailors and portends fairer weather, who sends dolphins of warning and protects ships by her care.8 Some cry to Ba'al-shamem, “lord of heaven,” the commander of winds, surely able to revoke this tempest.9 Yet others plead with Ba'al-zaphon, victor over the sea, dweller on the high mountain, the ship wide of wing which sailors fondly view.10 Ashtar-rom hears several of the crew screaming the name of Melqart, lord of Tyre, guardian of voyagers, he who himself braved the seas on a raft and vanquished its monsters.11 He even hears one pray over the wind, “Melqart, I have a two-year-old son home in Qart-Hadasht! Hear my voice now, save our ship, see me safely there, and I'll sacrifice him to you in thanks – just save us now!”12 But the storm only builds. There is no answer, no help. Desperate, they turn to their personal gods, lesser intermediary spirits, crying out in hopes of finding a mediator, begging for revelation which god was inflicting this storm and how he or she could be appeased.13 But the storm worsens.

Taking matters into their own hands in between impassioned cries, crewmen rush down into the ship's hold, retrieving all their precious merchandise, and, just as the wind had been hurled upon them, so they carry it up and hurl it, piece by piece, out into the deep, desperate to make the ship more buoyant amidst the crashing waves and buffeting winds. This was no time to even consider the lost profit, the liability – not with their lives so clearly on the line (Jonah 1:5).14 Then the captain hears a crewman run across the soggy and slanting deck toward him. “Sir, sir! You won't believe what we found in the cargo hold, behind that last set of jars!”

Climbing down through the quarterdeck, the captain looked – and there, tucked at the back of the ship, was that irritating passenger – deeply asleep, while all around them raged a deadly storm! Oh, the audacity! How dare this man, after being so unpleasant a guest these past days, tune out their peril? How is that even possible? All the crewmen are team players; they all feel a stake in their common peril. None are too good to lend a hand. What is wrong with this horrid, horrid man? But, thought the captain, here's an avenue they haven't tried. Clearly, the spirit of the ship had refused them. Their gods had all forsaken them – Ba'al-shamem wouldn't step in, neither would Tinnit or Melqart or the others. But who even knew what gods this passenger served, or with which he might be closest? Perhaps this unknown foreign deity could be the answer to their life-or-death plight.15 The captain grabbed the man's ear and began to yell over the crashing surf and creaking wood.

But rewind a few days. Jonah ben Amittai, escaped slave on the run from a heavenly master, had bought his way, with as much of his wealth as was needed, onto that ship in Yafo. He was pleased, providentially, to have, in such a timely fashion, found a ship bound for the end of the world. Had he not been running from God, he'd have thought it all divinely arranged, so perfectly did his plans fall in line. Oh, how little Jonah knew...

As those first days passed aboard ship, though, he'd been haunted by his ordeal. His spirit was in deep disquiet. The entire journey to Yafo, he'd been inwardly seething with anger at God – anger at the thought that God would so carelessly treat his chosen people, rage at the idea of having to mingle with filthy pagans, fury at God's flippant disregard of Jonah's own well-crafted reputation. All the way there, he'd turned that anger and adrenaline into a faster pace, harnessing it as fuel. But his muscles were sore, and there was nowhere to go. He was aboard ship. It wasn't a very long ship, it was plenty full, there was no space to pace, and he could tell it was far from appreciated when he tried. His hot anger had burned down, his soul felt like smoke and ash, dissipating all its energy. He was nauseous, and it wasn't just seasickness – though Jonah's nerves were jittery on the sea. He was “pricked by his conscience, hit with discouragement, and not bearing the stings of reason.”16

Jonah grew listless, bored. There was nothing to do now. Certainly he didn't want to talk to anyone. But nor did he care to be alone with his awful thoughts, which tormented and jabbed him. The sea was monotonous and joyless to Jonah's crabbed heart. He slipped deeper into a depression. He was depleted and defeated. And he was scared. He remembered how, a century ago, the Tyrian princess Jezebel – no doubt a heroine to the captain of this miserable vessel – had, as queen of Israel, so frightened another prophet, Elijah, that he “was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life..., and he asked that he might die..., and he lay down and slept” (1 Kings 19:3-5). That sounded like a good enough example for Jonah – to escape, to sleep, perchance to “sleep the sleep of death” (Psalm 13:3).17 He muttered, “Slothfulness casts into a deep sleep” (Proverbs 19:15), as he crawled into the cargo hold while the ship began to rock. And why not? He hardly felt like even a person anymore, so why shouldn't he pack himself away with the other property? To the ship's bowels he pressed, into the pit, the deep darkness that was his own personal underworld, as close to a grave as he could find.18 With any luck, he thought as the wind picked up and the ship began to list first this way, then that way, the swaying cargo or the ballast would be thrown against him, crushing him in his sleep without him having to see it coming.

That was where and why he'd fallen asleep. It was a normal sleep at first, then deeper, then deeper still. And as the trembling ship rocked him in her arms, terrifying visions of the night stormed through his subconscious, wrapping him in a net of stupor. A distant voice echoed in his mind: “Behold, the storm of the LORD! Wrath has gone forth, a whirling tempest; it will burst upon the head of the wicked. The anger of the LORD will not turn back until he has executed and accomplished the intents of his heart” (Jeremiah 23:19-20).

The inner voice laid low Jonah's soul, and it was from such a deep unconsciousness that he was abruptly roused, groggy, by another voice in his ear, loud and booming with rage. It would take several minutes for Jonah's befogged brain to process who might possibly be speaking to him. “What do you mean, you sleeper?” How can you sleep at a time like this? Jonah began to realize the severity of the storm raging around them, and he – not unlike the ship – had a sinking feeling. The storm could only be the work of the LORD God who made the sea. 'Twas the discus of heaven, spinning round and round, let loose from the LORD's grip with a bulls-eye infallibly painted 'twixt Jonah's eyes. “Up! Call out!” Those words startled Jonah further awake as they sank in. They were the same words he'd been running from, the words spoken by the LORD in Samaria, summoning him to an awful mission. “Call out to your god!” Oh, please – that was the last thing Jonah had any intention of doing. Re-establish contact with the LORD? Not a chance (Jonah 1:6)!

But then, in a dim memory, a tune got stuck in Jonah's ear. The captain kept speaking, but Jonah's brain – much against his will – began replaying the words of a psalm: “Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters. They saw the deeds of the LORD, his wondrous works in the deep. For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted the waves of the sea. They mounted to heaven! They went down to the depths! Their courage melted away in their evil plight. They reeled and staggered like drunken men, and all their wisdom was swallowed up. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress...” (Psalm 107:23-28). Jonah knew that song was for just this day. But Jonah didn't want deliverance.

Perhaps the god will give a thought to us,” the captain yelled, “that we may not perish!” And slowly, Jonah pieced together what had happened while he was asleep. He intuited how the sailors had been praying to all the false gods they knew, raising up a tumult of the chaos of their ignorance. Ironic, Jonah thought: for the tumult of the Gentiles is the roaring waves to the ears of God, the very thing Israel had long prayed for the LORD to still and silence (Psalm 65:7). All their raging prayers to idols had only amplified the storm. “Perhaps” – dare we hope? the captain wonders. Dare we hope there's a god who cares? Dare we hope we haven't been forsaken forever? Dare we hope there's a way of salvation in the day of distress?19 Jonah knows – but he's not telling.

But fast forward about eight centuries, to a smaller sea and another boat. To evade the pressing crowd as night falls, another prophet enjoins his companions to sail with him across the Sea of Galilee, to the Gentile regions on the other side (Mark 4:35-36). All is calm on the waters... until it's not. Late into the night, a storm of wind hurled itself onto the waters, sliding down from the mountain peaks, and the packed little fishing boat came under threat, waves crashing over the sides. And where was Jesus? Where Jonah had been, or as close to it as a fishing boat had: in the stern, sleeping a sleep so sound it'd fit right in in the cemetery they're heading toward (Mark 4:37-38). But his disciples, in mortal panic, “raise him” – I can almost see the smirk and the wink Mark must've given his scribe as he put those words down. The disciples raise Jesus from his sleep and ask if he even cares how serious things are (Mark 4:38). They beg him, as their Lord, for salvation (Matthew 8:25). As Jonah awoke for the captain and sailors, so Jesus awakens for his disciples – only Jesus speaks, and silences the storm.

Separated by eight centuries, the two scenes have obvious connections. In both, an Israelite main character – a prophet of God, at the least – is sailing across a body of water toward an unvisited Gentile territory. A violent wind comes and churns the sea into waves that put the ship in danger of destruction. But the main character – Jonah in one, Jesus in the other – is deep asleep. The others on the ship rudely awaken him in desperation, in fear and frustration. And, as we'll see in each, something the main character does leads to the calming of the sea and an awe at God's power at work in the situation falling upon his shipmates.20

But Jesus asleep in his boat is the remedy for Jonah slumbering in his. Jonah is just a passenger, hiring the boat; Jesus is his boat's unquestioned lord. Jonah, insisting on being mere cargo, was driven by an exhaustion with his personhood, thinking his life a burden. Jesus, though asleep in the stern of the boat, is on a pillow, a cushion. He isn't exhausted at being himself. Jesus has no desire to escape his calling or identity. He embraced them both and, unlike Jonah, lived fully as himself. Jonah's sleep was in rebellion and disquiet, weighed down by a heavy spirit collapsing under its troubles. But Jesus slept in obedience and peace beneath the consoling eyes of his Father. For Jesus is the one who, before any of us, can say: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep, for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8). And we say it because he says it.

Jonah sleeping at the back of the boat is a real problem, because his presence on the ship was what placed it in danger. It's not the tons of cargo weighing them down; it's the disobedience of a single man that can sink a ship. But Jesus sleeping in the back of the boat is a guarantee of survival, whether he's awake or not. The Father will not sink his Son before the appointed hour. Jesus is all that holds his ship together, even if – from a human point of view – he snores in tune with the waves. If, in the ship you're in, you find disobedience, give it a rude awakening by tossing it overboard from your soul.

In their frenzy, the sailors tried every solution available to their pagan and materialist worldview: they call on familiar gods, they throw cargo overboard – and only then do they wake the prophet. But in their panic, the disciples at least knew they had nowhere to go but to Jesus. They believed he could save them. Their problem was in not trusting his goodwill from the beginning. For where the captain is right to reproach his sleeper for being uncaring, the disciples go wrong in looking at Jesus the way the sailors look at Jonah. Jonah proves that when he answers the captain's plea by a silence steadfastly maintained until broken by interrogation; and in the end, only his sacrifice will end this storm. Jesus will not respond with silence. When he awakes, he'll reproach his disciples and rebuke the storm, muzzling its wind and waves with a word. Only later will he sacrifice his life to still the greater storm of sin and death and judgment. But even now in Galilee, Jesus does for his boat what Jonah knew only God could do for his. For Jesus is the LORD God who hurled the storm on the Great Sea to hunt his prophet down. And so, in their own way, the disciples have already done what Jonah wouldn't: get up and cry out to the LORD their God for salvation, as the LORD seems to sleep in their midst.

When storms arise, may we not waste time calling on other gods – on Money and Power and Wisdom and Skill and all their pomp. There's only one Lord who speaks, only one Savior who can settle it. So cry out to him. Again, the disciples didn't go wrong in waking Jesus. That was good, that was right. They prefigured his resurrection in their midst, and it was in a foretaste of his resurrection lordship that Jesus stilled the sea. And now, Jesus is risen from the dead, and is spiritually and sacramentally present within his Church, the Ark of Salvation, the boat upon the waters of the world. So board and stay in Jesus' boat, and don't sail away with Jonah. For whereas the captain had to say to Jonah, “Perhaps,” with Jesus that's unnecessary. The Phoenician captain couldn't be sure Jonah's god would prove any different from his idols, would be any more attentive. But Jesus pilots us to an eternal Father, strong to save, who invariably gives thought to us: “Aren't five sparrows sold for two pennies, and not one of them is forgotten before God? Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not: you are of more value than many sparrows” (Luke 12:6-7). So trust in Jesus' goodwill in the midst of the storm. I know there are times he seems silent. I know there are days it feels he must be sleeping. But even when to all our senses he looks asleep and indifferent, he's divinely in control and securing our security, leading us toward the day when the promises shall be ours: “I will give you peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and no one shall make you afraid” (Leviticus 26:6), “and you will feel secure because there is hope; you will look around and take your rest in security” (Job 11:18). Amen.


Eternal Father, Maker of the sea and the dry land, you God of heaven: To you we cry from land and sea, praising you and thanking you for being a God of salvation.  Onto the tempestuous seas of our world, you sent your only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, a man of sorrows acquainted with our grief, but also a man of joy acquainted with your peace.  Though the winds rage, though the seas rage, though the nations rage, though the demons rage against us, still he is unfailingly at peace and cares deeply for each hair of our heads.  Not one of us can be forgotten before you, not even in the deepest sleep.  Instill in us a greater trust in your goodness.  Teach us to love ourselves as you love us, and to love and care for all as you care for and love them.  Blow away our brazen disobedience, sink our sullen foolishness, drown our dismal distractions, but keep us afloat in your tender mercies.  Caulk your Church with impenetrable grace, and suffer her not to be fragmented or swamped.  Speak peace to our hearts 'midst the tempest; raise stillness in our souls when the storm is loud.  Give us the faith that your Holy Spirit blows where he wills.  Be our certain salvation in the day of distress.  Share with us your righteous security and serenity.  Pilot us safely through the straits of death, haul us from the abysmal depths to your heavenly heights, and be our safe harbor when the voyage is o'er.  This we pray through Jesus Christ, our Pilot, our Haven, our Teacher and Master and Lord. Amen.

1  Yafo/Jaffa/Joppa's north and west sides had rocky outcrops to shelter ships, while north of town was a stream leading to an inland estuary east of town – see Aaron A. Burke, “Early Jaffa: From the Bronze Age to the Persian Period,” in Martin Peilstöcker and Aaron A. Burke, eds., The History and Archaeology of Jaffa 1 (Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, 2011), 63; Aaron A. Burke, et al., “Jaffa's Ancient Inland Harbor: Historical Cartographic, and Geomorphological Data,” in Aaron A. Burke, Katherine Strange Burke, and Martin Peilstöcker, eds., The History and Archaeology of Jaffa 2 (Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, 2017), 107.

2  Morris Silver, Prophets and Markets: The Political Economy of Ancient Israel (Kluwer-Nijhoff Publishing, 1983), 48; Edward Lipinski, On the Skirts of Canaan in the Iron Age: Historical and Topographical Researches (Peeter Publishers, 2006), 184; Aaron Jed Brody, “Each Man Cried Out to His God”: The Specialized Religion of Canaanite and Phoenician Seafarers (Scholars Press, 1998), 82.

3  On the Phoenician merchant ships of Jonah's time, see David Abulafia, The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean (Oxford University Press, 2011), 72-73; and Anne Marie Smith, Phoenician Ships: Types, Trends, Trade, and Treacherous Trade Routes, Master of Arts thesis (University of South Africa, 2012), 63-66, 119-130.

4  For identifying Tarshish as Tartessos, see Sebastian Celestino and Carolina Lopez-Ruiz, Tartessos and the Phoenicians in Iberia (Oxford University Press, 2016), 111-121.

5  Sebastian Celestino and Carolina Lopez-Ruiz, Tartessos and the Phoenicians in Iberia (Oxford University Press, 2016), 144; J. G. Manning, The Open Sea: The Economic Life of the Ancient Mediterranean from the Iron Age to the Rise of Rome (Princeton University Press, 2018), 235-236.

6  Aaron Jed Brody, “Each Man Cried Out to His God”: The Specialized Religion of Canaanite and Phoenician Seafarers (Scholars Press, 1998), 75-80.

7  Aaron Jed Brody, “Each Man Cried Out to His God”: The Specialized Religion of Canaanite and Phoenician Seafarers (Scholars Press, 1998), 25-26.

8  Aaron Jed Brody, “Each Man Cried Out to His God”: The Specialized Religion of Canaanite and Phoenician Seafarers (Scholars Press, 1998), 27-33.

9  Aaron Jed Brody, “Each Man Cried Out to His God”: The Specialized Religion of Canaanite and Phoenician Seafarers (Scholars Press, 1998), 11.

10  Aaron Jed Brody, “Each Man Cried Out to His God”: The Specialized Religion of Canaanite and Phoenician Seafarers (Scholars Press, 1998), 13-19.

11  Aaron Jed Brody, “Each Man Cried Out to His God”: The Specialized Religion of Canaanite and Phoenician Seafarers (Scholars Press, 1998), 33-37.

12  On Phoenician practices of child sacrifice as a thank-offering, especially in Qart-Hadasht (Carthage), see Josephine Crawley Quinn, In Search of the Phoenicians (Princeton University Press, 2018), 92-98.

13  Kevin J. Youngblood, Jonah (Zondervan Academic, 2019 [2013]), 76.

14  Thomas M. Bolin, Freedom Beyond Forgiveness: A Re-examination of the Book of Jonah (Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 79; JoAnna M. Hoyt, Amos, Jonah, & Micah (Lexham Academic, 2019), 429.

15  Raymond F. Person Jr., In Conversation with Jonah: Conversation Analysis, Literary Criticism, and the Book of Jonah (Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 38; JoAnna M. Hoyt, Amos, Jonah, & Micah (Lexham Academic, 2019), 434.

16  Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Commentary on Jonah 1:5 (fifth century), translated in Jeanne M. Heisler, Gnat or Apostolic Bee? A Translation and Commentary on Theodoret's Commentary on Jonah, PhD dissertation (Florida State University, 2006), 50.

17  JoAnna M. Hoyt, Amos, Jonah, & Micah (Lexham Academic, 2019), 431-432.

18  Kevin J. Youngblood, Jonah (Zondervan Academic, 2019 [2013]), 77.

19  Thomas M. Bolin, Freedom Beyond Forgiveness: The Book of Jonah Re-examined (Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 81.

20  Craig A. Evans, Matthew (Cambridge University Press, 2012), 195; Kevin J. Youngblood, Jonah (Zondervan Academic, 2019 [2013]), 93.

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