[I gave an optional assignment last week in the Communion with God class to take a story from the Bible and re-write it. It’s an awesome exercise that will help to draw out details from the actual events. You’ll have to figure out what was really going on, why it happened the way the Bible reports it, what people were thinking and feeling… I highly recommend it as a way to interact with the Bible! Just don’t go around thinking you might as well write your own, more interesting version of the Bible and throw out that boring one you bought in the book store.]
Within minutes, the pale blue sky had disappeared entirely, replaced by a rolling mass of thick black and gray storm clouds. The sun, once shining boldly, struggled now to reach even her fingers around the enveloping clouds. Beneath the lead casket, the small ship appeared helpless on the blue-green back of a heaving, waking sea monster. The sea was a giant stirring.
Aboard, every man took notice of the quick change in temperament, from the ancient Philistine captain borne in the womb of the sea to the newly-wed Egyptian couple on their first venture from solid land, and what a venture it will prove to be.
A cold wind brought with it the scent of rain, heavy and hell-bent.
“By Dagon, get ready, men!” the captain shouted and clenched his jaw tightly shut, his eyes challenging the sea and the wind and the rain.
A strike of lightning split the sky, and a blast of thunder shook the timbers of the small ship, the trumpet blast of some great sea god declaring war, announcing the coming of the rain. The wind blew hard and stiff, and the ropes creaked, screaming under the pressure. The sailors scrambled about the bridge, from starboard to port, loosening this, tightening that, attempting to anticipate the moves of the storm, most capricious of enemies; while, below decks the remaining sailors urged the vessel forward with herculean effort at the oars. But for all their pushing and pulling, striving and straining, their most trusted ally had now by all appearances joined herself to the wind and the rain and, as a traitor, refused to obey their orders.
Another crack of lightning ripped the sky in two, and from the gaping hole the rain began to pour.
For himself, the moment he had first seen the threatening storm clouds, Jonah had hidden himself deep in the hold of the ship. He was now lying down amidst the baggage and fearful passengers, eyes closed, desperately trying to ignore the turmoil about him. Asleep? Far from it! He had had no real sleep for days.
The boat gave a great shudder, and Jonah opened his eyes, startled, and felt that familiar sense of dread beginning in his toes and settling deep in the pit of his stomach. The ship began to tilt dangerously to the side as salty water poured in by buckets. Here in the hold, the illusion of relative safety was instantly shattered with this invasion, and passengers frantically reached for loved ones and began to mumble ill-formed prayers to unknown gods, begging mercy from those whom they had never loved before.
There will be no escape this time, the thought came to him. He pushed it away angrily but couldn’t deny its truth.
“Get up, get up! Every one of you!” the captain shouted as he came into the hold. “We’ve got to lighten the ship. Throw everything overboard! Ashtaroth, Queen of Heaven, remember us!”
The passengers scrambled about to obey the captain’s orders, shedding no tears over prized possessions that would be fed to assuage the monster’s wrath. When men are put to the test, without debate all choose survival and do not think twice until the danger is past.
“Tiamat have mercy!” shouted a wealthy Sumerian merchant on his way to Greece. Jonah watched him struggle up the ladder with a chest heavy with treasures from the near east, ready to trade them all for his life.
For his part, Jonah retreated further from the men and women desperate to save themselves. He had left in a hurry and so had brought no possessions other than the clothes he wore. And besides, the nagging in his mind would not let him forget: There will be no escape this time. The storm had come, he knew, for him.
He closed his eyes and curled into a fetal position, desperately trying to block out the deep and growing sense of dread in his belly.
“Eh? What’s this?” the captain’s voice was accented by a sharp kick to Jonah’s ribs. “Asleep? Get up, Jew, and do something before we all drown. Call on your god. Maybe he can save us from this hell.”
The captain rushed away to bark his orders with the vigor of a man who desperately hopes to somehow save his own life by his words. All about, men and women scrambled to and fro, but their efforts could do nothing to slow their steady defeat before the raging hunger of the sea. Their frightened eyes revealed plainly that not one was ignorant of this fact.
“I tell you, this is no natural storm,” a sailor shouted to his companions at the oars. “I’ve never seen such a thing in all my days on the sea.”
“It’s come for someone,” shouted another. “Some murderer is among us, and the gods will bring us all to Hades on his account.”
The ship suddenly changed direction, tossed by the wind, and sent everyone falling about. A loud creaking turned all their attention to the thin wooden walls separating them from the watery beast. How long would the walls of this sanctuary—this cage—hold?
“Turn yourself in,” a Babylonian passenger on a trip to visit his grandchildren stood shakily to his feet. “For the sake of us all, turn yourself in!” His eyes went fearfully about the small hold, looking from face to face in the desperate wish of finding an answer.
When the man looked at him, Jonah swallowed nervously. But the man’s eyes continued about the room.
“We’ll cast lots,” suggested another. “Whomever it falls on, he’s at fault.”
Jonah’s heart was beating rapidly, but he felt a strange sense of calm as the men prepared the lots. He knew this would be his grave, he knew it the minute the blackness had covered the sun, and somehow he felt better knowing he would die now at least without secrets.
Like most men, though, he lacked the courage to reveal himself and was, at heart, a coward. He desperately hoped the lots would spare him and implicate some other unfortunate soul.
“We test everyone,” the captain, holding the lots, said with finality. “Men, women, even the children.”
“I am no murderer,” shouted the newly-married Egyptian woman. She stood up angrily and pointed her finger towards the captain. “I am not going to risk my life with lots.”
“Everyone is tested,” the captain said in a tone that let all know he could not be persuaded otherwise, “beginning with myself.”
The captain held the lots in his hand and, saying a quick prayer, let them fall to the tilting floor of the ship. The others craned their necks to read the verdict: innocent.
“Next,” the captain said without a hint of emotion in his voice.
One by one, passengers and sailors were tested, and one by one they all passed. When the captain came to Jonah, he held his breath, knowing full well what the outcome should be but desperately hoping for another. The Philistine held the lots in his hand, Jonah out of habit breathed a quiet prayer, the captain slowly opened his fingers, and the lots fell to the floorboards. When they came to a stop, those nearest simply gasped and slowly edged away from him; the others needed no help to interpret the meaning: guilty.
Jonah lowered his eyes. There will be no escape this time.
“Who are you? What have you done?” the captain asked. “Tell us why this storm has been sent to us.”
“I…” Jonah began, then fumbled for words.
“Murderer!” a woman shouted.
“Let’s kill him before we all die!” another passenger shouted.
“I am no murderer,” Jonah’s strong voice rose above the clamor, and the other voices settled down. The only sound was the incessant bellowing of the storm and the creaking of the tiny ship caught in its maw.
“I am no murderer,” he said again, “but I am at fault. I am a Jew, and I worship Yahweh, the God of all the gods who made the dry land… and who made the sea.”
“Tell us what you have done to bring this storm upon us,” the captain said with a voice sounding surprisingly tender to Jonah’s ears.
“I…” Jonah began. “I am trying to escape him. He commanded me to go to Nineveh, but I refused and purchased my place aboard this ship instead. I had hoped to escape him…”
“We should kill him now to appease his god,” the Sumerian said, “lest we all die together.”
“And have his blood on our heads?” the captain asked. “The man is no murderer; we cannot kill him. We will only make his god angry with us as well. Tell us, Jew, what must we do?”
There will be no escape this time. The thought came to him again.
“There’s nothing you can do. Sacrifices don’t please him, gifts don’t please him. Only surrender, the one thing I refused to give him. Even my death… that will only make things worse. He doesn’t want my death, he wants me.”
“Then let’s give you to him,” the Egyptian woman said spitefully.
Jonah stared at her a moment. A strange sense of calm came over him. There will be no escape this time. No, not for him, but perhaps for the others…
“Maybe… Maybe you can save yourselves. If you throw me into the sea for Yahweh to do with me as he desires, maybe then he’ll show you mercy and draw back the storm.”
A number of the passengers rose to their feet in agreement.
“Sit down!” the captain barked. “It’s the same as murder. No one could survive in these seas. We will not send him to his death. No, we will make men of ourselves, and we will row with all our might until we reach the land near Nineveh.” He looked directly into Jonah’s eyes, anger and steely determination evident, “And then we will hand this doomed man over to the mercy of his god.”
Gaining strength from their captain’s resolve, the sailors returned to their work with renewed determination, attempting in the mouth of the beast to turn their ship towards Nineveh and so with any luck earn the mercy of Yahweh. But the wind and the waves were in turmoil and beat terribly against the vessel, fighting it at every move, and the poor souls remained as helpless as ever.
The great dark green beast played with the ship caught within its grasp. Mountains of salty seawater, snowy white with the froth of rain, were the sea dragon’s almighty arms, the blasting wind was its powerful breath, the lightning the flash of claws and teeth bright and shining as polished armor, the thunder the proud and boisterous roar before the hunter catches its prey.
Beneath the dark and fearsome blanket of clouds, the little vessel was tossed about effortlessly, and the men could do nothing despite their greatest efforts. They could not turn the ship towards Nineveh no matter how hard they struggled. In fact, the men had no control whatsoever over the direction of the boat; it was caught fully within the grip of the tempest, the great raging dragon. The best of their strength merely served to correct the tumultuous journey and preserve their lives a bit longer.
Jonah sat below decks mulling over his fate. He had resolved in his heart that he would not survive the day, but the idea of drawing the rest of the passengers and the sailors into his trouble did not sit well with him. He was the run running from Yahweh, not they; why should they pay?
At that moment, a sudden change in the direction of the wind caught the men unawares, and the ship lilted dangerously on its side. In the hold, men and women alike grabbed onto whatever they could find, holding with grips of iron and crying out for mercy from whatever gods they worshiped, as the plane became nearly perpendicular. A great and horrid sound began to rise up from the depths of the wooden ship, a roaring, snapping, cracking sound that shook the vessel all along its length as though the ship itself shuddered in fear of its impending fate.
Jonah could hear screaming and shouting from the sailors desperately trying to save their last hold on life.
With a great and drunken heave, the ship righted itself. Everywhere, words of gratitude and sighs of relief rose up to the multitude of gods, but not one passenger aboard believed their fate had changed.
“Bring me the Jew!” the captain’s gravelly voice broke through the chaos, and Jonah knew what was to come. He swallowed slowly and with difficulty.
He didn’t resist when the sailors grabbed hold of him, but neither did he have the strength to walk with them. He was not a courageous man, and the thought of his fate, so close upon him now, brought him only dread.
They dragged him above, into the living hell where ground and sky made no sense and the only sound was the deafening roar of the dragon.
“Yahweh, we plead with you. Do not kill us because of this man’s sin. Why should we perish for his crime?” the captain spoke to the thunder. “Do not hold us guilty now for his death!”
Before Jonah even had time to take a breath or to prepare himself, the men lifted him up and tossed him into the raging sea.
In an instant, the wind stilled, the rain stopped, the seas calmed, and the clouds dispersed.
Below the surface, Jonah flailed his arms about in desperation, but for all his activity, he was quickly sinking for he had never learned to swim.
Suddenly, a great shadow overtook him, and fear leaped up to meet Jonah. His precious life escaped through his lips, in betrayal his lungs drank in great draughts of seawater, and all went black.
But Jonah was not dead, for God had appointed a great whale to swallow him.