All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep.
The Alaska commercial fishermen I know have a high threshold for fear. They regularly face life-threatening conditions on board their fishing boats and learn basics of survival in harsh conditions. Though the “reality television” show Deadliest Catch highlights some of these conditions, I prefer the Fisher Poet’s Gathering, held every year in Astoria, Oregon in late February, featuring hundreds of commercial fishermen telling stories and reading poems about their work (for more information, see www.fisherpoets.org). Founded by Jon Broderick in 1998, this event showcases the commercial fishing industry through poetry, song and storytelling, inviting all us land-lubbers to smell the salt air, feel the swelling of deep, and experience a little taste of the life out upon the sea.
So, when the Book of Jonah tells us “all the sailors were afraid”, the conditions had turned dramatically foul. These were men who spent their lives upon the sea. On their knees in terror, they call out to their own tribal gods for mercy in the face of death. In the midst of chaos, these working men had the clarity of mind to try to lighten the ship by throwing their cargo overboard. Cargo literally means anything non-human, not fastened to the ship, including the goods that would have been sold at port in Tarshish. Profits overboard, save our ship!
I love the dual nature of salvation in this verse: call on God and lighten the ship. Take care of both heaven and earth. Like the Arabian proverb, “trust God but tie up your camel”, this verse has the savvy to tell us we need both spiritual and physical rescue. Our lives are in danger on two levels at once. Both our inner and outer lives cry out for help. Any rescue work, any salvation, any service project needs to keep these both in mind: body and soul.
In our story, the sailors “each cry out to their own god”, telling us that these sailors hail from various ports and primitive religions from around the Mediterranean Sea. Most ancient religions were polytheistic, believing in the existence of many gods, each of which required specific gifts or offerings to appease them, or face their fury. So these sailors, fearing for their lives, are seeking any gift or offering or prayer to quiet the wrath of one of their gods.
While this flurry of lifesaving activity is going on above board, below board, we find a strange sight: a man asleep. As we’ve already heard in the opening verses of this tale, Jonah keeps going down, down, down. In our verse, he goes down below deck, likely to get out of the way. There he is over in the dark corner, crashed out among the cargo. Then he goes further down, falling into a deep sleep. We use the verb “to fall asleep” without thinking much about this. Most nights, we lay down to sleep rather than fall down. But Jonah fell. Down, down and further into the depths, in his attempt to “flee from the LORD”.
There is a strange spiritual condition which brings on a state of lethargy. Boredom, acedia, ennui, torpor of the soul, spiritual depression: this condition goes by many names but presents the same symptoms. Dullness of spirit, inactivity, restlessness, escape from reality, and plunging into the depths. Jonah free falls into darkness, away from the call of God, away from society, away from the crew trying to save the ship, and away from the light of hope or help. As the ship around him, “threatens to break up”, creaking and groaning under the stresses of the terrible storm, rescue, help and hope are the last things on Jonah’s mind.