Formations 05.04.2014: President Condemns Deserting Ferry Crew

Jonah 1:1-16

Willem van de Velde the Younger, A Brewing Storm at Sea, 1700

Willem van de Velde the Younger, A Brewing Storm at Sea, 1700

The world continues to grieve with the people of South Korea after the sinking of the Sewol ferry last month. Adding to the grief is the knowledge that the inaction of the captain and crew likely contributed to the tragedy.

Captain Lee Joon-seok and six other crew members were arrested in April on charges of negligence. Lee was also charged with “excessive change of course without slowing down” while crossing a narrow channel.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye compared the actions of Lee and the others to murder. Speaking to aides the week after the accident, she said, “Above all, the conduct of the captain and some crew members is unfathomable from the viewpoint of common sense, and it was like an act of murder that cannot and should not be tolerated.”

Sixty-four people are known to have died in the accident. Another 238 are missing and presumed dead. Most of the victims were high school children.

Desertion of duty is always a serious offense. As last month’s ferry tragedy in South Korea reminds us, it isn’t just members of the military who can be guilty of such a crime. Although the ferry crew was responsible for the safety of their passengers, in a moment of crisis they chose to abandon their posts and save themselves.

Today’s passage also involves a tragedy at sea. In fact, it involves two of them. The first tragedy is Jonah’s act of desertion. Commanded by God to go preach to the city of Nineveh, he instead booked passage on a ship heading in the opposite direction. The fate of that great city, filled with people who lacked the life-giving words he could have given them, seems not to have mattered to this most reluctant of prophets.

The second tragedy is the storm at sea that forced the crew of Jonah’s ship to take desperate measures to save themselves. These sailors, though they were pagan Gentiles, were genuinely reluctant to cast Jonah overboard in hopes of saving themselves. Even after Jonah spelled it out for them, they tried to reach land so that everyone could be saved.

“South Korea’s President Says the Actions of the Crew Who Fled Sinking Ferry Were Tantamount to Murder,” Newsweek, 21 Apr 2014


• Why might Jonah have deserted his calling from God?
• What keeps us from obeying when God calls us to do something we find difficult or distasteful?
• What kept the sailors from immediately throwing Jonah overboard? What gave them their sense of duty to protect their passenger even though he was the cause of the storm?
• The sailors eventually “worshipped the LORD with a profound reverence” (v. 16). What might they have learned about the God of Israel through this incident?

Reference Shelf


The Book of Jonah appears canonically in the midst of the minor prophets, but in every other way it stands apart. While other prophetic books focus on speeches of the named prophets, the Book of Jonah concentrates on the prophet’s actions, and they are not enviable. Jonah’s single prophetic speech is limited to five words in the Hebrew text: “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed!” (3:4).…

The Book of Jonah has been identified as historical narrative, didactic fiction, mythical allegory, and instructive short story. The story’s brevity, tight structure, vivid images, surprise elements, and didactic purpose are most like the features of a parable, while the extreme intolerance of Jonah, which contrasts so sharply with the charitableness of the gentile sailors and the deep contrition of the Ninevites, adds a strong element of satire.

The structure of Jonah falls neatly into two corresponding halves (chaps. 1–2; 3–4). Both sections begin with a chapter in which Jonah is first called to proclaim God’s word in Nineveh. Then he comes into contact with gentiles who are incredibly responsive and immediately turn to worship Yahweh (chaps. 1; 3). The second chapter of each section finds Jonah alone and in dialogue with God (chaps. 2; 4).

Tony W. Cartledge, “Jonah, Book of,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 464–65.


Jonah 1:3 narrates a report of the prophet’s response to YHWH’s commission. This report contains several humorous elements that heighten the sense of futility in Jonah’s flight. Frequently, when God gives a command, Old Testament texts narrate the response to the command in order to remove any doubt about the obedience to that command. Old Testament texts even portray reluctant responses to YHWH’s call, but Jonah’s great pains to escape the call set his response apart from these patterns.

Jonah was told to get up and go to Nineveh, which lay north and east of Israel, 
in modern Iraq, but Jonah got up to flee in 
the opposite direction toward Tarshish,
which lay far across the Mediterranean,
 near modern Spain. Jonah first goes to
 Joppa where he finds a boat and pays its 
price to head toward Tarshish. Joppa was a 
coastal town (modern-day Jaffa, south of Tel-Aviv). With subtle humor, the
 narrator mentions Tarshish three times in
 1:3. The two that speak of Jonah have a directional marker on them (tarsîsâ), meaning “in the direction of Tarshish.” The third instance refers to the ship going to Tarshish. No English translation conveys this variation, but the effect is clear. The narrator distinguishes between the ship going to Tarshish and the prophet who is heading toward Tarshish (but will never get there). Jonah’s flight also involves an exaggeration that again shows the narrator’s humorous style. Jonah did not just buy a ticket; he rented the boat. Literally, the text says, “He paid its price.” The pronominal suffix relates back to the feminine noun ship (’onîyyâ).

Finally, the narrator’s subtle humor appears in Jonah’s reason for flight. According to 1:3, Jonah desires to escape from the presence of YHWH. The inadequacy of this desire can be seen in Jonah’s response to the sailors in 1:9, as well as in other Old Testament texts (cf. Amos 9:2-4). There is no place one can go to escape the presence of YHWH. Later, the reader will learn Jonah’s reason for flight (4:2), but here the narrator simply caricatures Jonah as a prophet who flees rather than accepts YHWH’s commission to take a message of judgment to Nineveh.

James Nogalski, The Book of the Twelve: Hosea–Jonah, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2011) 415–16.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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  1. Lois Harris says

    I enjoy and appreciate the current event and other helps for the lessons.

  2. Darrell Pursiful says

    Thanks, Lois. Blessings to you and your class!