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The relationship chapter 1 to the rest of the book is discussed at Jonah. Chapter 1 can be outlined as follows:
- A1. Jonah cannot escape the Lord's justice and suffers symbolic death (1)
- • Jonah disobeys the command to preach to Ninevah and instead flees toward Tarshish (1:1-3)
- • the Lord sends a mighty storm, the mariners are afraid, and each calls upon his own god, but Jonah is asleep (1:4-6)
- • lots are cast, the lot falls upon Jonah, Jonah explains that he fears the Lord God of heaven, and the mariners are exceedingly afraid (1:7-10)
- • the mariners cannot reach shore, they cast Jonah overboard, the storm ceases, and the mariners fear the Lord exceedingly (1:11-16)
Jonah runs as far away as possible. He goes to Joppa, a major port, and sails for Tarshish, probably a port in Spain, at the other end of the Mediterranean world.
In ancient writing large bodies of water often represent chaos, evil and death. Upon being cast into the sea, Jonah is symbolically overcome by the evil and/or death of which he alone had been unaware while sleeping. Another lesson is that one sufficiently bad apple can forfeit God’s help for an entire group trying to survive the chaos and evil of this world. But the main point of this episode is that disobeying God leads inevitably to death, be it physical or spiritual. There is no escape from this justice.
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 Verse 1:1
The who/when/where of Jonah. "Jonah, the son of Amittai" is mentioned in 2 Kgs 14:25. There, the prophet is mentioned only in passing as a prophet who spoke the word of the Lord concerning the restoration of one of Israel's borders, a prophecy which was fulfilled by Jeroboam II. The verse is ambiguous as to whether this Jonah prophesied of the event during that time (i.e., during the reign of Jeroboam II) or some time beforehand. Regardless, it is clear that, if the same Jonah, the son of Amittai, is in question, very little is known concerning him. An explanation of all of this that is often proffered by biblical scholars is that, while there certainly was a "Jonah, the son of Amittai," the book of Jonah is not a historical book about him. In other words, scholars tend to admit that 2 Kgs 14:25 implies the historical existence of a person named Jonah, the son of Amittai, but they generally agree that the Book of Jonah was written as a sort of work of sacred fiction about that otherwise unknown figure. It should be recognized that such a position need not be, for the Latter-day Saint, considered apostate or unfaithful. The obvious difference between the narrative book of Jonah and the more direct prophetic words of the other minor prophets perhaps suggests some such model to be valid. At any rate, if the work is one of "sacred fiction," it should be understood that even "sacred fiction" is not to be read as fiction, but as true. Narrative is meant to be taken as narrative, and the implications of the narrative as historical are to be taken as very real. Any commentary must proceed as if the text were true, regardless of the question of the historicity of the text, precisely because the narrative presents itself as historical.
Comparison of opening to other minor prophet books. The phrasing of this first verse, interestingly, opens the book almost in the manner of the other minor prophets. In other words, if one had only the first two verses of this book, one would assume that the whole of it would be just like Habakkuk or Nahum, in the sense that it would be a collection of prophetic sayings rather than a narrative. The arrival of the "word of the LORD" happens just as--and in the same words as--other prophetic books. This alignment of Jonah with other prophets is vital: the "word" is as significant, then, as it is in other prophetic works. The "word" (Hebrew: dbr) is the mystery, the secret, the Word, etc. Jonah is surprised suddenly by the visitation of the Word, and he is placed in a situation of radical decision.
The word vs. saying. Perhaps a word might be said on the transition between the Hebrew words dbr and `mr ("word" and "saying") here. The former (translated "word") is roughly equivalent to the English word "speak," whereas the latter is roughly equivalent to the English word "say," and it must be admitted that these two words are miles apart. The "word" (the "spoken") carries a sort of artistic sense to it, and certainly the hint of prophetic, even ritual, activity (the Holy of Holies is often called the dbyr, which has been understood both as the "farthest thing back"--dbr may mean "to delay"--and as the "place of speaking," the "oracle"). The spoken word is the word that draws on the wealth of language, that does not aim at communicating a particular message so much as it attempts to draw on language as a medium or even a mediation in which to present (read: make present) a particular thought. In other words, to speak is more primarily a question of trying to think or explore than to communicate, and language simply becomes the substance in which it appears--and that substance brings with it all of the implications of its nature. To say, however, is simply to communicate, to get a message out, to use language (overthrowing its richness for other purposes) to accomplish a task. In speaking, language becomes a way (a pathway) of thinking something (almost a place one inhabits), whereas in saying, language becomes merely a tool, a rather frustrating means of communication. In the former, one tries very much to be aware of the thickness of langauge itself, whereas in the latter, one tries very much to ignore the nature of language.
All of these comments open up a difficulty that runs through the Book of Jonah. The book begins with the "word" of the Lord coming to Jonah, but then we are told in verse 2 what it is that the word says. There is an explicit warning bound up in that transfer from "word" to "saying": the word, in all its richness, is about to be reduced to a mere message, to be ripped out of its context so that it merely communicates a basic command. Narratives are perhaps where this reduction happens most drastically (though this phrase is not uncommon in the prophetic oracles as well): the word, in all its richness, is too complex--and really, beside the point--for the purposes of the narrative. The word must be, as it were, translated for the narrative, reworked so that it is far simpler and more accessible. There is a sort of warning, then, about what will be read in verse 2: Jonah did not simply receive a blatant command to prophesy to Ninevah; the experience was far richer, and far more complex than just that.
 Verse 1:2
"Arise" opens a veritable theme that runs through the Book of Jonah, but most especially plays a vital role in this first chapter (a theme of "ups and downs"). The word in Hebrew (qwm) is simple enough in its basic physical meaning, but the many and varied contexts in which the word is employed in the Old Testament suggest that in cases such as the present one--where "Arise" is not contextualized semantically so much as it is contextualized existentially--it should be interpreted with great care.
The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament mentions a number of different meanings of qwm. The word can have reference to "preparatory activity," usually activity in preparation for a journey: "Arise, go...." The frequency of this meaning, paired with the phrasing of the present verse, suggests that this is what is meant here: Jonah is commanded to prepare and to go. However, because of the "ups and downs" theme that pervades the whole of the first chapter especially, there is the hint that the word is meant to be ambiguous or even multivalent: certainly, the word indicates that Jonah is to prepare his journey and then to take it, but it would be too rash to conclude that this is all that is meant here. Other meanings, in short, must be considered. An important nuance that occurs in many of the verb's instances is an implied act of respect in arising, and qwm is even used at times to describe prophetic respect of God, not to mention the worship of those gathered at the tent of the Lord. This meaning might well be added to the first mentioned above: "Arise" might well mean at once for Jonah to prepare for his journey, but also that he is commanded to defer to the Lord in respect as a prophet. Where these two meanings cross, a powerful irony is marked: since Jonah "rose up to flee" in verse 3, he certainly obeys the "Arise" command as far as it can be interpreted to be an injunction to prepare for a journey, but precisely because he "rose up to flee," he flouts the "Arise" command as far as it can be interpreted as an injunction to respect the oracle of God.
Perhaps another meaning of qwm is still more important than these in the present verse. The word can mean "to establish" or "to erect" and even "to appoint" or "to install in an office." The arrival or appointment of a prophet is, in Deut 34:10 for example, described as an arising. That this meaning bears on this verse is clear: the prophet is established as a prophet, is appointed his task, is installed in his office. In close connection with this meaning, qwm can mean to consecrate or to set apart for holy purposes: the prophet, established in his office, is consecrated by the call--the Word--of the Lord. This setting apart, this separation of sorts, is of vital significance for the overarching theme of the Book of Jonah, namely, the broad exploration of the prophet's (not Jonah's, but the prophet's, any prophet's) significance. In this arising that functions as an establishment, the prophet assumes an ecstatic position, rises up to stand out from the remainder of Israel. In other words, the prophet becomes in his/her own right, other, something not quite heavenly (other to God) and something not quite earthly (other to men). The prophet, rising up, comes to face God (the "Most High": the prophet, as the risen one, becomes qwmh, "high" or of "height") and to face men (the prophet also becomes qym, man's "adversary"). This no-man's land between God and the people is the place (the mqwm) of the prophet, the place of a genuine--even a radical--subjectivity: called by the Word, Jonah--and every prophet with him--becomes a prophetic self, an authentic self who receives the world of open possibilities (even the possibility of fleeing the call). This selfhood, it must be noticed, stands in contrast to the lack of individual selfhood and the presence of communal selfhood that seem to have prevailed in Israel: the nation as a whole was, as it were, a self, though individuals--especially under the monarchy, as Mosiah 29:38 suggests--were not authentic selves. Jonah's being drawn out of Israel allows him to face Israel as a whole (authentic prophet face to face with authentic Israel), even as it makes him parallel to Israel, even representative of Israel (authentic as the whole of Israel is authentic, he can represent Israel before God). In short, the commandment to "Arise" seems to imply the radical subjectivity--authenticity, selfhood--Jonah assumes at the call of the Lord.
These questions of national selfhood and the equation/parallelism of Jonah and Israel draw out the significance of yet another meaning of qwm. The word quite often has reference to battle or war, many times as a sort of prediction of victory. There is, if this meaning of qwm is read into the present verse, a powerful irony at work in the text: if Jonah is told to "Arise" in "go[ing] to Nineveh," there is the hint that he is to go up to battle against them, and this only a few decades before the Assyrians--centered in Nineveh--come to battle against Israel. In other words, if one reads the martial flavor of qwm in this verse, Jonah is ironically sent, on behalf of Israel, to do battle against the enemies that will only too soon destroy the Northern Kingdom. This irony completes, perhaps, the rich first word of Jonah's prophetic call: called to prepare himself well for a most ironic battle, he is called into the radical selfhood of the prophet, in which he is summoned to worship and respect. This rather complex first word opens every instance of the theme of "ups and downs" that runs through the first chapter, and it thus interprets them all prospectively. Every subsequent moment of the whole of the narrative of the Book of Jonah must be read through this first commanding word.
It turns out, in fact, that there are two further instances of the "ups and downs" theme in this very verse, one obvious, the other buried in the difficulties of translation. The obvious instance is the last phrase (a phrase meant to ground the preceding consequence): "their wickedness is come up before me." The verb used for "come up" here is of ritual significance: it is the verb used for offering burnt offerings (the key passage is Noah's burnt offering, the pleasant smell of which brought the Lord to make a gracious covenant for him: Gen 8:20-21). That some such allusion is at work here is clear in light of the literal meaning of lpny, here translated "before me": "to my face." The idea seems to be that the wickedness of Nineveh has come up to the very face of the Lord, and so has set the Lord to speaking with Jonah. This coming up of wickedness highlights the other "up" of this verse: the Hebrew word translated "against." The word is cognate with the word translated "come up," and it means literally "upon" ("up-on"), not usually "against." In fact, the word translated "cry" means more literally "to call," even "to summon." A better translation of this phrase, then: "call up-on it [Nineveh]." With this third "up" in the rather short word of the Lord to Jonah, it becomes rather clear that there is much still to work out here.
Perhaps the key to interpretation here is the very fact that Jonah is to "call up-on" the city. He is, apparently, to summon the city as a whole into the presence of the Lord. When the Lord goes on to offer the ground of this commandment to Jonah, He seems to suggest that the summons is a request that the Assyrians claim their wickedness that has come before the face of the Lord. In other words, since only their wickedness has come to His face, He asks that they come as well to own it (or own up to it): the Lord requests an authentic parley with Nineveh, requests to speak with Nineveh its-self, rather than with the inauthentic shadow of Nineveh that is "their wickedness." This request seems to explain the two "ups" in the latter part of this verse, then. Jonah is to call "up-on" Nineveh so that it will also "Arise," even arise into an authentic selfhood or even a radical subjectivity (as a whole people) before the Lord (Jehovah), rather than just allowing their "wickedness" to come up like a cloud into His nostrils.
Taking a broad look at the grammatical structure of the verse might open some possibilities for making sense of all of the above details together. Jonah is given three parallel commands: "Arise," "go to Nineveh, that great city," and "cry against it"/"call up-on it." Then, this three-fold command is grounded on a single detail, the fact that has induced the Lord to issue the command: "for their wickedness is come up before me." The grammatical structure highlights the weight the Lord puts on the final phrase, forces, in fact, the modern reader to recognize how much weight he/she puts on the first part, the three-fold command. Of vital importance, in other words, is the grounding reason for the call. The importance of that reason in turn highlights the sheer oddity of it: Assyria has something to do with Jehovah! That Nineveh's wickedness has come up before the Lord implies one of two things, and which one adheres to depends on which of two opposing worldviews on has. First, it might imply that the Lord (and here, of course, Jehovah is meant) is the God of all nations, that all nations are to be judged by Him, and so that Assyria's time has come. The worldview that forces one to draw this implication is the one that reads Jehovah as the God of the Gentiles as well as of Israel. Second, it might imply that the Assyrians have involved themselves in some way or another with Jehovah for some reason, even if just by mockery of a god foreign to their own belief system. The worldview that forces one to draw this implication is the one that reads Jehovah as the god of Israel, and not as the God of the Gentiles as well. It seems clear that one is not to make a decision at this point in the narrative between these two positions (since the Book of Jonah vacilates between them purposefully in order to make, in the end, a statement about the question), but rather, both positions are to be kept open so that one can see the conundrum in which Jonah himself is caught.
Summarizing this last point: the grounding reason for the Lord's three-fold call to Jonah is ambiguous, and comes to Jonah ambiguously. There is, in short, a very real tension in the grounding reason for the call, and the subsequent narrative begins to explore the nature of this reason and to explore the implications of a God who calls prophets to preach to the Gentiles. The difficulty opens wonderfully onto Jonah's ironic response: he flees, and so betrays his worldview.
 Verse 1:3
The narrative hints quite strongly at Jonah's worldview with the final phrase of this verse: "from the presence [literally, face] of the LORD." Jonah, that is, believes Jehovah to be the god of Israel, for he believes he can escape Him by simply getting out into the sea, away from the land to which Jehovah is bound. That this is Jonah's worldview is important: Jehovah is about to overthrow it. But before Jehovah can do this, it is vital to recognize in clarity Jonah's own position. This verse explores it at some length, emphasizing it over and over. Some work must be done here first.
The verse begins with the same verb that opened the Lord's commandment to Jonah: qwm (or rather, yqm, "he rises up"). There is a powerful irony in the use of this verb: there is a strong hint that Jonah is about to obey the full commandment of the Lord, since he begins, as the commandment does, by arising. The verb is in the imperfect tense, which would probably be best translated in the present tense of English: it is the language of biblical narrative, and it emphasizes the movement and flow of the story. In other words, this verse begins something more like this: "And Jonah rises up to flee." One almost gets the sense that the narrator is describing a vision or a dramatic presentation of the event. This implicit actuality of the narrative text heightens the irony: drawn into the real action of Jonah's arising, one is shocked when he arises just to flee. In fact, the use of the verb here draws into this irony all of the implications of the verb when it was used in the previous verse: Jonah's rising up here again implies a preparatory work (Jonah takes his time getting ready to flee--and perhaps the author expects a chuckle from the listener/reader at this point), just as it inevitably implies a sort of respect or at least a sort of authentic taking up of the self. This last point is vital: the greatest irony at work here is that Jonah authentically flees, flees in a radically subjective decision that he can only make because he has been called into radical subjectivity by the Lord's word. Jonah's flight itself is a result of the Lord's grace.
Jonah flees specifically from "the presence of the LORD," or, more literally, from "before the LORD," or, more literally still, from "to the face of the LORD" (the word "presence" here in Hebrew is the very same as "before" in the previous verse). If the Lord's complaint in verse 2 amounts to an accusation of the Assyrians who have only allowed their wickedness to come to His face, here Jonah ironically does the same, getting away from the face of the LORD so that perhaps all that is left "before the face of the LORD" is his wickedness/disobedience. This same point is emphasized in the verse, as the same phrasing is used at the end, when he goes "with them [those in the ship] unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD." This double emphasis is of some importance: the reader is to focus on Jonah's retreat and what it means. If the retreat is authentic, as suggested above, then Jonah's attempt to escape the Lord's face is curious: he seems to be attempting to cancel his authenticity. Or again, he is rather trying to absolutize it, attempting to ignore the face that relativizes him even as it authenticates him: Jonah flees the face of the Lord precisely to totalize his own selfhood. That he tries to escape the face by traversing boundaries highlights this point: he does not believe that Jehovah can cross such boundaries, though Jonah apparently can; the implication is that the prophet's selfhood is universal while the god is bound to a particular geography. Jonah flees to Tarshish in a sort of attempt to capture a real solipsism that cancels the relativity implicit in his interlocuted subjectivity. Though this point is rather difficult, it does seem clear: Jonah is attempting to cancel the ties he has to the Lord, and can only do so on the ground of the Lord's ties to him.
Tarshish was, of course, at the very edge the then-known world, and in the direction exactly opposite of Nineveh. To get underway, he has to go "down to Joppa," and the theme of "ups and downs" returns. Having arisen in response to the word, he now cancels it by going down. From Joppa he will descend further into the sea. This descent, following the ascent implied by the first word of the verse, confirms the irony in the paragraph immediately above: the descent is an attempt to hang on the ascent, but of course it only cancels it. If Jonah arises, he only arises to go down, and his arising itself is canceled and he ends up not in authenticity, but in a sort of inauthentic solipsism. At any rate, the "downs" begin to cancel the "ups."
There is a curious detail worth exploring here: Jonah's paying of the fare for the ship is mentioned. In such an abbreviated narrative, this attention to detail is odd, and the matter calls for attention. But perhaps the matter is quite simple: by mentioning the exchange of money, the narrator highlights that Jonah opens a very real exchange with his shipmates, binding himself to them in a closed economy. The ritual and existential significance of the payment of a token should not be missed here: coins and other payment were bound to particular nations, and Jonah binds himself to another national economy. It is in paying the fare of the ship that he crosses the boundary out of Israel in his attempt to claim his own authenticity. Moreover, there is a further irony in his payment of the fare: if he fled from the face of the Lord, it was in an attempt to avoid the Lord's economy, the relativization implicit in the Lord's call to authenticity, but he chooses instead the economy of a group of pagans, ultimately still relativizing himself, and perhaps precisely in this final relativization cancelling the authenticity gained in his initial rising up.
Finally, the significance of the escape to the sea should be mentioned. That Jonah moves onto the sea, rather than, say, crossing the border into Egypt, is of some significance. Jonah moves off the land, which is, according to the Abrahamic covenant, the very bond between the people and Jehovah. The insecurities of the sea are a theme in the Old Testament, and the danger implicit across the boundary of the shore is to be felt even in this move: Jonah feels that only in that place of danger can he be safe from the still more dangerous call of the Lord. Out in the sea, there is no possibility of Jehovah coming after him, since, as the God of the Land, He would never fetch him from the ocean. The sea/land theme is of great importance--and it will become of greater importance in chapter 2.
 Verse 1:4
As soon as Jonah is off the land to which he understands Jehovah to be bound, trouble begins. But even as Jehovah has the power to cross the same boundary Jonah has, He is not, to be precise, shown to leave the land to which is seen as bound: He does not come to Jonah in the sea, but "sent out a great wind," or more literally, "cast a great wind." The Lord is, that is to say, depicted as remaining within the Israelite boundaries, accomplishing His work with Jonah by hurling or casting forth the wind. There is, in short, a very real ambiguity bound up in the text here: is Jehovah bound to the land? Jonah's assumption that He is so is at once overthrown and confirmed: the Lord remains within the land, but has the power apparently to extend His influence into the sea. Jonah's presumption is questioned even as it is grounded.
But then this point is far more complex than at first it appears. There are undoubtedly allusions here to the story of creation, and perhaps to several passages in the prophets. The word translated "wind" here is the Hebrew rwch, usually translated "spirit." The image of the Lord sending a rwch over the waters is familiar from the very beginning of the Bible. In Gen 1:2, the rwch of God broods upon the face of the waters, effectively impregnating them so that the earth emerges from those waters: the land is a result of God's rwch moving about upon the waters. If the present verse seems to picture Jehovah as bound to the land itself, it has to be noted that it at the same time uses language that recalls the time in which Jehovah brought the very land into existence through His relation with the waters! The relativization of the Lord that seems to be at work here is canceled, perhaps, by the allusion. In fact, it may be that the narrator of the story is trying to suggest that Jehovah can make the very sea upon which Jonah travels into land over which He would have power, to which He would be bound. Whatever the narrator had in mind, the allusion is clear, and it is clear that it checks the confirmation of Jonah's presumption.
Moreover, there may be an allusion here to Dan 7:2-3 (it should be noted that many scholars assume Daniel to have been written long after Jonah, but the apparent connection between these two passages might suggest otherwise). In that passage, Daniel witnesses the four winds of heaven striving on the sea, through which striving several beasts rise out of the waters. Again, there is the hint of the work of creation, but there is more than just that here: beasts--like the fish about to come--arise to accomplish God's work. Jonah's impending peril fits into the pattern of Jehovah's creative ability, His ability through His "Spirit/wind" to rouse life out of the waters. (The connection with Daniel might further suggest that there are profoundly political ways of reading this book: the beasts in Daniel, as in Revelation, are representations of nations and their gods, and the same might, in the end, be true of the fish in this book. This is a theme that will have to be worked out below.)
The sudden extreme danger of those on the ship is felt profoundly in the narrative (this is exciting story-telling in Hebrew), and the results of this action will be quite important in the next verse. For the moment, however, it might be worth recognizing the parallel between this text and the story of the Nephites crossing the waters toward the Promised Land (1 Nephi 18). The danger is similar, though the situation is different. Since scholars seem generally (and justifiably) to read the Book of Jonah as a post-exilic book, there is some reason to wonder about the apparent connections. The details of these connections would have to be worked out at some length to make any sense of them, but it is clear, at the very least, that they are of some importance.
 Verse 1:5
The reaction of the mariners is important: each calls "unto his god." That the text here uses the Hebrew `lhym (in English, elohim) is key to unraveling the interwoven strands of this book. The word has not appeared to this point in Jonah, but now it suddenly emerges, and the careful usage suggests the author's minute attention to which name is used for God at which point. The role of the two alternate (and often competing) names for God in the OT (Yahweh and Elohim) is vital to understanding the whole of this book. It is curious that the foreigners are the ones who introduce the term to the story, in fact as a reference to their own gods, though Jonah will later summon the name. This first instance of the word characterizes that name from the very start: it is a pagan approach, a distant approach, an approach without understanding or acquaintance. All of this should become clearer as commentary proceeds.
 Points to ponder
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 I have a question
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- Does the fact that the Lord sends the wind (literally "casts" it) onto the sea imply that Jehovah is a land deity? Is this the reason, perhaps, that Jonah flees to the ocean specifically?
- What connection should be read between the situation described in verse 5 and the story of Christ on the ship in the New Testament?
- How does the lightening of the ship play into the up/down theme already begun in the first verses?
- What is the significance of Jonah's sleep here? Does it have anything to do with arising? Does it have anything to do with consciousness, subjectivity?
- Why does the shipmaster name Jonah with the title "sleeper"?
- How should "God" be read in this verse, seeing as it first appears to be rather an indefinite noun, "god," but then seems to be addressed as the "God" who rules over all?
- What is the significance of the fact that the people on the ship bother to discuss with Jonah who he is?
- What is the significance of the fact that the Hebrew word here translated "occupation" contains the word "angel" in it?
- Is the general question concerning Jonah's country another reference to Jehovah as a land deity?
- Why does Jonah identify himself as a Hebrew rather than as an Israelite? Does the meaning of 'br ("to cross over, to translate") have any significance here?
- Why is Jonah, fleeing from the Lord, so quick to boast of his God?
- How can Jonah confess Jehovah to be the God of both sea and land, given his attempt to flee?
- What connection is there between the fear of the men in verse 10 and Jonah's fear in verse 9?
- How does the almost parenthetical explanation at the end of verse 10 change the meaning of this entire passage? Why do the men ask him, for example, what he is doing on the ship if this has already been covered?
- What is the significance of the fact that Jonah here encounters non-Israelites, despite the fact that he fled from just such a mission?
- What is the significance of the fact that those on the ship are facing peril even as those in Ninevah precisely because of Jonah's actions?
- Why do the mariners leave Jonah's destiny in his own hands to such a degree?
- How does this casting (in verse 12) compare with and connect with the other castings throughout the chapter?
- Why do the men try so much to save Jonah's life? Is there are comparison between Jonah's charity and theirs here?
- The men are the first to address Jehovah in verse 14; what is the significance of this?
- The men again fear the Lord in verse 16, even performing sacrifice; how does this relate to Jonah, and especially to his temple prayer in chapter 2?
- Why a great fish?
- What does all of this suggest for the sign of the prophet Jonah mentioned by Christ?
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