Storm Shelter

I am spoiled. When I contemplate boating, I picture vacationing with my family among the magnificent islands of the Pacific Northwest. But except for a blessed few people and times, boarding a ship has not meant leisure, but instead was a risky way for crossing oceans.

Traveling by ship was dangerous and frightening in the days before exotic cruising. Ships served as the precarious means of transportation to start a new life, for trade or as a means of livelihood like the potentially deadly 19th century whaling ships and, indeed, today’s commercial fishing boats.

The book of Jonah opens with a different type of boating:

And Jonah arose to flee… from before God…
and he found a ship going to Tarshish…
(Jonah 1:3)

And God sent a big wind over the ocean and there was a great storm
upon the ocean and the ship appeared likely to shatter.
(Jonah 1:4)

And the sailors were terrified … and they threw all the articles
on the ship into the ocean to make it lighter
and Jonah went down
to the bilges of the ship, lay down and fell asleep.
(Jonah 1:5)

The word ship appears four times in these three consecutive verses. Only by looking at the Hebrew text can you see that the word in the first three instances differs from the fourth. The first three use the the Hebrew word ONiYaH. The final instance of ship uses the word SeFiNaH.

א נ י – ה                       ם פ י נ ה    

ship: SeFiNaH                  ship: ONiYaH

How can Scripture suggest that the ship Jonah slept in is different from the ship described earlier? One clue is that this is the only place in Scripture where a sailing vessel is called a SeFiNaH.

Take a look at two more Biblical vessels. In the days leading up to the great flood, God instructed Noah to make an ark:

Make yourself an ark of gopher wood…
(Genesis 6:14)

Later, Moses’ mother floats her son down the Nile:

And when she could hide him no longer
she took for him an ark of bulrushes…
(Exodus 2:3)

Although English translations sometimes call Moses’ craft a basket, the Hebrew labels both a TeiVaH.

ת ב ה

Ark:  TeiVaH

The different words for floating conveyance reflect different purposes. Neither Noah nor Moses had a destination. Their arks were not designed to be sailed or even controlled. Their boats were merely refuges from peril.

The ship Jonah boards is a commercial one. Her crew chooses to face constant struggle. There might be too much wind or too little. There are shoals and reefs to avoid. The challenging trip is undertaken in order to accomplish a goal.

When Jonah goes to sleep at the end of verse 5, he is using the ship for a uniquely different purpose. He is avoiding reality. The ship is a hiding place for him, not a means to a destination. It isn’t even a refuge; he is indifferent to its fate as well as his own.

We get an added clue to the function of a SeFiNaH from the Hebrew word itself. One magic of Hebrew is that certain letters share a relationship. When you exchange one of these letters for the other, the two words that result share a connection. Among these related letters is the first letter of the root word for Jonah’s boat when he goes to sleep and the first letter of the word for “hidden”. (Remember that Hebrew reads from right to left)

  צפן      ספן

        Boat      Hidden

On extremely rare occasions one needs to board an ark. Buffeted by external forces, be they physical, social or economic, there is no further action one can take to influence one’s life. At that point finding refuge, as in a TeiVaH and surrendering all to God’s mercy is the only option.

But most of the time, one wants an ONiYaH, a purposefully sailed ship whose course need to be constantly adjusted and controlled. The ship to avoid at all costs is Jonah’s SeFiNaH, the equivalent of burrowing under the blankets and giving up.

In ancient Jewish wisdom, a sailing ship sometimes serves as a metaphor for a self-contained existence. When you leave the dock you must carry everything you need with you. Acquiring anything additional is uncertain; it depends on weather and wind, both of which are out of your control. Preparation is a prerequisite for a successful passage. Part of the preparation is making sure you board the correct ship.

17 thoughts on “Storm Shelter”

  1. After reading the highlights of your article to my wife, she concluded that Jonah suffered from depression. That never occurred to me, but it seems a reasonable observation.
    Any comments?

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Henry–
      Thank you for taking the time to write. “Any comments?” you write. Well, yes, and thanks for inviting them. It grieves me to have to disappoint your wife by being forced to contradict her, but duty calls. The Bible has not been retained for over two millennia as a loose record of aspects of ancient life. It’s not like digging up scraps of an ancient newspaper. If I read an account of how a particular Confederate soldier lived and died during the War Between the States, I would probably superimpose my own perspective. For instance, were I a psychologist, I would probably deduce that he suffered from various stress disorders that accounted for his behavior. Or if I was a theologian, I might explain how his moral ambivalence led him to do certain things. Were I a toxicologist I might conclude that he suffered from lead poisoning which led him to do certain things. If I was an economist, I would insist that the reason he did certain things were in response to the economic circumstances of southern soldiers during the Civil War. You get the point. But Scripture is not there for us to explain it. It’s there to explain things to us. To dismiss Jonah with a thoroughly modern malady of dubious diagnosis is to obliterate all possibility of learning something important about ourselves. While I approached Michelangelo’s statue of Moses in Rome recently, I reminded myself that it wasn’t on trial. I was. If I failed to spot its greatness, it was an indictment of me. Similarly, we gain far more by studying Scripture by measuring ourselves against its ancient values rather than by trying to measure it by our modern values. So, to summarize, with all respect to your wife, and to your judging her view reasonable, you are both wrong. If you’ll pardon my being direct. I don’t think I am much good to you if I hum and haw over something quite simple. You are far from the only or even the first to try and wipe out Biblical meaning by ascribing modern world views. There were the mindless morons who wrote papers on the homosexual relationship between David and Jonathan. There was the author who decided that Goliath’s defeat at the hands of David was due to his degenerative disease. All this would be interesting were the Biblical accounts meant to be historic and scientific glimpses into the past. But they’re not. They’re meant to teach us how the word REALLY works. They’re not meant to allow us to comment about God. They are to teach us what God thinks of us. Anyway, enough said. My warmest regards to both you and your wife and I hope that in assuming that you can take the truth unadulterated and direct, I didn’t misjudge you.

      1. Rabbi Lapin’s response, I find particularly profound and I feel somewhat foolish that I had not understood his point decades ago: that God has specific intent to teach us something specific with each part of the scriptures. Now when I read the scriptures and ask myself, “What is God trying to teach me?”, I expect what I get from my scripture reading will change quite a bit for the better. Thank you Rabbi Lapin.

        1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

          You’re so welcome, David,
          It is so gratifying for me to know I have helped you a little.

      2. Rabbi Lapin, I so much enjoy your Thought Tools and the comment section. There are several quotes within your reply that really stood out, so I printed it out and highlighted them. “Scripture is not there for us to explain it. It’s there to explain things to us.” – – “We gain far more by studying Scripture by measuring ourselves against its ancient values rather than by trying to measure it by our modern values.”

  2. Similar to Lisa, I’m looking into this (spending hours) trying to also correlate when Jesus got into the ship with the disciples “to cross to the other side”. But a great tempest arose and tossed the ship so that it filled with water. And Jesus was in the hinder part of the ship asleep on a pillow. And they woke him up to ask him if he cared that they perished. Jesus awoke and rebuked the wind and asked them why were they so fearful, where is their faith. There seem to be similarities in the Jonah account to this one. Could ship also be looked at as a state of mind?

  3. Whoa! I need to chew on this for a while to truly digest it. Thanks again Rabbi for this nourishing article for my spirit, soul and mind.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      You’re welcome Lisa–
      A ship trip is always illustrative of our own journeys through life so there’s much to digest.

  4. Rabbi, I laughed when I read, “Part of the preparation is making sure you board the correct ship.” When my friends and I are kidding each other about our different religions, (as you know I am Catholic), I tell them the true story from my 1970’s days in Springfield, Illinois where I worked for an Investment group in a bank and we managed the very large Illinois Teachers’ Retirement System portfolio. The Investment business was small in the number of large institutions in those days, so we had brokers and analysts coming out from New York constantly to visit us. On one trip, the broker flew into St. Louis and the main commuter airline from Lambert Field in those days was Ozark, which flew to all the smaller surrounding airports. He got off his plane and on the plane to Springfield, but ended up in Springfield, Missouri instead of Illinois. As I tell my friends, being non-Catholic is like getting on the plane to Springfield, Illinois but ending up in Springfield, Missouri, you picked the wrong plane!

    Best Wishes to you and Susan, my friend!

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      What a great analogy, Don,
      And good for you about being completely unapologetic about your faith. So many, particularly those who have achieved stratospheric heights of achievement and prominence as you have, can be almost diffident about their beliefs and their faith family. You are refreshing.

  5. As always, I have learned something new and thought provoking. Thank you for sharing your understanding and wisdom.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Not ours, Jen,
      we are merely the transmitters of the underlying ancient Jewish wisdom!

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