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…
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.
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.
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…
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…
Although English translations sometimes call Moses’ craft a basket, the Hebrew labels both a TeiVaH.
ת ב ה
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)
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.