Growing up in North Texas, you get used to tornadoes. Every April or May, tornado warnings seem to go off multiple times a week. For eight weeks, it feels like you spend more time in your closet or bathtub than anywhere else in the house.
When my wife and I lived just north of Fort Worth, our fear of these uncontrollable storms was on red alert. Our area wasn’t just at risk of the occasional twister—we lived where many of those tornadoes tended to start. With a one-year-old daughter and a new house, we were often glued to The Weather Channel, sure that our day was going to come.
I’d like to say that we always prayed and trusted the Lord in those moments. Truthfully, we didn’t. We treated tornadoes like embodied deities, almost bowing down to them and begging them not to hit our house. “C’mon, tornado. Stay north of us. Don’t come through here,” we prayed from our closet. We stopped just short of leaving an offering on our doorstep.
Sea Gods and Sailors
The ancient Near Easterners faced a similar temptation. According to popular beliefs in that time, Yam, the god of sea and chaos, was a volatile, uncontrollable being. His opposite: Ba’al, widely considered a friend to sailors. But Ba’al’s powers were strongest near shore, leaving the sailors feeling vulnerable on open waters.
This mythology provides an interesting context for the Book of Jonah. Jonah’s narrative begins after “the Lord hurled a violent wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose on the sea that the ship threatened to break apart” (Jonah 1:4, all verses HCSB). The Hebrew word for “sea:” yam.
Understandably, the sailors were terrified. If they were familiar with the old seafaring folklore, they might have thought the sea god just woke up prematurely from his afternoon nap. But at the very least, they all saw the overwhelming waves threatening their boat. They called out to their gods for help, but to no avail. So they woke up Jonah—who was curiously sleeping through the storm—to see if his god would come to their rescue.
When God Woke Up
A similar story appears in Mark 4, but this time Jesus, not Jonah, is asleep in the boat. Mark says that “a fierce windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking over the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped” (Mark 4:37). Like the men sailing with Jonah, the disciples were afraid. They woke Jesus, terrified: “Don’t you care that we’re going to die?” With the waves crashing around them, Jesus—just like Jonah—was sound asleep.
After the disciples wake him up, Jesus “got up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Silence! Be still!’ The wind ceased, and there was a great calm. Then he said to them, ‘Why are you fearful? Do you still have no faith?’ (Mark 4:39-40). Jesus admonishes the sea, before admonishing them. I imagine the men were so stunned by the whole event that it took a while for his rebuke to set in.
Four different actors—sailors, Jonah, disciples, and Jesus—four different responses to a storm.
The sailors prayed to their god, apparently unaware that he could not help them. No response. Static on the other end of the line.
Jonah knew God was sovereign—but also knew that he was on the boat out of disobedience, avoiding God’s call for him to go to Nineveh. So he jumped overboard rather than facing the God he was running from. He took his chances in the open sea rather than turning his eyes to the heavens.
The disciples knew, at some level, that Jesus had the power to help them. When the waves got high, they ran to him, after all. But despite their instincts, they still found themselves floored when they watched Jesus silence the squall. Though God was right there in the boat with them, they missed it. They ultimately doubted that he could save them.
Meanwhile, Jesus, God in the flesh, sleeps before he’s roused and tells his own creation to obey its Master. Nothing is too big, too chaotic for him.
While we look back on this story in Scripture, the actions of the sailors, Jonah, and the disciples are easy to judge. But if we’re being honest, we still doubt that God is good, and that he has complete control over the storms on the sea and the storms in our hearts.
Searching for Rescue
The sailors on the boat with Jonah and the disciples on the boat with Jesus are no different than us today. They fear the uncontrollable. They are aware of the sheer force of nature around them. Pain and strife and suffering are unavoidable. They seek refuge outside of themselves because they know their own frailty and futility. And like me, they don’t always turn to God, the only one who can give them true rest.
Whether it's a real storm or the situation in life that might as well be, God doesn’t ignore our cries for help. He doesn’t throw himself overboard in desperation—he tells the storm to be quiet. He doesn't cry out for someone else to fix it—he hears our cries and proves himself faithful. He rises up and asks us over and over again, “Do you still have no faith?”
The tornadoes never hit our house. In fact, they never even came close. We thanked God later, but I’d like to think that I would pray a little more the next time the storms come. If we’re like the pagan sailors, we’ll cry out to a god—like the storm itself—who isn’t there and who won’t hear us. If we’re like Jonah, we’ll confess God’s sovereignty without trusting in it. But if we’re like Jesus’s disciples, we’ll cry out to the God of the Universe, and he’ll give us peace.
Brandon D. Smith works with the Holman Christian Standard Bible and teaches theology at various schools. He is also co-author of Rooted: Theology for Growing Christians, and the forthcoming They Spoke of Me: How Jesus Unlocks the Old Testament. Follow him on Twitter: @BrandonSmith85.