Jonah is sleeping inside the ship when God “hurls” the storm at it. The crew cries out to their gods for help. But there is no answer. They then begin to lighten the ship by tossing over their cargo. This is a “cargo” ship. Its purpose was to move cargo from one port to another. But they believed their lives were in danger and were willing to throw it all into the sea to lighten the ship with the hopes it would survive the storm and take them safely to land. The seaman not only threw out all their possessions on the ship but also their expected future profits.  Phillips observes, “The cargo represented long labor and fond hopes of future wealth. But with their lives at risk, the sailors did not hesitate to jettison their possessions to gain only a slightly increased chance of safety. This is no less true for those with great possessions than for those with few. England’s King Richard III cried out in the midst of his defeat in battle: ‘My kingdom for a horse!’ Likewise, any of us would give up any amount of money or possessions to save our lives.”[1] But the gods do not help them. Lightening the load does not help them. When things become hopeless people will often resort to something they have denied all their lives: the One true God! I’ve read many stories of foxhole conversions. They are not true conversions in most cases, but you see that when all the chips are in, people will try anything in hopes of salvation. That’s what the sailors on this ship do. The captain sends for Jonah and finds he’s sound asleep. Jonah 1:6 reports, “So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”

The captain of the ship expected Jonah to pray. Calling out to their little gods did not good, so now, as a last resort, they turn from crying out to their gods, from trying to manage the problem themselves, to seeking the one true God’s help. The only thing they wanted from God, it appears, is that they “not perish.” Boice talks about this kind of conversion in his commentary. He says, “We may imagine a situation in which a soldier is crouching in a foxhole looking down a hill against which an enemy is advancing. Naturally, he is afraid for his life. He begins to pray: ‘O God, if there is a God, don’t let me get killed! I don’t want to die! Save me! If you save me, I will do anything you want! I’ll even … yes, I’ll even become a missionary!’ Suddenly the soldiers turn off in another direction. The battle shifts, and he is saved. Does he remember his conversion? Not at all. He turns to his buddy and says, ‘Boy, we sure had a close call that time. Let’s celebrate when we get our next leave.’”[2]

It’s often been said that there are no atheists in foxholes. One’s academic arrogance, stubborn self-sufficiency, hardened pride of life, and the simple desire to live a life of moral abandonment all seem to slip away when one faces imminent mortality. According to the Wikipedia article, “Author James Marrow said: ‘That maxim, ‘There are no atheists in foxholes,’ is not an argument against atheism — it’s an argument against foxholes.’  In 2015, describing the phrase as a ‘tired, old, untrue cliché’, the Freedom From Religion Foundation erected a monument to ‘Atheists in Foxholes,’ commemorating American atheist, agnostic, freethinking, and skeptical US armed services veterans.”  Of course, Marrow says this from his safe academic position in university settings all over England with his Ph.D. There is no history of ever being in a foxhole himself. Safely housed in the upper class, protected from the horrors of war, and enjoying all the amenities modern civilization offers is not a great testimony to the knowledge of the existence or non-existence of God. But even if the religious outlook of people who find themselves in foxholes of various sorts has become more diverse, the crucible of the personal crisis remains a site of spiritual reckoning. Why would the sailors on Jonah’s ship turn to their gods and ultimately to the messenger of the one true God?

[1] Phillips, Richard D. 2010. Jonah & Micah. Edited by Richard D. Phillips, Philip Graham Ryken, and Iain M. Duguid. Reformed Expository Commentary. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.

[2] Boice, James Montgomery. 2002. The Minor Prophets: An Expositional Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.