When news broke this summer that Sunni extremists with ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, had blown up the tomb of Jonah after capturing the Iraqi city of Mosul, the shockwaves left a piece of me in the rubble from halfway across the world in Brooklyn.
Not that the trail of massacres, beheadings and forced expulsions by ISIS haven’t made for far more shocking news before and since then, as the gruesome executions of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff recently attest.
I can watch the online video of Jonah’s tomb blown to bits in a cloud of dust; but the beheadings of Foley and Sotloff I cannot.
Yet when I watch the former, I am revolted and I cringe. There it is one second, there it isn’t the next: the alleged resting place of my beloved Jonah.
Our beloved Jonah, inasmuch as he is equally revered in Islam as he is in the Judeo-Christian tradition: the Qur’an includes its own version of the book, “Yunus,”and Muhammad is said to have proclaimed, “One should not say that I am better than Jonah.”
Hence the “tears and anger” in Mosul, as reported by The New York Times, where the Sunni population’s initial embrace of liberation by ISIS from centralized Shiite oppression in Baghdad gave way first to resentment, and then resistance, as the city’s trove of treasured holy sites and rich tradition of interfaith compatibility were destroyed.
I can’t say I shed a tear in Brooklyn, but I did feel sad and angry nonetheless—not just because Jonah figures prominently in my own tradition as the prototype referred to by Jesus apropos his coming death, burial, and resurrection. More pointedly, more personally, the story of Jonah provided my very first encounter with scripture as “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword”according to the New Testament author of the Letter to the Hebrews.
In the context of my wider love affair with the biblical prophets, the cantankerous Jonah was first. This has much to do with the fact that at the time I myself was “in the belly” in my late twenties, swallowed up by a confluence of spiritual, vocational, and romantic despair.
Into this darkness came the story of Jonah for the umpteenth time, but with it this time a stunning illumination, a sense of revelation, that trumps any other I’ve experienced in reading scripture to this day. (If I recall correctly, I was in the belly of an airplane when it hit me, perhaps primed for the epiphany in our modern travel context.)
We know how the story begins, we know how it ends, and we certainly know that any discussion of Jonah typically resorts to questions of credibility about its more fantastical elements. But there was the gem in the middle, a spiritual principle of such profound subtlety that I can’t be sure my life would have taken the same direction had I not noticed it when I did—or, rather, had it not pierced me with that two-edged sword.
Space prohibits me from excerpting the entire psalm that comprises the second chapter in the book, but here are the first two verses inside which the principle had previously been locked:Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God
from the belly of the fish,
saying, “I called to the Lord, out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and thou didst hear my voice.
Notice anything striking? If not, neither did I for quite some time. It’s a familiar enough passage for its nearly exact recurrence in the Psalms; what’s so special about it here? Wait a minute…the construction doesn’t make sense: the grammar doesn’t match the narrative. Why is Jonah giving thanks for answered prayer from the belly of the fish, before his prayer has been answered?
Holy sh—I mean, spirit.
Jonah prayed in the past tense while still inside the belly of the fish; his prayer for deliverance was a prayer of thanksgiving that deliverance had been accomplished before it took place.
Now, I’ve read my fair share of books on prayer over the years, perhaps too many in comparison to the time spent in prayer itself. But I’m pretty sure I’ve never come across a more revelatory principle than this: the fullness of prayer, which is the fullness of faith, is the express conviction that it has already been answered if not yet borne out in experience.
(Lest the impression this made on me imply a case of being most impressed with my exegetical faculties, I take credit for nothing except eyes blind enough to be opened to the text.)
Jesus gets at same principle in Matthew when he states: “Therefore I say to you, anything you pray for and ask, believe that you will receive it, and it will be done to you.”
But there’s a fine difference, in that the grammatical/temporal incongruity in the Jonah narrative seems to take the principle one step further by suggesting a prayer already answered before the answer comes to pass. We are outside of linear time in such a paradigm, which is perhaps exactly where we should be as pray-ers.
I know I should be, as one who finds it far more difficult to practice this principle than preach it as I do here. But had I not taken it to heart in my late twenties, had I not waited for deliverance with the expectancy of Jonah, rather than attempt to eject myself from the belly I was in, I might not have found myself at the altar later with Jonah’s psalm for a reading and a partial line from that verse inscribed in our wedding rings.
Something detonated in me and on the page thanks to Jonah, something far more powerful and lasting than the perpetrators at his tomb in Mosul could ever hope to accomplish.
Bradford Winters is a screenwriter/producer in television whose work has included such series as Oz, Kings, Boss, and The Americans. His poems have appeared in Sewanee Theological Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Georgetown Review, among other journals. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and three children.