I have loved the book of Jonah from the first time I read it. It never crossed my mind that it might have a shred of historical truth in it, since I had read and loved satiric masterworks since my boyhood—Gulliver’s Travels; Innocents Abroad; Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy—I loved them all. In satire everything is too big, too fast, too loud, too something in order to make one point or another about life as the author was experiencing it. And so it is with Jonah. The author of Jonah was skewering prophets who had become mountebanks, men of God who were not in reality men of God at all, but rather men of themselves and their own bigotries and prejudices. The character of Jonah did not die a long time ago in ancient Israel; he is alive and well and living in us. Anytime that we allow our own proclivities to trump the will of God that we read in other biblical places, we are become Jonah.
Jonah is a prophet, for his story begins as prophetic stories do, namely with a call from the Almighty. “Get up, and go to Nineveh, that enormous city, and preach against it, for their evil has come up into my face,” thunders YHWH, and with a wink and a nod Jonah, the would-be prophet, trying to “get away from God,” hightails it to Tarshish, which is apparently somewhere near modern Spain. “Go east, young prophet,” calls YHWH, and the young prophet heads west as far and as fast as his little legs will take him. He finds a ship bound west, pays the fare, and heads down into the ship’s hold, falling immediately fast asleep. Soon enough, a huge storm hits the Mediterranean, so huge that the ship itself fears it will break into bits, as if a ship might have such thoughts. The sailors of the vessel, in terror, cry out to their various gods, but then toss cargo into the sea to lighten the boat, but it is no use; the sea boils and roils out of control. Finally, the captain checks the ship’s manifest and espies the name of Jonah. He rushes into the hold and sees the passenger asleep. He rouses him from his slumber and commands that he get up on deck, and “ cry to his God;” who knows, he reasons, perhaps that God will give a thought to us so that we do not perish!” One might have imagined that a prophet might have thought of that, but not this prophet.
As a last resort, the sailors roll dice (cast lots) to see whose fault this storm might be. Apparently the dice are loaded; they fall right on Jonah. “Well, who are you,” they demand, and the prophet of God finally says something; the word “prophet” after all means “mouthpiece.” “I am a Hebrew,” he says, “and I worship the God who made the sea and the dry land.” Does he really now? Why do you suppose he is running away from that very God on the very sea that that God supposedly made? Could his claim of belief be little more than something he learned, something one ought say in moments of stress? Whatever Jonah had in mind for his words, the sailors believe him immediately, and row as hard as they can to save the wretch, though he has given them a simple way out to save themselves. But the storm is too great, and after a heartfelt prayer to Jonah’s God, YHWH, in whom they now believe, they throw the prophet into the sea. The sea calms the same moment that Jonah touches the waves. The sailors are now completely terrified, and they sacrifice on the prow of the ship and make vows to YHWH, vows they surely intend to keep.
Meanwhile, while the smoke of the sacrifice is rising into the sky, Jonah is dropping like a stone into the depths of the sea. Well, he surely must be “away from the presence of YHWH” now. But, not so fast. For YHWH has a large submarine mammal planned to swallow Jonah up. And the big fish does just that, and Jonah is in the belly of the beast for three days and nights. During his sojourn in the fish’s guts, Jonah prays a prayer, a prayer laced with quotations from the psalms and a prayer laced as well with rank hypocrisy. He blames God for throwing him into the sea, as well as for creating the dangerous sea in the first place. He prays to God from the belly of the fish, a good time for prayer, I assume, but it is fear alone that gets him to pray at all. He then ends by vowing to make vows to God, which he never does, and accuses all idolaters of worshipping vain idols, though the only so-called “idolaters” in the story so far are at this very moment worshipping YHWH on the ship! After that quite repulsive prayer, the fish throws up; my sentiments are with the fish.
So, Jonah, now realizing he cannot get away from YHWH on land, on sea, or undersea, decides to head for Nineveh, a huge city, three-days’ walk across. He goes a third of the way in, utters a five-word sermon, and heads out of the city. Surprise, surprise, the entire city of Nineveh, capital of the hated Assyrian empire, believes Jonah’s sermon! He had preached, “In forty days, Nineveh will be haphak!” Now that Hebrew word can mean either “destroyed” or “changed.” Jonah hoped for the former, but the Ninevites hear instead the latter. Thus, the city repents, including their livestock. While all the people of Nineveh, including their king, are crying to God for mercy, and all of the cows of Nineveh are mooing to God for mercy, Jonah is on a hillside, hoping for destruction, possibly sucking his thumb in desperation
But God changes God’s mind and decides not to wreak judgment on Nineveh, and Jonah, as a result, is furious! He has out Billy Grahamed Billy Graham, has converted the world’s most hated and feared city with a five-word sermon, and he is furious about it! One might imagine a prophet would be thrilled with such success, but not this prophet. And one would imagine that YHWH would be overjoyed with such repentance, and you would be right. But this prophet? Oi vey, what does one have to do to find a successful prophet, who enjoys success? Jonah’s fury could arise from various sources: his own humiliation at being seen as a false prophet; his anger that God refused to act as Jonah had hoped; his hatred of the Ninevites. I assume that latter issue is paramount, since he quotes the clearest statement of the identity of YHWH’s mercy in the entire Bible at Ex.34:6, but not to laud YHWH for mercy but rather to accuse God of being merciful! His reason for running away in the first place was because he just knew that if he opened his mouth about God at all that he would be believed, and he has sure been proven right. The story is filled with repentant souls, from sailors to Ninevites to their cows. The only unrepentant person in the tale is Jonah!
God tries to teach him again by offering a plant to save him from his solar discomfort, and Jonah loves that little plant. But the plant grew up and died the same day, and Jonah returns to his disgruntled fury. “You love a plant, which grew and died the same day,” says YHWH. “Should I not pity Nineveh, with its more than 120,000 people, who hardly know right from wrong, not to mention all those cows?” And, of course, theanswer is a resounding yes. But what of Jonah? He is still on that hillside, hoping against hope that if YHWH changed the divine mind once, just maybe YHWH might flip around again and destroy these disgusting Ninevite vermin. As it is, I will have to worship in the same pew as a Ninevite! I would rather be dead!
And what about you? What about me? Do I really love the God who loves all, or would I rather have a more discerning God, one who loves as I do, not everyone but just certain people, people who think and act as I think and act? I fear I am with Jonah too often, on that hillside above Nineveh, hoping that God will at last clean the world up as I want it cleansed and remove from my sight those I just cannot stand. Well, how about it? Is Jonah alive in you as he is in me?
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)