From Good Book
At last, a minor prophet who’s not minor at all. It’s been seven books and a trip to Israel since I’ve read a Bible story that I was familiar with. The last one was Solomon threatening to cut the baby in two, in 1 Kings. So, howdy, Jonah! Greetings, whale!
It’s even better than I remember from Hebrew school. God orders Jonah to Nineveh (near what is now Mosul, Iraq) to warn that the Lord is going to brimstone the city for its sins. Like some folks recently, Jonah isn’t thrilled about his assignment in Iraq. So he goes AWOL, jumping a ship bound across the Mediterranean for Tarshish. The aggrieved Lord sends a mighty storm, and the sailors pray for rescue. But as the ship tosses, what does the prophet do? He heads belowdecks to take a nap! Jonah’s snoozing signals his deplorable tendency to flee from difficulty, to avoid trouble at all costs.
It doesn’t work, of course. The captain wakes him up. The sailors cast lots to determine who caused their misfortune, and Jonah comes up snake eyes. At last, the prophet faces up to his duty. He offers to be chucked overboard to appease God. The sailors are reluctant – admirably reluctant – to toss him, and they try to row their way out of the storm. These sailors are the uncredited heroes of Jonah’s tale, brave, moral, careful. Finally, after pleading not to be held responsible, they throw him into the sea, and the storm lifts.
The Lord “provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah.” The word “provided” is marvelous, with its echo of “providence.” That’s because the fish is not the punishment: the fish is the salvation. Jonah spends a long weekend in the big fish, praying the whole time. He thanks God for rescuing him from the edge of death. God commands the fish to spit Jonah up on the shore. This story gives biblical literalists fits – you can’t imagine the somersaults some perform trying to find a fish with the right specs – but I am not going to spend any time arguing with them about the truth or science of Jonah. I don’t believe a word of it. It’s impossible. But hey, that’s why they call them miracles.
My childhood memory of Jonah stops with him gasping on the beach, but the story continues, and actually gets even better. The regurgitated prophet makes his way to Nineveh, stands in the middle the city, and announces that God’s going to smite it in forty days. The people of Nineveh heed his warning. The king wears sackcloth, squats in ashes, and orders the entire population to fast in order to gain God’s mercy. Why do the Ninevites even pay attention to Jonah? It makes no sense. He’s a foreigner – he may not even speak their language – he prays to an alien God, and he’s a stranger. How could he mesmerize an entire city? His success seems especially unlikely given our recent experience with prophets: from Isaiah to Jeremiah to Obadiah, prophets are notable principally for being ignored. It’s inexplicable that Jonah would be the exception to that rule.
In any case, the Ninevites’ prayer works. God relents and pardons the city. This leads to the funniest part of the book. Jonah is furious when God forgives Nineveh because his mercy turns Jonah into a false prophet. Jonah has been screaming about the city’s doom, and instead nothing happens. Jonah looks like a fraud. Jonah kvetches that that’s why he fled the Lord in the first place, because he knew God would be compassionate and not actually punish the city. His pettiness – a combination of utter self-involvement and indifference to the saved Ninevites – is awful and yet recognizably human. Jonah is a character right out of a Woody Allen movie.
Showing keen psychological perception, God decides to teach Jonah a lesson about selfishness. He sends Jonah to the desert, and provides him a ricinus plant for shade. Jonah loves the plant. God – sly deity! – then kills the ricinus. Jonah freaks out, and whines melodramatically that he’s so sad about the plant that he wants to die. At this point, God delivers the knockout punch, in the final verses of the book: “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred and twenty persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well!”
Jonah really is the perfect Bible story. God is demanding yet merciful, wise yet tricky. The tale is suspenseful from beginning to end. The hero is deeply flawed, mostly learns his lesson, and behaves with both the grace and the selfishness that are in all of us. There is no unnecessary violence. And it’s extremely funny.