Monday, August 19, 2019

The Book of Jonah: And how he never got to Tarshish

Tucked incongruously among the angry denunciations of the other prophets, the Book of Jonah is a charming, upbeat tale of divine compassion and human frailty. It is of course the familiar tale of Jonah and the Whale, and as much fun as it would be to say, as I have before about other familiar tales, “it’s a different story in the text than the one you think you know,” that wouldn’t be true in this case. It is, in fact, exactly the story you know.

But let’s recap: Jonah, son of Amittai, gets tapped by God to go deliver some prophesy against the large, prosperous city of Nineveh. Like many of us, he doesn’t feel cut out for the work of persuasion, so he books a ship to Tarshish. No one knows where Tarshish was, exactly, but it was some sort of Phoenician outpost in the Western Mediterranean. It was as far from Israel and from Nineveh as you could get, in other words.

Now, since the Hebrews, although more or less monotheistic themselves, live in a polytheistic context where most folks believe in a multitude of local gods, Jonah’s strategy is rational enough. If he can get out of his god’s territory, maybe he’s off the hook. Except, of course, that his god is God, and isn’t tied to a locality, and therefore can’t be run away from. This, I suspect, is the main intended take-home of this story.

Because, God isn’t going to let Jonah off the hook. He afflicts the ship with a mighty storm. The sailors realize that there must be supernatural forces at work, and through divination determine that the fault is Jonah’s. That their pagan divination works is an odd note, but we’ve seen plenty of this going all the way back to pharaoh’s magicians. Pay this detail no mind.

Instead, enjoy this detail: when Jonah admits to the sailors what he has done, and tells them they will have to throw him overboard to survive, they don’t want to do it. They’re decent human beings! They do their best to try to make landfall without killing their passenger. But they can’t, and finally they do a lot of praying for forgiveness before they, well, kill their passenger.

As you know, however, Jonah doesn’t drown! As the seas quickly calm around the ship and its newly converted crew, Jonah is swallowed by a whale, or at least a “great fish,” where he stays alive but presumably rather uncomfortable for three days. He finds this whole experience a rather convincing demonstration of God’s power, does some repenting, and gets vomited up on a beach. One pictures him waking up to see a crude arrow sign stuck in the sand, pointing the way to Nineveh.

So, What Happens After the Bit With the Whale, Again?

In the less familiar second half – the Book of Jonah, incidentally, has four short chapters and occupies only about a page and a half of my Bible – Jonah arrives in Nineveh. He delivers a message typical of Old Testament prophesy, to wit that they’ve been very wicked and that God will destroy their city in forty days. The people of Nineveh, however, have an unusual reaction to this news. They believe it. Like Jonah in the fish, they repent. “He’s right,” say all the people. “We are quite awful.” They begin to fast and wear sackcloth. When the king hears about it, he concurs entirely. Putting on sackcloth himself, he plops down in the dust. “Maybe if we forsake evil and ask God nicely, he’ll spare us,” he proclaims.

Now, recall that God didn’t have Jonah say “shape up or else.” He had Jonah say “God will destroy your city in 40 days.” So on Day 41, when nothing happens, Jonah is really pissed off. “That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish,” he complains. “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live” (4:2-3). This is a very attractive vision of God, who elsewhere in the Old Testament is not remarkable for relenting to send calamity. To a very young reader, indeed, it might be confusing why Jonah is so upset.

Why is he so upset? Well, God has “made him a liar,” as we say, and he fears he will look foolish to the people he was threatening. But more importantly, he is showing the unpleasant but wholly human trait of feeling righteous indignation when seeing other people avoid punishment. And I suppose thirdly, he may just be disappointed that he’s missing the show he paid for, like some people leaving an auto race where there were no fiery crashes.

So Jonah hikes out in the desert to sulk.

In the final act, God first grows a vine to shelter him from the sun, and then has it wither. Jonah is upset about this, too. God says something like, “you’re all bent out of shape about this one little vine. Nineveh has 120,000 people. Shouldn’t I care about them?” In a way, this seems like the opposite of the each-little-sparrow concept that we seem to see more often in the Bible, in which every detail counts and none more than any other. To me, though, this reasoning seems like a breath of fresh air. “Get a sense of proportion, Jonah! Not going to render an eighth of a million people homeless just so you feel a sense of closure about your prophecy gig!” This seems eminently reasonable.

The book ends abruptly, so I will too.

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