Religion Magazine


By Erictheblue


Perhaps no biblical book has suffered more than Jonah from the depredations of fundamentalists.  (I acknowledge the competition is fierce.)  The whole question has become whether Jonah was "a literal man in the belly of a literal whale," and the answer--"Yes"--has been augmented by zany disquistions on topics tending toward the zoological.  Granted, it would be impossible to live nowadays even for a few hours, let alone three days, in the belly of a great whale, but back in the days of Jonah the seas were populated with species of monsters unknown to modern science, and--it turns out that the whole story is the literal truth.  Fundamentalism self selects the crazies.

Jonah is a story about a recalcitrant, sulky prophet.  Since it is very brief, let us just lay out what happens.  Jonah is called by God to travel to Nineveh and prophesy against the wicked, heathenish ways of that city's residents.  Jonah doesn't want to do it, so boards a ship bound for Tarshish, which is in the opposite direction from Nineveh.  God, however, pursues Jonah with a violent storm.  There is on the ship a somewhat cosmopolitan crew of mariners, and they attribute the storm to the offended god of one of their number.  A game of lots determines, correctly, that it's Jonah who has given offense to his God.  (I said it's a story but maybe "tall tale" would be better.) Jonah goes overboard, the storm leaves off, and the heathen mariners are impressed: They "feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows."

Meanwhile, Jonah is swallowed by a great whale.  Incongruosly, he sings a psalm of thanksgiving from the whale's belly.  After three days, the whale vomits him up on dry land, which has the effect of making the psalm of thanksgiving retroactively appropriate. God reissues the directive regarding Nineveh, and this time Jonah obeys.  It requires one speech act on his part for all in the city, "from the greatest of them to the least," to repent and turn to God, who in turn determines to spare the city from what He otherwise had planned.  Jonah sulks over his success, explaining to God in a prayer that he had wanted the city to be destroyed.  He sits broodingly on the edge of town, the sun beating down on him, and God raises a plant over his head for shade.  But the next day God kills the plant and Jonah's anger is rekindled.  The story ends with God's admonition: "You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night, and perished in a night.  And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?"

It's quite an artful story, in many ways.  Despite his intentions, Jonah is twice successful as a missionary to people he sees as outside God's care.  Trying to avoid the commission to Nineveh, he unwittingly converts the foreign mariners, who begin worshiping the God from whom he is himself fleeing.  Having been saved at sea, he finally does travel, however reluctantly, to Nineveh, where he is disappointed at his success: he thought the city should be razed.  The author hits the reader in the head, hard, twice, with his theme, but all they want to talk about is the whale.

It's easy to scoff at the notion that the Jews are God's chosen people.  What would  be surprising, I suppose, is if having thought it over from every angle the Jews had come to the conclusion that God had chosen some other people to call his own.  One's satiric impulse is checked by the way in which claims of Jewish exclusiveness are treated in the Jewish Bible.  Jonah makes the same  point, though with more humor, that is made again and again in the Pentateuch, perhaps most memorably in Leviticus, where it is written, after homosexuals have been duly cursed: "When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong.  The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God" (19-33-34).

This is loftier than the dead fall that brings the book of Jonah to a close.  But in a curious way the mention of the cattle of Nineveh may count as a more telling affront to those who, confident of their own place in His affection, stand ever ready to condemn the foreigner and the stranger.

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