“Lent is a time set aside to reorient ourselves, to clarify our minds, to slow down, recover from distraction, to focus on the values of God’s kingdom and on the value he has set on us and on our neighbors.” —Malcolm Guite, The Word in the Wilderness
As prophets go, Jonah went — as far away as he could from this thunderous, all-seeing, lion of a god who could pick him up and shake him like a rag doll. It was no use; he’d taken a ship to Tarshish, roughly in the opposite direction from Nineveh, which was picturesquely situated far out on the burning plains of what would much later become Iraq.
Most prophets decidedly did not want the job; long hours, no benefits, one’s very presence tended to make the children cry and the dogs bark. And it could get you killed. The killing part is what Jonah objected to the most.
So, he rushed down to the docks, paid the captain and went aboard without so much as an overnight case. This raised suspicion. Most of the passengers on ships out of port were merchants. Jonah looked like a fugitive, but he paid up front, so the captain took him aboard. He told the first mate to keep an eye on him though. There was something fishy about him.
The first day out a tremendous storm came up. The wind roared and cracked through the rigging and the deck was slippery with foam. The crew flung the cargo over the rails to keep the ship afloat and it was all they could do to keep the bow headed into the waves. It being a multi-ethnic and polytheistic crew, they were desperately calling on their gods for relief when someone thought to search out their odd passenger.
He was found deep in the hold, asleep in a fetal position. Finding this both unnerving and insulting under the circumstances, the captain shook him awake and forced him topside. “What are you doing asleep! Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.”
Since all the usual gods had been accounted for and the storm still raged on, the sailors cast lots to see who was at fault. When the lot fell to Jonah, the men rounded on him. “What’s your business? Where do you come from? Who are your people?”
“I’m a Hebrew,” he replied. “I serve the God who made the sea and the dry land.” At this, the crew gasped and drew back. “What did you do?” they demanded, and as the storm increased in fury they screamed, “What should we do to you to quiet this storm?”
“Throw me overboard,” he cried out, “It’s my fault this storm is upon us.”
Let us pause here a moment to consider Jonah’s plight. He is a prophet on the run from the God who controls all of the world. Perhaps it was simply a reflex to run, to escape a frightful duty. But it was a duty imposed by a God whose reach extends over the globe and who controls heaven, the sea, and the earth. A prophet on the run from a God like that is the living embodiment of futility and Jonah knows it.
To their credit the crew see flinging a man overboard in a whip-lashing storm as a last resort. They row for shore, even though if they succeed, they will crash on the rocks. But they row anyway, without progress, in the teeth of this blinding gale until, at last, exhausted and fearful, they pray for mercy from Jonah’s god for throwing him overboard, and then over he goes. No doubt they see it as a sacrifice to a capricious god who can be appeased by a human sinking down into the cruel depths.
Does Jonah think the same way? In his state, confused, angry, bitter, and afraid he may have felt he had nothing left, that his flight from the all-seeing God was a sure sign of his guilt, but that somehow, some way, this was all God’s fault. But Jonah would get even. He’d die in the waves and then God would be sorry.
At this point the story takes a wild turn. In fact, it becomes a fable, replete with a fantastic animal. Scholars are unsure of when this story was written, although it was most certainly long after Nineveh had vanished into history. As a historical event it doesn't meet the bar, but as a story with a point, how could it be better?
A fugitive on the lam from God gets swallowed by a big fish, spends three days and three nights in the depths of both the ocean and the fish’s innards, and after a heartfelt prayer for salvation, is vomited (the Hebrew here is precise) up on the beach, dazed and slimy. It’s a perfect set-up for comedy and drama.
Onward, then! No time to lose! There’s a whole city of wicked people to be warned, after which Jonah (he imagines) will be ceremonially cut into pieces and fricasseed over an open fire, all for the glory of the all-seeing God. Let’s get this over with.
We can’t fault Jonah too much for a grim outlook. He stood in a long line of prophets who understood that their messages, however compelling, would usually fall on deaf ears, and at the very least they would be mocked and scorned. He had also grasped, with a singular clarity, that while most of the top tier of Hebrew prophets risked derision only from their own people, he, Jonah, was compelled to thrust God’s warning under the noses of their ancestral enemies, a people wholly given over to unholy practices and unvarnished blasphemy. In the history of Israel, the Ninevites were the ultimate bogeymen, renowned for dragging their prisoners by hooks through the nose. And that was tender and thoughtful compared to what lay ahead for those who survived the long trek back to the city. No, there was nothing for it: he had been singled out by God for this exquisite punishment. Pardon me, he thought bleakly, if I go to my death stinking of fish and short on manners.
“And the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh the great city, and call out to it the call that I speak to you.’ And Jonah got up and went to Nineveh according to the word of the Lord. And Nineveh was a great city of God’s, a three days’ walk across” (Jonah 3: 1-3).
Robert Alter’s commentary on Jonah in his magnificent three-volume translation, The Hebrew Bible (2018), cheerfully informs us that doing the math for a three-day walk across a city would give us a metropolis larger than Los Angeles, a sprawl no city in the ancient Near East could achieve, but if we regard it symbolically we see that just as Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days, so he will have three days to proclaim the message throughout Nineveh.
And it also appears that Nineveh, that great city, belongs to God, just like the sea, the mountains, donkeys, figs, and Israel. Jonah should feel right at home. Off he goes, then, striding a day’s walk toward the center, shouting as he went, “Forty days more, and Nineveh is overthrown.” And the people, the story says, trusted God and donned sackcloth and ashes and repented, just like that, from the greatest of them to the least.
The news travels like an invisible tsunami from the periphery to the center of the city where the king resides, and when it reaches him, he stands up, throws off his mantle, covers himself in sackcloth and sits down upon ashes (an observer wonders, did they keep sackcloth in the linen closet for just such an occasion?). The king makes a proclamation, remarkable in its force and comprehensiveness. Immediately, everyone, even the cattle and sheep, are commanded not to eat nor to drink water. “And man and beast shall cover themselves with sackcloth, and they shall call out to God with all their might…Who knows? Perhaps God will turn back and relent and turn back from His blazing wrath, and we shall not perish” (Jonah 3:8, 9). There is an echo here of the ship captain who tossed out a similar hope that God might tamp down His wrath in order that they might live.
Cattle and sheep wearing sackcloth, an entire city wearing sackcloth, no one eating or drinking, everyone (even the animals) repenting of the evil they had done? It’s safe to say that no evangelist since has scored so complete a victory as Jonah. It’s a record that will stand for all time.
But of course, it wasn’t him. In fact, he did not take it well. “And the thing was very evil for Jonah, and he was incensed.” He was incensed enough to pray to God in complaint, virtually fizzing in anger. Isn’t this what I said when I was back home, he yells. I knew you would pull a trick like this! “For I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in kindness and relenting from evil.” So put me out of my misery — just kill me — I’m better off dead than alive. “And the Lord said, ‘Are you good and angry?’” (Jonah 4:4).
Yes, yes, you could say that, muttered Jonah bitterly. He retraced his steps, trudging out of the city up to a hill to the east where he made himself a shelter and sat down to watch what would happen. He wanted fire from heaven, napalm and howitzers, the mother of all bombs to flatten this great city. Maybe that would make him feel better, salve his bruised ego and lower his blood pressure.
And God, smiling quietly to Himself and compassionate to a fault, “set out a qiqayon plant, and it rose up over Jonah to be a shade over his head to save him from his evil plight. And Jonah rejoiced greatly over the qiqayon.” And despite the long arms of the sun as it sets on that day, Jonah finds comfort in the shade and passes the night thankfully and well.
And in the morning, as the sun rises, God sends a hot wind to wither Jonah’s precious plant. Immediately, the bile rises in his throat, his blood pressure shoots skyward, and again he prays to die. The city, that great city, lies peacefully spread out below him, its inhabitants hungry but redeemed, its cattle and sheep bewildered by their sackcloth outfits and vaguely aware of how quiet it is.
“Are you good and angry over the qiqayon?” chuckles God. Jonah sighs, “I am good and angry, to the point of death.” We can almost hear the shake of the divine head and a hint of exasperation because of this child. You cared more about the plant than the people, says God. “And I, shall I not have pity for Nineveh the great city, in which there are many more than one hundred twenty thousand human beings who do not know between their right hand and their left, and many beasts?” (Jonah 4:11). And there, the fable ends.
We don’t know how Jonah got home again or if he did. The story leaves us with questions, like all good stories do. Did the animals get to go naked again? Is Jonah like the prodigal son’s elder brother? Can we drop our resentment at God’s forgiveness? Does God really love our enemies? Are we good and angry over His compassion? Can we forgive ourselves as He has forgiven us?
Can we go home again?
Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, ethics, and communications for 37 years at universities in Maryland and Washington, DC. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image: Anton Rusetsky / Unsplash.com
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