As someone who has spent a good part of my life trying to rouse others to tackle unwelcome new challenges, I have a special love for the Book of Jonah. It is one of the shortest in Scripture – only four chapters long. It is simple enough to be told as a bedtime story, sly enough to be recounted as humor.
It also has a profound spiritual side, not only for people wounded by the divine compulsion to speak out about the destructive consequences of human behavior – the deepest meaning of the word “prophet” – but also for anyone who needs greater instruction (as we all do) in the meaning and practice of humility. What we do know about the story of Jonah? Generally not too much. We might remember that early in his travels he was swallowed by a “big fish”, or, as it is usually translated, a whale.
Once released into human culture this story, as they would say in Hollywood, had legs. Jesus made passing reference to it in the gospel of Matthew. The concept made into the story of Pinnochio. The Maine children’s author Robert McCloskey, who wrote Make Way for Ducklings, penned a book about the early 20th century Maine sea-faring man Burt Dow (someone I actually knew as a very little boy). The real Dow told the story of being out in his fishing dory and hooking a whale who towed him all the way out to sea. McCloskey expanded on the story and threw him down the whale’s throat for dramatic effect. Then, for good measure, the good people at Pixar poured Marlin, the fish-father in Finding Nemo, down yet another whale gullet. There’s some deep and memorable archetype at work here.
But few stop to ask: why was Jonah swallowed by the whale?
Because, the story suggests, he was being disobedient – or cowardly. He was running away from what he was supposed to be doing.
So let me review the story in brief: God notices that the people of the great city of Nineveh (modern day Mosul in Iraq) are behaving badly. He summons Jonah, an Israelite prophet, to go there and preach that unless they change their ways, bad things will happen to them. Jonah listens to this request, ponders the idea of heading eastward toward Nineveh, and then chooses instead to do exactly the opposite – to head west on a ship towards Spain. Enter the prophet as coward.
During the voyage a storm arises and the sailors suspect that the tempest might be evidence of God’s displeasure with their passenger, so they throw him overboard. The whale swallows Jonah both to save him from drowning and to give him some time to reconsider his destination. After Jonah has spent three uncomfortable days in the dark, grumbling and praying, the whale vomits him up on to dry land.
At this point, the soaked, wrinkled, and grumpy prophet having apparently having learned his lesson heads back in the direction he was supposed to go, that is to the city of Nineveh. As soon as he arrives he marches up and down the streets of the city, predicting that unless the king and everyone else stops cold in their tracks, expresses regret for their behavior, and mends their ways, they are going to be wiped out. Nineveh was large for its time – the Bible makes clear that it took “three days” to walk from one side to other. One can imagine the popularity of this angry foreigner, who smelled like old fish, as he stomped up and down, denouncing everyone and everything, and predicting that soon the whole town was going to be obliterated. As he did so, he fulfilled the second unattractive choice open to the prophet: the doomsayer.
Whether in Biblical times or today, people don’t usually embrace prophets. Most people are busy, tired, and defensive, and they don’t like to be told that they are doing anything wrong. As a result, prophets are usually ignored, laughed at, run out of town, or stoned to death. This accounts for that initial impulse towards cowardice.
In the book of Jonah, however, there is an unexpected plot twist: the people of the city actually listen to him. They come to believe that they are in immediate danger of destruction, and they take instant corrective action. The king himself announces that he will immediately begin a fast and changes into scratchy and unfashionable sackcloth. He insists that all his nobles and people do the same. They all promise to discontinue their thoughtless ways and they humbly ask God not to obliterate the city from the face of the earth. Watching this display of contrition, God is impressed and informs Jonah that this display of repentance is sufficient. Nineveh will be spared. Everyone is happy — God, the king, and all the residents. Everyone, that is, except Jonah.
The next twist in the story reveals the deeply human insight of some parts of the Bible. In a Disney film the townspeople would have carried Jonah off on their shoulders. There would have been a feast and fireworks and praise. Jonah would have smiled and said modestly that he had really done nothing – the appreciation should go to the people for their wise and mature actions and to God for God’s divine mercy. And after all the back-slapping and expressions of relief, everyone would have gone home and lived happily ever after.
But the Bible has a much more realistic view of human behavior. Jonah is not pleased that God has changed course, because, from Jonah’s standpoint, God has made Jonah look like an idiot. Day after day, the prophet had loudly foretold the downfall of Nineveh. He had endured – we can imagine — dismay, defiance, derision, and outright danger. Nonetheless, he had persisted. After all that hard work, his predictions turned out to be flat wrong. First, Jonah had fled as a coward. Then he reluctantly became a doomsayer. Now he had been proven a fool.
Jonah’s reaction to God’s mercy is both sharply comical and psychologically revealing. He stomps up to the top of an overlooking mountain, hoping against hope that God will go ahead with the original plan and reduce the city to rubble. To us – and apparently to God – Jonah’s massively self-centered ego is ridiculous, even offensive. But to Jonah this is no laughing matter: I didn’t want to come, I didn’t want to do this, and now, at the very least, I should be proven right.
Instead of arguing with Jonah, God discovers a means of revealing the absurdity of his fury. As Jonah waits beneath the throbbing Iraqi sun, sweating and swearing as he awaits the fulfillment of his prediction, a tall plant grows up to give Jonah a little shade. Jonah is delighted with the plant – finally, something is going right! Then, equally quickly, the plant dies, and Jonah again vents his anger at God. Why did you kill of this plant, which was helping me? God’s ironic answer comes shooting straight back. Let me get this straight: you pity a plant that has been in existence for less than twenty-four hours, and you think it is wrong for me to have destroyed it, yet you have no sympathy for a huge city of more than 120,000 confused and ignorant human beings, some of whom, as the Hebrew scripture memorably puts it, don’t even “know their right hand from their left?”
The story stops right there, with the question hanging in the air, a brilliant punchline. Every listener had a lesson to take away and ponder.
But there is an implied, though unspoken additional question, one which in our day and age we made need to make explicit. The question to Jonah – and to us – might be expressed in this manner: is your self-importance, is your self-identity, is your lack of compassion so great that you would rather be right than that others would be forgiven?
Buried in the children’s story, in the ancient and slightly mocking tale lies one of the most important moral and political questions for any individual and for any society in any age. It strikes in every direction, at every form of hard-heartedness.
We can see how the story points most particularly at the problem of prophet: are you willing to risk being seen as a coward (if you choose to do nothing); or being shunned (for speaking out against something unpopular); or being proven wrong? This is a real risk for anyone foolish or pig-headed enough – as I have sometimes been – to point out distressing facts about the world. Human moral somnolence and inertia are powerful forces. It is for this reason that Jesus, in his prophetic role, spoke in frustration and wonderment at people who have “eyes but they do not see, ears but they do not hear.”
Over the last three or four decades I have seen people resist the prophetic word. I have done so myself.
I observed the blind eye which conservatives turned toward human rights violations in Central America because such authoritarian regimes suited America’s need for allies against Communism. I have also witnessed the left’s refusal to listen to or speak of the brutalities of Castro’s Cuba or Soviet tyranny.
I remember how hard it was to get anyone to care about a distant country in which whites who made up only 10% of the population exercised absolute political and economic control over the 90% black majority.
I recall how bored and impatient or angry people became when early advocates raised the possibility of planetary damage because carbon dioxide emissions might lead to something called “climate change.” And how resistant Wall Street was to thinking about sustainability, because they were certain that if something were truly important they would already have taken it into account.
Today I am battling the skepticism and fatigue – all understandable — of people who are so busy with the problems of today that they have little room for concern about tomorrow. So I am constantly pondering my own sometimes unattractive prophetic choices: should I become a coward, doomsayer, or fool? Often I plunge ahead anyway, hoping that if I am headed in the wrong direction, a whale will redirect me.
Right this minute I am sounding the alarm about how intensive neurological research is being used to entrap and fleece the poor through gambling addiction. Companies that design and build slot machines are like 21st century cigarette companies, exploring the profit potential of technological heroin and selling it to state legislatures – and poor people — as a solution to their financial problems. But the awareness of such abuses – and the necessary public outrage to stop them – is not yet common.
Even as I pursue something like this, I know that there are many topics – too many – that I shamefully ignore, unconsciously mimicking the priest on the road to Jericho who is too busy and self-important to notice all those who are lying beaten by the side of road.
I can tell sometimes, as I launch into another litany of concerns – blurting out a statistic in the middle of a dinner party or depositing some stark fact among the chirpy exclamations on Facebook – that I am at risk of running down my own Jonah-like pathway of coward, doomsayer, or fool. I would just as soon not bring this up. And I would, on balance, prefer people to like me. And I have no desire to be shown as having sounded a false alarm. The intensity of the prophetic life is such that I recognize – even as I describe it here that — I might also be tempted to want to be proven right rather than be laughed at as a person who worries and cares just a bit too much.
The story of Jonah, as powerful as it is for the person tempted to the arduous path of prophecy, also contains a caution for others who, in stating their views with self-confidence, might be looking for recognition of their superiority.
It asks of the harsh fundamentalist: are you so sure that you understand the inner nature of God that you can state with complete certainty that two people of the same gender cannot be married?
It asks of the smug economist: are you so convinced of the universality of self-interest that you feel it necessary to make light of the transformative power of self-sacrificial love and forgiveness?
It asks of the confident rationalist: are you so well informed about the nature of a universe stocked with billions upon billions of yet-to-be revealed secrets that you can affirm with absolute conviction that we are the highest form of consciousness ever to have existed or currently existing in the entire cosmos?
It asks of the romantic idealist: are you so persuaded that the studious avoidance of unhappy thoughts, the awkward denial of discomfort, the breezy superficiality of modern culture are a credible match for the ancient and ever-present realities of grief, evil, and death?
The story of Jonah is one of the great literary accomplishments of the human race, for in four short chapters in teaches us both the necessity and the dangers of prophetic courage, it laughs at our foibles, even as it unlocks our hearts.
In short, it gives us more than enough to ponder if we ever find ourselves with a little extra time in the belly of a dark whale.