Some Thoughts about Jonah

1642again, Going Postal
Jonah and the Whale (1621) by Pieter Lastman

So, if someone mentions the Prophet Jonah, what will most people say? The story of the whale of course and that’s about it. Four short chapters of a book in the Old Testament about a minor prophet of the ancient Hebrews, and an impossible tale of a man surviving three days in the belly of a whale.

So, other than that myth, Jonah’s story has no significance, right? Wrong. In some ways, because of its brevity, Jonah’s obscurity, and the seeming impossibility of the whale, its real importance has been generally missed, but I would argue that it’s actually essential to the central narrative of the Bible, its threaded central purpose, and that it illustrates in miniature exactly what it’s all about. And it’s an important sign-post to what came later.

First, some facts. That Jonah is a historical figure, and a minor prophet, is generally accepted, as he’s mentioned in the Second Book of Kings, one of the six narrative histories of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judea, as coming from the village of Gath-Hepher, just down the road from Nazareth, which are central to the Old Testament (the oldest narrative histories of all).

Jonah lived in the 8th century BC at a time when Israel had split into two rival kingdoms, that of Israel in the north and Judaea in the south, and the rising power of militarised Assyria to the north was starting to pose an increasing threat to Israel in particular as it sought to end the dominance of Egypt in the Levant and to impose a Pax Assyriana.

The story very much intertwines the politics and religious preoccupations of the time. Jonah is told by Jehovah to go to Ninevah, the capital of Assyria, and to warn them to reform their ways and leave the Hebrews in peace, or else be destroyed. Perhaps quite understandably, Jonah sees this as a suicide mission and runs away, taking ship to the end of the then known world, the ancient land of Tartessos. The identity of Tartessos has been a matter of controversy, but the scholarly consensus is settling on either southern Spain near Cadiz, or Sardinia. Either way, at the time this was seen as the edge of the world, and an extreme journey of incredible peril.

Anyway, a storm threatens to sink the ship. Jonah confesses to the crew that it’s almost certainly his fault in running from a divine command, and so the crew throw him overboard and the storm ceases, while Jonah’s swallowed by the whale (the text says in reality ‘a great fish’) for three days. He repents, and the whale spews him on to a beach and so, chastened, Jonah travels to Ninevah to complete his mission.

Amazingly, the Assyrians don’t kill him, but repent, even the king, and so Jehovah doesn’t carry out his threat. His mission successful, Jonah is severely irritated and stroppy as he wanted the Assyrians destroyed, and so he camps on the eastern outskirts of the city, hoping to see it ruined, sheltering under a vine from the sun. God sends a worm to kill the vine and remove Jonah’s shelter. Exposed to the sun, Jonah falls to self-pity and wishes to die, at which God chides him for wanting the repentant Assyrians killed while God has forgiven them.

And that’s it. Jonah emerges from the tale as disobedient, rebellious, vengeful, self-righteous, self-pitying, even a hypocrite. Not much of a ‘perfect’ man, but an imperfect one used by a higher power for its own purposes. Indeed, so unpleasant is its central figure, that some scholars have argued that it’s an anti-Semitic tract or even a satire. But such views wholly misunderstand what the Old Testament’s central narrative is about.

Indeed, so jarring is the tone of the story, that some scholars, based on some later textual stylistic features, have argued that it was probably written in the Achaemonid era (550-330 BC) and is not based on real events at all. But such arguments don’t work. Just because later editors of an older text modernised the style, doesn’t mean the original wasn’t written much earlier. Most of the Old Testament was edited and put together during the Babylonian exile from older originals and traditions, well before the Achaemonid era. Furthermore, by 550 BC the northern Kingdom of Israel was long gone, conquered by the Assyrians in the last two decades of the 8th century, and its people ethnically cleansed never to return. Why would a Judaean write a story based on an obscure Israelite prophet four centuries earlier?

It’s simply more plausible, and likely, that the story of based on a genuine tradition, even if infused with allegorical and miraculous elements. And if Jonah was, as is thought most likely, active in the middle of the eight century, when Assyria seems to have paused its encroachment on Israel for over two decades, the book appears to reflect the events of the time.

So, what’s it all about? Firstly, the story of the great fish. In the ancient world ships rarely travelled out of sight of shore, but instead crept along it. The sea was an object of known and unknown terrors: to undertake a long sea voyage to the edge of the known world was to literally walk into the Valley of the Shadow of Death, with a large chance of never returning. The Odyssey being another literary example. So, Jonah effectively ‘died’, spending three days and nights in the dark belly of a sea monster before being brought back to life and light on the shore, effectively reborn.

Get the parallel yet? Jesus did; he explicitly referred to it in Matthew’s Gospel chapter 12, verses 38 to 41: that he would die, go into the belly of death, and rise again to life after three days and nights. But unlike Jonah, Jesus does not try to run away and avoid his fate, but accepts it in the Garden of Gethsemane and waits for the arresting soldiers.

The other parallels and contrasts are even more stark. Jonah’s message is accepted by the enemy Assyrians while Jonah is angry that they are saved, whereas Jesus’ is rejected by his own people, who kill him, but is accepted later by the Gentiles, and Jesus forgives his killers while on the cross. Jonah is the imperfect mortal precursor of Christ, the perfect divine successor, one is a flawed reflection of the other.

You can see why some accuse it of anti-Semitism, but this is to misunderstand the entire point of the Old Testament. It’s not a glorification of the Hebrews at all, but a sequence of self-recriminations, a people being repeatedly saved by God and then abandoning him, a revolving cycle, a case study of the human condition as peoples rise through virtue and fall through vice.

And so, in four short chapters telling a striking morality tale based on almost certainly some real events, Jonah points to what will come later in Christ, excoriates the fallen and faithless nature of Jonah’s own Hebrew people who spurn miraculous help, and convey that the message of the Bible will find a far more favourable reception among hostile foreigners than among its own people. Four short chapters. It encapsulates the central embedded narrative of Judaeo-Christian conception of history and faith’s interaction, and points the way to the revelation of the New Testament. And that’s why I find it such an intriguing and brilliant part of the Old Testament.

And we should take note of the cycle of rising through virtue and declining through vice, for we are surely locked within it. The question is: are we like the Assyrians or the Hebrews?

© 1642again 2017