The next surah of the Quran I’ll be reading is called Surah al-Yunus, “Chapter of Jonah.” Now, as is the way with the Quran, there might not be very much about Jonah actually said in the surah. But still, I think that Jonah is one of the most mis-represented Bible characters in Christian culture, and before hearing the Quran’s version I thought it would be worthwhile to visit his biblical story and refresh the picture.
With its colorful details, the book of Jonah (particularly the “Jonah and the Whale” half) tends to get consigned to children’s lessons in Sunday school, which is a pity. Sunday school lessons almost invariably wash down stories to moralistic drivel, in my experience. There is a pressure to make (very adult) Bible stories child-friendly, and thus often the flaws of the main characters get played down to a trivial level. They also don’t want to show any character who has not learned their lesson through either punishment or repentance. With those self-imposed limits, there’s not much to make of Jonah. It boils down to this: Jonah disobeys God out of fear for the Ninevites. After being punished by being eaten by the big fish, he repents and puts his trust in God. Then he is freed from the fish and goes on to fulfill his ministry. Nineveh repents and is saved. Bad earns bad, good earns good. Be good and color quietly, and you’ll get a graham cracker!
This “Jonah and the Whale” telling is so ingrained that I don’t see the average church-going adult challenge it, certainly not when around fellow indoctrinated Christians. I didn’t even bother to reevaluate it myself until in recent years when I came across this analysis by The Bible Project. More than anything, that analysis blew my mind for its take on the obvious, underrepresented aspect of Jonah’s character: that he hates God for loving his enemies.
In short, Jonah is not motivated by fear, like in the Sunday school tellings. He’s motivated by wrath, and maybe even justice.
Now isn’t that a more interesting story to tell?
A little context about the book. Unlike the other prophetic books of the Bible, the Book of Jonah is not prophetic at all. It doesn’t record the teachings of a prophet, poeticize events of its time, or look to the future. Instead, it tells through linear and satirical narration a brief episode of a religious man with his own agenda.
The setting is historical. Jonah is a citizen of Samaria (The Northern Kingdom of Israel), as is evidenced by his access to the port city of Joppa/Jaffa. Samaria’s prime threat and eventual downfall was the Assyrian Empire (to their north, northwest), the capitol of which for some span of time was Nineveh/Mosul. When Assyria did conquer Samaria, it destroyed the population and culture so thoroughly that the people are now known only as the ten lost tribes of Israel.
As for Tarshish, no one knows. Some think it’s Tunis, others a city in Spain, yet others a city in Crete, but the name is only found in the Hebrew Bible and there’s very little data to go by.
The story’s instigating moment is very slim. God commands Jonah to go preach judgment to Ninevah. Jonah flees from God by setting out on a ship from Joppa to Tarshish. There really is very little information here to interpret with. Given the relationship of Assyria to Samaria and the length of the journey around the desert to get to Nineveh, it is understandable that people would interpret Jonah’s flight as an action of fear of the pagan nation, but the scripture only says that Jonah fled from God. As of this point, we are not told why, and are only left to watch Jonah and interpret his character through his action.
Jonah Accepts Punishment
God sends a storm to stop the ship that is carrying Jonah. Here we get our first stroke of irony: while the sailors are panicked, Jonah is sleeping and oblivious of the danger he’s incurring. When they wake him and ask him who he is and what he thinks of their situation he still introduces himself as: “I am a Hebrew, and I fear Yahweh, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” It stands out to me that, even though Jonah is going against his religious beliefs, he still identifies himself religiously. He hasn’t given up his beliefs, he has just acted against them (though we still do not know his motivations for doing so). Jonah, upon learning of the storm, tells the sailors to throw him into the sea in order to appease God. The sailors refuse to condemn him to death until desperation drives them to give it a try, and they throw him into the sea.
On this point I hold an opinion very different from The Bible Project. They interpret Jonah’s choice of death as the ultimate way of avoiding God’s command to preach to Nineveh, made more selfish by having the sailors be the ones to kill him. I disagree with this analysis on the basis that Jonah could’ve just thrown himself overboard or waited for the ship to sink. I believe that Jonah was accepting death as a punishment for his disobedience. Most of the capital sins of the Torah law are punished with stoning, which requires community involvement. Now stoning (particularly in its modern form) is a horrible punishment and I’m not defending it, but one implied point of community involvement was to deter the cultural source of whatever sin was committed. By taking part in the punishment, the community was also declaring their abhorrence and innocence of the crime. So I believe that Jonah is not only accepting punishment, he’s applying Torah principles of justice and community honor to exonerate the sailors of involvement in his sin.
So if my two cents add up, I think Jonah is a very religious man. He believes in God fully, but he particularly believes in justice. When Jonah reads the severity of his sin in the storm, he applies justice to himself, even though it means the end of his life. Yet in the selflessness of his belief, he does not see a place for repentance. He never considers or tries asking God for forgiveness and a new chance to be obedient. In this way, he is somewhat like Victor Hugo’s Javert: not selfish in his views, but very single-minded in his application of them.
Jonah Accepts Mercy
So Jonah is thrown into the sea and gets swallowed by the fish. My reading of the boat scene before was purely conjecture based on Jonah’s behavior, but inside the fish we are treated to a long poetic version of Jonah’s inner dialogue. The poem is about Jonah’s despair in the face of death and his final thoughts as he mourns the distance he has put between himself and God. However, God saves Jonah from death, and Jonah accepts this mercy by pledging afresh his obedience. There is not necessarily any repentence in this poem, but there is gratitude. There is also no fish in the poem, only an oceanic Sheol, leading me to wonder whether the fish is supposed to be the source of death or the source of mercy as it stops Jonah’s descent to the ocean floor.
So after three days the fish vomits Jonah up, God directs Jonah again to Nineveh, and this time Jonah obeys. Now, a lot of people like to imagine Jonah as being all “fishy” when he arrives in Nineveh. I’d like to point out that Nineveh is quite a ways in land, and so unless that big saltwater fish swam all the way around the African continent and up the Tigris River…
…I’m nitpicking the factoids of a story that features a man living inside a fish for three days.
Jonah and Nineveh
Upon Jonah’s washing up on shore, God renews the command to preach to the Ninevites. Despite Jonah’s new experience with mercy and new pledge of obedience, he still displays a mysterious, trudging reluctance. He barely goes into the heart of Nineveh and only shouts there a sentence about the city’s doom. It’s a strange speech because it does not mention God, and he says they have a forty-day head start, which was not explicitly part of the message God commanded. Nonetheless, the people around him repent. Then the news reaches the king and he repents. Then the king sends out a decree to the whole city to pray through fasting and wearing sackcloth, and they repent. Even the sheep and cattle are called upon to fast and wear sackcloth! And because of this, God honors their repentance and does not bring evil upon the Ninevites. Or upon their animals.
At this point, in the beginning of chapter four, Jonah becomes enraged and finally exposes the heart of his motivation: he wants Nineveh to be destroyed. He says that, from the beginning, he knew that God was merciful and relenting, and thus he ran to Tarshish. Now, I had mentioned back in The Feast, Part 1, that mercy is sometimes a stumbling block for those who want to see specific cases of justice done. Jonah is clearly one of those people. He lays down an ultimatum that he would rather die than live under a God who is merciful in such a way. Going out of the text and regarding history, Assyria was not only (in the Torah sense) a lawless land, it was the one suppressing Jonah’s homeland and threatening his holy way of life. He wants to see it punished for its sins to the point that he promotes unconditional wrath. Moreover, in asking for his own death, Jonah is reversing his acceptance of mercy when faced with the watery Sheol. If the implication of having a merciful God means that even the wicked can repent and escape justice, then Jonah rejects his own reception of mercy.
Having laid down this ultimatum, Jonah goes back outside the city and sets up camp in order to see what happens. This interests me. Was Jonah really planning to wait forty days when, as we will see, he clearly wasn’t ready for that duration? Or had Jonah still tried to undermine Nineveh’s chance at repentance by suggesting a forty-day deadline with which they might procrastinate? Also, in other Bible stories we are accustomed to seeing humans negotiate with God for more mercy, but here Jonah contradicts their example by leveraging his faith in order to negotiate for God to be more wrathful. Jonah is quite unlike any other Biblical protagonist.
God creates a plant to shade Jonah, which could be interpreted as an act of unwarranted mercy, considering Jonah has not repented for directly cursing God. Jonah is glad for the plant but changes nothing about his actions or attitude. However, it proves that God instead is more interested in teaching a lesson through the plant, as God then has a worm eat and kill it, and furthermore brings hot weather to make sure that Jonah notices the absence of its shade. Jonah is so miserable in his sun-burning, loveless existence that he again pouts and declares his preference for death. The story closes with God musing the irony that Jonah is mad at Him for killing a mere plant, yet also mad at him for sparing thousands of people…and animals.
Today I extrapolated beyond the words of the text some in order to draw my picture of Jonah’s character. There are other opinions to be had of who Jonah is at heart, but I think that Jonah is not written to be a story about a man who has learned his lesson. Instead, it paints a picture of the ironic thing that is a religious man who is not improved by his religion. While Jonah, a God-believing member of the Chosen People, hardens himself against both God and men, it is the foreigners and pagans who are soft enough to recognize mercy, love God for it, and thus be elevated as the better kinds of believers. In Jonah we are taught to recognize that hardness and hate can be seeded in even the hearts of religious men.