The trouble with Jonah (I)

A conversation begins…

I have always felt that unless a writer is challenged by writing a book, he or she cannot expect people to be challenged by reading it. Writing Jonah: poet in extremis, brought me face to face with the many challenges of the Biblical text. Jonah is by turns endearing, infuriating, undeniably strange and frighteningly familiar. When a reader engages with the text, as Karin has done below, the challenge continues…

Karin Robinson is a former chair of US Democrats Abroad,worked as part of the  Barack Obama 2008 presidential campaign, and now works as a consultant with strategy consultancy Blue Rubicon. You can visit her blog here. She describes herself as a person who was ‘raised as a Christian’ but who now is not a believer and so has a ‘very idiosyncratic, secular take on all this’. I am tempted to say that we all do. Karin goes on to write that ‘I know most of the bible rather well, but Jonah is one story I had never actually read before in its original source text. Like most former Sunday School pupils, I thought I knew the key points about it (he was swallowed by a whale, then he got out) but now I see that the fish tale is only a very small and perhaps the least interesting part of the story.’ She describes what follows below as  more a response to the text of Jonah itself than to your book necessarily, because reading your book sent me scurrying back to the original text.’

I have inserted my initial responses in red, but would love to get yours in the comments box below. What is this troubling little book all about, really?

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1) Jonah begins by speaking of the “wickedness” in Nineveh that the Lord is apparently fed up with. But this wickedness is not explained at any point – when the Lord destroys Sodom and Gommorah, we are given a lengthy illustration in narrative form of the sins they were perpetrating, but there’s nothing here – were we expected to just know?

The whole point here is that Jonah and his people did not know, and yet still dismissed the Ninevites out of hand. Jonah’s tale is designed to stretch their reluctant hearts and minds as well as ours.

2)      Jonah’s refusal to be called initially seems very surprising and isn’t initially explained. You highlight a couple of possibilities for why he might reject this so utterly – lack of self worth, or simple cowardice. But I was mulling another possibility – that he might be rejecting God’s will out of a fierce self-determination. Even a kind of conscience. What if he doesn’t want to preach in Nineveh not because he feels unworthy but because he DISAGREES with the Lord? (Indeed, this seems at the end of the story to be precisely the case but we’ll return to that towards the end.) There are precedents for that. The Lord even has his own mind changed as I recall by Abraham arguing against the destruction of the aforementioned Sodom and Gommorah. But Jonah doesn’t even with to argue with the Lord, he simply rejects him and his will outright. Indeed, he tells the Mariners not that he is fleeing Nineveh, but that he he’s fleeing the Lord himself. Jonah’s a very troubling character, but I don’t detect any self-doubt in him! Or am I missing something?

Like you say, Jonah is complex! I sense some self-doubt in the first instance. Unlike Moses or Jeremiah he does not stand his ground and argue with God about his choice – choosing instead to slip away quietly. Ironically, his traumatic experiences seem, as you suggest, to harden his disagreement with God. Strange to say, we appear to see him ‘growing’ from self-doubt into ‘God-doubt’ as the story progresses.

3)      About those mariners: they are there in only a few lines, and it’s very likely that I am over-interpreting things here, but I was very struck by their situation. It’s not said explicitly, but the way I read it they were all praying to a different set of Gods – I envisioned them as a crew blending many nations, a sort of precursor to our multicultural society. And I was rather touched by how hard they try to do what they feel is right – each prays to his own god, but also is perfectly willing to believe in the efficacy of the prayers of the others to THEIR own gods. Including Jonah’s. Then when they hear Jonah’s tale and his self-accusation, they must have been so outraged (here was this stranger to them, endangering the lives of everyone on the ship with his selfishness!) but they still try to protect him until the last minute, even though he has shown himself quite unworthy, even though he has put them all at risk. And then, in extremity, they finally do send Jonah over the side, in violation of their own moral code and what does the Lord do? He ends the storm! He says, YES – you were right to do this bad thing, and the good thing you were trying to do by protecting this man nearly got you killed. The text says that then the men, “Feared God exceedingly” (and well they might!) and they sacrificed and made vows to him. Well, yes. Fear of God seems justified here. But the Lord hasn’t inspired them through love, he’s beaten them into submission and demanded that they behave appallingly in service to his own unknowable will. God, I’m sorry to say, is being ROTTEN here, using these Mariners’ lives just to torment a man who is a stranger to them. What about their fates? Their conscience? I find the Lord’s behaviour appalling here, as I often do in the Old Testamant (think of Job’s poor wives and children, killed off to make a point and then replaced – disposed of to make God’s point) and so different than the New Testament God of humility and mercy. How can these be reconciled? They seem so opposite, I’ve never really understood how the Old Testament Father can be conceived as the same as the New Testament son?

My first comment would be that I am refreshed by your honesty. Maybe pulpits would feel like more accommodating places if preachers felt that once in a while they could describe God as ‘rotten’ or his behaviour as ‘appalling’ as you have done. Secondly, I believe that the sailors’ lives were never in any terminal danger, since God knew how things would turn out in the end. Thirdly, I have to say that I see the move from Old Testament to New Testament as evolution rather than revolution. Not only that, but it is an evolution in the understanding of God, rather than his nature. That understanding moves from pantheism (God is everything) to polytheism (many things with a god for each) to henotheism (lots of gods but mine is better than yours) to monotheism (there is only one God). Even once monotheism is reached, the view of that one God is clouded by prejudice and dullness. The arrival of Jesus heralds a new understanding that the one God is like this

4)      When Jonah tells the Mariners that he’s fleeing the Lord he tells them that the only way they can save themselves  is by flinging him into the sea – you give him credit in your book for courage in facing up to the truth. But I question that. The way Jonah phrases it, he is accepting the blame but not the responsibility. “Throw me into the sea” he says – but that forces upon these men the responsibility to do a wrong thing in order to save themselves. Why didn’t he jump? Suicide is a grievous sin in his culture, but so is denying the Lord, and his suicide at this point would save all the people on that ship whilst placing responsibility where it belonged. But even that wasn’t necessary – he could have addressed God directly – promising to do what he’d refused. Or even just tell the sailors to turn around and make for Nineveh – that might have appeased the Lord. But no. He stands there on the deck stubbornly refusing to either change his mind or taken upon himself the consequences. I found it a very cowardly action.

As with many of us, the moment of crisis brings the worst out of us, rather than the best. He is too angry to change his mind and ask the crew to head for Nineveh, and too afraid to take the matter up with God directly. I think he asks the sailors to toss him in in exactly the same way as a first-time parachutist asks to be shoved from the plane. I suspect that this way also felt like more of a (deserved) punishment to him too.

5)      In the belly of the whale, Jonah makes promises to God. But, as with the Mariners, he doesn’t seem to me to be moved by grace or compassion – he seems beaten into submission. I had thought of the story as one of repentance and finding grace in the darkest places – but in context, Jonah just seems to be making a deal. So I wonder – given especially that he will very soon be seen to reject the Lord’s will again when he chooses to spare Nineveh – how sincere do you think Jonah’s conversion is here? Are we supposed to believe it is heartfelt, or to read it as a calculation?

I don’t believe it is very sincere at all. Louis Armstrong famously sang that “Jonah went on to preaching like a righteous man” . I disagree with Satchmo on that. What follows in the rest of the tale proves that Jonah’s experience in the whale brought about partial change of heart at most.

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I am sure that many will disagree with the points raised by Karin or I here. Please feel free to join the conversation!

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