ONE OF MY FAVORITE
FEATURES ON THE television show Sesame Street when
I was growing up was a game entitled, "One of These Things
Is Not Like the Other." As the song played in the background,
we were challenged to find the one object out of the four
that was different: an orange, an apple, a pear and a spoon,
for example. Tucked in among the apples-and-oranges books
of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible is a spoon!
Jonah is that oddball piece of Scripture. Written several
centuries after the latest of the other prophetic books, this
little book is short on prophecy but long on a narrative that
satirizes a number of sacred cows and provides genuine insight
into what following a call from God really means.
From the opening
verses of the Book of Jonah it becomes clear that we're dealing
with an unusual hero. In response to God's call to head out
for the city of Nineveh (located at the center of the Assyrian
Empire that encompassed parts of Asia Minor and Mesopotamia)
and preach a call for repentance to its inhabitants, Jonah
jumps aboard the nearest ship and gets movingbut not to
Nineveh. He boards a ship heading for a place called Tarshish.
While no one is sure exactly where Tarshish was located, the
consensus is that it was somewhere along the southwest coast
of Spain, the ends of the earth as far as the ancient Mediterranean
world was concerned. According to the scriptural text, Jonah
was on the lam, running "away from the Lord" (Jonah 1:3).
Assignment, Should You Choose...
It's not hard
for me to sympathize with this reluctant prophet. The Assyrians
are notorious in the annals of the ancient Middle East because
of their power and the atrocities attributed to them during
their conquests. Assyrian stone carvings that have been uncovered
in modern times proudly display corpses of defeated soldiers
that have been decapitated or otherwise mutilated. In the
background the ruins of the conquered city can be seen in
How much of
this was a form of propaganda designed to intimidate enemies
and how much was based on reality is unknown, but as far as
Israel was concerned the legend became a nightmare in 721
B.C. The Assyrian invasion of the Jewish homeland in that
year resulted in the total obliteration of the 10 northern
tribes of Israel, plus a prolonged siege of the city of Jerusalem
that would have resulted in the city's total destruction had
the Assyrian army not retreated for unexplained reasons.
By the time
the Book of Jonah was written, probably in the fifth century
B.C., the now extinct city of Nineveh would have remained
a symbol of the greatest abomination to God on the face of
the earth in the eyes of the Jews. How could God possibly
want to save those people?
from God is rooted in the basic human sin of pride, something
with which I am all too familiar. Mystified by the ways of
God that may seem totally irrational and unfair, Jonah presumes
to know better, takes matters into his own hands and leaves
God behindor tries to.
takes matters into his own hands and leaves God behindor tries to.
As the psalmist
expresses most eloquently in Psalm 139 ("Where can I go from
your spirit...if I go up to the heavens you are there"), you
can't outrun God. As Jonah's ship makes its way through the
waters of the Mediterranean, a great storm hits. The captain
and crew try everything to keep the ship afloat. Cargo is
thrown overboard, prayers to any and all deities are attempted,
but nothing works.
the very destruction of the ship and loss of all hands seem
imminent, Jonah 'fesses up. As the sailors listen with horror,
Jonah informs them that he is in the process of fleeing the
God of the Hebrews and that the storm is the manifestation
of the divine wrath. There's an interesting bit of satire
at work here, I suspect.
of the sailors and, to some extent, Jonah himself, reflect
the essence of ancient pagan approaches toward the gods and
goddesses. Generally speaking, the various deities of pagan
religions were seen as apathetic if not openly hostile to
humankind and were to be more feared than respected, and certainly
not loved. Crossing a god meant signing your own death warrant.
But we should
know better, the author of this book seems to be reminding
his Jewish audience. For when Jonah resigns himself to his
apparent fate and allows himself to be thrown overboard in
an effort to save the rest, this apparent capitulation to
the vengeance of the gods becomes something very different.
Jonah does not experience divine retribution. Instead, he
undergoes the groanings and pain of a rebirth.
It's a process
that begins in the belly of the fish that God sends to swallow
him. (That's an anonymous sea creature, by the way. Never
is it referred to as a whale!) The idea of the three days
Jonah spent in the belly of the fish as the turning point
of his life and the beginning of his true destiny was not
lost on the Jewish Christians whose preaching formed the basis
of the gospel tradition. You'll find the comparisons of Jonah's
adventure and the resurrection of Jesus in the Gospels of
Matthew and Luke and in Paul's writings.
What can one
do when he or she is in the belly of the fish? In those lucid
and transcendent moments of our lives, moments often brought
into being during times of trial and struggle, when the vision
of another way of living and a closeness with God we didn't
realize was possible just begin to crest over the horizon,
all we really can do is what Jonah does: Pray. The bulk of
Chapter Two consists of Jonah's prayer of thanksgiving to
In some beautifully
scripted verses that mostly incorporate verses from the Psalms,
Jonah thanks God for sparing him. Once and for all, he denounces
everything in his life which he has allowed to get in the
way of hearing God's call. "Those who worship vain idols/
forsake their source of mercy./But I, with resounding praise,/
will sacrifice to you;/ What I have vowed I will pay:/ deliverance
is from the Lord" (Jonah 2:9-10).
In the context
of the time period when this book was written, these words
are perhaps the author's clearest condemnation of the polytheistic
practices which continually threatened to swallow up the monotheism
of Judaism. Even though our idols are different, the words
of Jonah continue to ring true through the centuries.
The true price
of our relentless pursuit of money, power and popularity,
for example, is to cut ourselves off from the source of our
own lives. The way out of the belly of the beast is to acknowledge
that only God can get us out.
With this prayer,
the reorientation of Jonah's life is complete. Having placed
himself fully in God's camp, Jonah is now open to being the
instrument God intends him to be. Jonah finds himself on the
shorea wonderful image for the beginning of life and of
Lenthaving been spewed out by the fish.
Three begins, Jonah sets off for the huge metropolis of Nineveh.
And a miracle happens.
begins to preach his warning to the people of the city when
everyone, from the king right on down to the most humble peasant,
listens and responds. Every person (and animal!) dons sackcloth,
an ancient symbol in both Judaism and the early Church of
a person who is in the midst of performing a genuine act of
repentance. God sees all, and forgives.
From a Jewish
point of view, Jonah has marched into the very pit of hell
and God's power has triumphed. Any Broadway or Hollywood production
of this story could end right here, complete with a dancing
chorus of Assyrians and appropriately joyous music in the
background. But real life tends not to be so tidy.
As we enter
into the fourth and final chapter of the book, the focus shifts
back to Jonah and what he thinks of the act of salvation demonstrated
before his very eyes, an act he has played an integral part
in achieving. Does he fall on his knees in thanksgiving once
again? Stand silent and awestruck at the incredible beauty
of God's love? Settle down among the folks he has helped?
not too happy about things. In exposing the logic behind the
unhappiness Jonah expresses to God, the author of this book
reaches the height of his skills as a satirist. Probably aimed
at his own community's ultranationalist feelings, the words
still speak powerfully to any one of us "good" people who
in our hearts have closed off the possibility of redemption
for someone or some group.
"This is why
I fled at first to Tarshish," Jonah tells the Almighty. "I
knew that you are a gracious and merciful God..." (Jonah 4:2).
In other words, Jonah simply could not bear the thought that
God might forgive these murderous wretches.
When I read
these words, I think about how lukewarm or downright ambivalent
my own prayers and actions toward the more "unlikable" members
of my own community can bea difficult student or colleague,
for exampleand begin to feel the hard edges of the boundary
lines I've erected within my efforts to forgive without limits
as Jesus did. What is most amazing about this insight is that
the author is writing about 400 years before Jesus, at a time
when a thought such as this would cross the line into heresy.
Perhaps it still does.
journey continues into a new and more difficult stage. It
is tough to let go of our own self-centered desires and goals
and consciously allow God into the business of daily living.
But it is much tougher, I think, when we begin to see that
the work God has set us to do is not what we expected it would
be, when the results seem hard to find or even appear counter
to what we thought holiness and goodness were all about.
suggest, for example, a similar experience among the first
women and men who followed Jesus. All of the Gospels include
stories early in the ministry of Jesus which demonstrate the
apostles' decision to leave their former ways of life and
adopt radically new life-styles in following Jesus.
But this initial
commitment, important as it is, is merely the first chapter
of their faith lives. The deeper understanding and openness
to what it really means to be a follower of Jesus come only
after their divinely aided struggle through the terrible reality
of the crucifixion.
case, we never learn whether or not his transformation is
complete. This may be the most meaningful thought of all we
can take away from this book as we each work through our own
Lenten journey toward the ultimate celebration of
the Resurrection beyond this all-too-
limited physical existence.
God hears Jonah
out and responds, not with flashing thunder and lightning
or celestial visions designed to dazzle and overwhelm, but
in a simple way. "Have you reason to be angry?" God asks Jonah
(Jonah 4:4). Jonah does not respond.
God has sent
a sign. As Jonah sits, brooding, on a hill overlooking the
city that he helped save, baked in the hot Middle Eastern
sun, God sends him a plant with large, shady leaves. For a
moment, Jonah is comforted. But then, just as suddenly, God
takes the plant away. When Jonah (inevitably) complains, God
seizes the "teachable moment." If you can feel such anguish
over the loss of a plant, God says, can't you find it in your
heart to feel something for your fellow human beings?
We leave the
reluctant prophet on the hill, bereft of shade and easy answers,
pondering the questions God has posed. Struggling to free
himself from his reluctance, egocentrism and pride, fundamentally
determined to do as God wills but not fully understanding
what that means, Jonah stands as a model for every one of
In what is
perhaps the greatest irony of the story, the least prophetic
of all of the prophets emerges as the most human. In the midst
of all his ambivalence, Jonah is a most effective instrument
of God. His struggle to come to terms with the power and love
of God within his limited horizons of being is our struggleduring
Lent and during life.
is a teacher of religious studies at Christ the King High
School in Queens, New York, and at St. John's University,
also in Queens. He has also written for U.S. Catholic
and Youth Update. He lives in Syosset, New York, with
his wife and daughter.