An excerpt from my upcoming collection of essays, For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book, Rutgers University Press. To order: PH 800-848-6224 or online rutgerspress.rutgers.edu.

About the Author:

Alicia Suskin Ostriker is an award-winning poet, critic, and midrashist, whose writing appears in many Jewish anthologies and journals. She is the author of The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions (Rutgers University Press).

Jonah: The Book of the Question

If we obey God, we must disobey ourselves.
–Herman Melville, Moby Dick

“And the Lord prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights…And the Lord spoke unto the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.” Children love it. Very young ones listen very carefully. Older ones are inclined to remark “yuck,” or perhaps “cool.”

Jonah-and-the-whale is what most people remember of the story, and it has the same sort of childish appeal as Noah’s ark, another sensational yarn involving storm and survival, death-threat and enclosure.

There is more to it than that. Each year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement which is the most solemn in the Jewish calendar, the Book of Jonah is read in the afternoon service, minhah. Here, it is a parable about repentance, emphasizing the idea of a universally merciful God, but told in such a folk-tale style that it usually functions as a bit of relief from the weightiness of the day—at least, until the last sentence.

The last sentence of the Book of Jonah impels us into outer space. Or perhaps it is inner space. The whole book has led us into the web of what T.S. Eliot calls an “overwhelming question.” In this most politically and psychologically fraught tale, inner and outer space, the world and the self, become dark mirrors to each other.

The story consists of four brief chapters, each a clear unit, each unit taking a hairpin turn from what comes before.

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* Running Away

When God calls you, you have some options. You can say, “Here am I,” like Abraham. You can be present, your soul an open book, you can make yourself fearlessly receptive and ready to be entered. Or you can try to hide like Adam, when God comes looking for you in the garden in the cool of the day, because you are ashamed of being naked. You can try to resist whatever it is God wants of you. Why me? says Moses, and has to be elaborately convinced that he can speak to Pharaoh despite his speech impediment (Ex.3.4-10). Prophets commonly protest their incapacity when first confronted by divine command. Jeremiah fears that he is like a child who “does not know how to speak” (Jer 1.6). Isaiah insists, “I am a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6.5). In a way, the initial self-doubt of a holy man may be a sign of his holiness.

Or you can run. Most of us run. We are busy people, we have a hundred things to accomplish every day, endless obligations to keep us running, too busy for anything like a still small voice—which might be God’s voice, might be our own, we really don’t want to hear it. A plane to catch, the cleaning to pick up, the papers to plow through, the car to get repaired, the dishes to wash, the calls to make. The kids to ferry, the dinner, the doctor, the vacation, the theater tickets. The beer to drink, the pills to take. Possibly we sense a cold wind at our backs, the whir of wheels, but if we keep moving, whatever it is won’t catch up. If we keep the internal volume raised, with all its useful cacophonous static, we may manage never to hear that commanding voice.

Jonah is somebody who wishes he never heard it. In 2 Kings 14.25, a “Jonah son of Ammitai” is called a prophet, and said to have lived in the time of king Jereboam, in the 8th c BCE. The apocryphal book of Tobit (14.4, 8) also refers to a prophet Jonah. But the Jonah of the book of Jonah is never called a prophet. An ordinary man, he does what most of us might do. His tale is packed with amazing events that are fiction-candy to children and grownups, but instead of Odysseus or Superman, it has an anti-hero at its narrative center.

Jonah runs. He hears one sentence and he flies. His name means “dove,” which in Torah usually suggests good and auspicious things. A dove finds land for Noah (Gen. 8.11-12). In an image of salvation in Psalm 68.14, “The wings of the dove are covered with silver, and her pinions with the shimmer of gold.” In Song of Songs 5.2, it becomes an endearment: “my dove, my perfect one.” On the other hand the Zohar treats Jonah’s name as a participle of ynh, to oppress or maltreat, and calls him “the aggrieved one.” Jonah, however, is far from perfect. Whether he is to be seen as aggrieved or oppressed is for the reader to decide.

The sentence Jonah has heard is “Arise [or, more colloquially, Get up], go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their wickedness has come up before me”(1.2). The situation parallels what happens in other prophetic books, with one major difference. Jonah is being asked to preach to pagans. Nineveh is a huge Assyrian city famous for evil-doing and violence, which might lead us to expect a Sodom and Gomorrah plotline. But Jonah wants no part of this plot. He “arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord” (1.3). This is maximally speedy storytelling, leaving us no time to ask what Jonah’s reasons are, and in effect letting us feel that he doesn’t have reasons, doesn’t need reasons, just acts on instinct—the instinct to escape. Joppa, the modern Jaffa south of today’s Tel Aviv, has been a port city for thousands of years. Scholars have never actually located Tarshish, but the point of it seems to be that Tarshish is in exactly the opposite direction from Nineveh, effectively at the ends of the earth, perhaps somewhere in Spain, perhaps Cadiz. It is said that Tarshish was beyond the area of the world where Jahweh’s name was known. Jonah might be thinking that if the people in Tarshish have never heard of God, perhaps God won’t find him there, perhaps “the presence of God” doesn’t reach that far. Of course, we as audience are expected to know better, and to recognize in advance that Jonah is fooling himself. Story logic in every culture says that we can run but we can’t hide. God’s universal presence is sung in Psalm 139, a psalm affirming God’s absolute knowledge of all the singer’s ways and words, even in the womb, and the impossibility of hiding anything from his omniscience and omnipresence:

Whither shall I go from thy spirit?
Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there,
If I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there shall thy hand lead me,
And thy right hand shall hold me. (7-10)

Still, we can recognize Jonah’s impulse in ourselves—an irrational one, perhaps, like that of a child who hopes to escape a parental demand, but no less universal for being irrational. The desire to escape destiny goes at least as far back as the Oedipus story. The drive to flee social and religious constraint is poignantly explored in American literature, these thousands of years later, from Melville’s Ishmael and Twain’s Huck Finn to Gatsby, Kerouac, and beyond.

But the action in the Jonah story is swift. Jonah tries to escape, “But the Lord hurled a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken” (1.4). The sailors are afraid, pray to their gods and cast their freight overboard, while Jonah, fast asleep in the bottom of the ship, has to be wakened by the captain who urges him to pray: “Get up,” cries the captain, using the same imperative as God, “call upon your god, it may be that the god will think upon us, that we perish not” (1.6). Notice that the term here is the generic elohim, not Jahweh. The crew casts lots to see who is to blame for the storm, and when the lot falls on Jonah and they ask him who is, he replies “I am a Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who has made the sea and the dry land” (1.9). Notice that Jonah does use the name Jahweh here. Now the sailors are “very afraid,” and Jonah tells them to throw him overboard to stop the storm. Instead, they row harder, but the storm grows worse.

Beseeching the Lord not to hold them guilty of innocent blood, they throw Jonah overboard. The storm stops immediately. The sailors then “feared the Lord exceedingly; and they offered a sacrifice unto the Lord, and they made vows” (1.16).

This closes Jonah’s opening chapter. The chapter has given us a sense of God’s universal power in the cosmos and over nature, as well as evidence that Jonah is well aware of that power. It has also given us our first picture of virtuous pagans, for the behavior of the crew is morally exemplary. A charming midrash in the 9th century Pirke Eleazer says that men of all 70 languages on earth were on board, and that they dipped Jonah into the raging ocean three times—first to his knees, then his navel, then his neck, the storm abating each time but beginning again when they lifted him—before they reluctantly decided to cast him overboard. Most hauntingly, the chapter gives us a Jonah whose impulse to escape is as powerful as God’s determination to prevent his escape. There are hints that what he wants to escape is not simply God, but himself. Jonah goes “down” to Joppa, “down” into the ship, “down into the bowels of the ship” where his stupor during the tempest implies a quest for oblivion. When he finally volunteers, it is not to pray like the ship’s crew, or to do what God has required, but to be drowned.

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* The Fish

Chapter two begins with the fish swallowing Jonah. Here it seems we are at the heart of the fable, or rather the belly of the beast—at any rate, its most familiar symbol. Are we terrified, are we relieved? Surely both. I remember from adolescence a deliciously frightening comic book character called The Heap, who rose from slime and engulfed enemies. Before that, I applauded when the crocodile got Captain Hook. From “The Little Shop of Horrors” to “Jaws” and beyond, a fleet of film fantasies involves organisms with monstrous swallowing capacities. At the same time, our fear of being engulfed, our terror of the devouring mother, our fear of the dissolution of self, is—perhaps like all fears—mingled with desire. Like Keats, Jonah seems “half in love with easeful death;” in fact, as numerous commentators have observed, what we see in Jonah from the outset looks very like a latent death-wish. To be sucked into a belly that is reassuring womb as well as terrifying tomb means the cessation of anxiety. In other words, the fish is the completely appropriate solution to Jonah’s wish to escape, in which punishment for guilt blends with gratifying regression.

It is also a playground for interpreters. In Pirke Eleazer, the fish’s belly is like a great synagogue, with eyes for windows and a huge pearl hanging from the ceiling to give light; the fish takes Jonah on a suboceanic tour in exchange for being saved from Leviathan, an even bigger fish. Midrash Jonah, in response to a feminine ending on the fish in 2.1 (ha-dagah instead of ha-dag in 1.17) has him spat out by the initial fish into the mouth of a “pregnant fish with 365,000 small fish in her” whom God has appointed in order to make Jonah more uncomfortable. Condemning Jonah as being like a wet nurse who refuses to suckle the king’s own son, the midrash describes his skin as being eaten away by fishy digestive juices so that he finally yields to God “the prayer of the righteous.” Both these treatments have a distinctly humorous touch. The Zohar, on the other hand, sees Jonah’s descent as the soul’s descent into the world at birth–“Man, then, is in this world as in a ship that is traversing the great ocean and is like to be broken” –and sees the fish story as an allegory of death and resurrection. So too, in a different way, Matthew 12:30: “As Jonah was in the belly of the sea monster three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.” For the early Christian Fathers, Jonah is a prototype of Jesus, although in later Christian interpretation he becomes an emblem of Jewish stubbornness. The author of the Middle English poem “Patience” gives a splendidly elaborate picture of Jonah’s sojourn “in fat and in filth…nothing but muck and mire.” In Father Mapple’s sermon in Moby Dick, Jonah is a contemptible and tormented criminal grateful for his punishment, while by the end of the novel the whale and God are indistinguishably fused.

Twentieth century interpretations of the fish-belly also vary widely. For Carl Jung the fish illustrates the principle that “only in the region of danger (watery abyss, cavern, forest, island, castle, etc.), can one find “the treasure hard to attain (jewel, virgin, life-potion, victory over death).” In the poet Stephen Mitchell’s “Jonah,” it resembles an analyst’s comfortable couch. In Wolf Mankiewitz’ one-act play It Should Happen to a Dog, Jonah delivers quips like a standup Yiddish-inflected comedian, and the fish-belly smells like Billingsgate (the East London fish market). Norma Rosen’s “Justice for Jonah, or a Bible Bartleby,” gives Jonah a vision of future Jewish suffering down to the Holocaust as a corrective to the idea of a God of justice. For George Orwell in the essay “Inside the Whale,” the belly represents irresponsible apolitical quietism that accepts “concentration camps, rubber truncheons, Hitler, Stalin, bombs…putsches, purges…” The novelist Julian Barnes, on the other hand, describes Jonah’s God as a fascist dictator, western imperialist, or moralistic bully.

It is important to notice that just as Chapter One of Jonah spends no time analyzing Jonah’s motives, so Chapter Two dwells not at all on the fish’s symbolism—which is probably why Jonah’s readers have been encouraged to be so fertile with interpretations. The unsaid draws us to fill in the blanks with our own myths and fantasies. In fact, Chapter Two takes just two sentences to say that Jonah was swallowed by the fish, was in the fish’s belly three days and three nights, and then prayed. The entire remainder of Chapter Two is the text of Jonah’s prayer, followed by the Lord’s instruction to the fish to spew him out. With the prayer we go abruptly from prose to poetry, and from efficiently zippy narrative to sublimity.

The text reads like a collage of lines from a variety of psalms, with emphasis on descent, watery submersion, and salvation:

Out of my affliction I called to the Lord, and he answered me;
Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.
For you did cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas,
So that your floods surrounded me, all your billows and waves passed over me.
Then I said, I have been cast out from your sight, yet will I look again to your
holy temple.
The waters surrounded me, even to my soul; the deep closed around me.
Weeds were wrapped around my head; I went down to the bottoms of the
mountains; the earth with her bars closed upon me for ever.
Yet you have brought my life up from the pit, O Lord my God.
When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord,
And my prayer went up to you, into your holy temple.
Those who regard worthless idols forsake their own mercy.
But I will sacrifice to you with the voice of thanksgiving:
I will fulfill what I have vowed. Deliverance belongs to the Lord.

There are some odd things about this prayer, despite its powerful imagery. One is that it seems to be expressing gratitude for something that has not yet happened. Jonah has not actually been rescued, although he talks as if he had. Is he hoping to move the Lord proleptically? Is he simply scavenging for appropriate phrases? Is he perhaps grateful to be where he is? Another oddity is that, for all its beautiful metaphor, Jonah’s prayer does not, in fact, express repentance for disobedience. It imagines and vows temple worship and sacrifice, rituals unconnected with God’s original command to him. The astute reader may recall the numerous occasions in prophetic literature when God insists that he despises mere ritual worship that is not accompanied by deeds of justice. Still, since the prayer is followed by Jonah’s deliverance back to dry land, it appears that God has found it acceptable. At this point, we may think we have a rather conventional death-and-rebirth story. We must think again.

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* Nineveh Repents

At the opening of Chapter III, God hits the repeat button: “And the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you” (3.1). We are firmly if rather humorously back exactly where we started. This time Jonah goes, “according to the word of the Lord” (3.3). What follows has, just as much as the whale tale, the quality of fantasy and hyperbole. We are told that Nineveh “was an exceedingly great city” (ir ha-gadol l’elohim), literally a great city to God, or as we might put it, a Godawful great city, of “three days’ journey” (3.3). At its height, judging by its archeological remains, Nineveh would have taken an hour or so to traverse, but the story needs exaggeration. Marvelously exaggerated too is the Ninevite response to Jonah’s arrival. “Jonah began to enter the city a day’s journey, and he proclaimed, and said, ‘Forty more days and Nineveh shall be overthrown’” (3.4), at which the Ninevites immediately believe God, start to fast, and put on sackcloth “from the greatest to the least” (3.5). When the king hears of this he too dons sackcloth, rises from his throne and sits in the dust, orders fasting and sackcloth not only for people but for animals: “Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing; let them not feed, nor drink water, but let them be covered with sackcloth, both man and beast, and let them cry mightily unto God.” Moreover, he adds, “let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows if God will not turn away from his hot anger, that we perish not?” (3.7-8)

So here is the second instance, far more wonderful and improbable than the first, of righteous pagans. Trying to imagine cows mooing mightily to God is funny. But the idea that the conversion happens from the ground up—populace first, king afterward–is an important one, as is the idea that repentance consists not only in ritual acts but in ceasing from evil and violence. Significantly, the king of Nineveh understands that the propitiation of a deity may or may not be successful. His “who knows,” like the “may be” of the captain, underscores the mystery of divine will. The “God” to which both he and his people refer is not the Jahweh of the Hebrews but the more generic (and plural form) “Elohim.” Yet in his hope that when people “turn,” God too may “turn,” he duplicates precisely the theology of Atonement essential to Yom Kippur, as well as the language of many of the Hebrew prophets who, in God’s name, promise precisely this to the straying children of Israel. If they turn, he will turn. If they repent, so will he. So it turns out. “And God saw their works, that they repented from their evil way, and God repented of the evil which he said he would do unto them, and he did it not” (3.10). “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown” has, incidentally, a double meaning. Hafak, overthrow or overturn, is the word used for what happens to Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19.29, Deut. 30.23, Amos 4.11, Jer. 20.16, Lamentations 4.6). However, as with oracles in classical Greece which can mean the opposite of what they seem (the most popular example is the one that tells the Lydian king Croesus that if he attacks Persia a great kingdom will be overthrown, but neglects to tell him it will be his own kingdom), it can also mean to turn over or turn around. Jonah presumably did not think of that.

At this point, it looks as if the didactic thrust of the story is that non-Israelites are subject to God’s wrath, but also to God’s mercy. The greatness of God is to be understood as universal and absolute, the will of God is to be understood as free. In a core statement of his readiness to change his mind, God announces to the prophet Jeremiah:

At one instant I may speak concerning a kingdom, to pluck up and to break down and destroy it, but if that nation turn from their evil, because of which I have spoken against it, I repent of the evil that I thought to do to it. And at one instant I may speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; but if it do evil in my sight, that it hearken not to my voice, then I repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit it. (Jeremiah 18.7-10)

The Jonah story is also implicitly proposing that pagans can be more deserving of God’s mercy than Israelites. When God charges Jeremiah to go to King Jehokiam, saying “It may be that the house of Judah will hear all the evil which I purpose to do to them, that they may return every man from their evil way, and I may forgive their iniquity and their sin” (Jer 36.3), the king cuts the prophet’s scroll in two and throws it into the fire; as a consequence, “man and beast” will suffer disaster (Jer 36.29). The king of Nineveh is clearly intended as a contrast to King Jehokiam. Surely if Nineveh can so successfully repent, it can be a model for Israel? If a pagan city can turn from the injustice and violence in its midst, cannot Israel do the same? “As I live, says the Lord, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezek. 33.11).

In this context we need to notice that after Jonah’s initial pronouncement, he disappears from the vast collective action of chapter three. On the one hand, we understand that his proclamation has precipitated all this action. On the other, the Ninevites believe “God” (Elohim) rather than Jonah; while he has been the center of the story until now, in chapter three he shrinks to vanishing point. This diminution will be essential to the scenario of chapter 4.

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* Sitting in the Desert

The opening of chapter 4 is stunning in its surprise and its force. The Ninevites have repented, and so has God; “he did it not.” Everyone has survived. We do not actually know if hafak is the word God dictated to Jonah or if he chose it himself, but either way, we can imagine God sitting back, deeply pleased at the outcome. We might consider this the happy ending we have been waiting for and which the descent-and-re-ascent theme anticipated, but we would be wrong. On the heels of “he did it not” comes this:

And it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord, and said, O Lord, was not this what I said, when I was still in my own country? Therefore I fled before to Tarshish. For I knew that you are a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness, and who relents from doing evil. Therefore now, I beseech you Lord, take my life from me; for it is better for me to die than live.(4.1-3)

–to which God responds by saying what may be translated as “Are you greatly angry?” or “Is it good for you to be angry?”

The issue is the fate of nations. The question could not be starker. Some traditional Jewish interpretations, as well as some modern commentators, claim that Jonah is angry that God has made a liar of him; he fears he will be condemned as a “false prophet.” Others say he fears that Ninevite repentance will cause God’s wrath to turn against a recalcitrant Israel, or wants to avoid saving a people who will later be among Israel’s cruelest enemies. The Assyrian empire of which Nineveh was the capital conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 BCE, driving its surviving inhabitants into exile. In one midrash, Ninevite repentance lasted only 40 days.

But Jonah’s declaration that foreknowledge of God’s mercy was what caused him to flee to Tarsish need not be taken at face value. On the contrary, we seem to be looking at a classical instance of passive aggression. “And it was evil to Jonah a great evil and it burned to him” is the literal translation of 4.1. The word for the evil, ha-ra’ah, may indicate wickedness, distress, or harm; the same ambiguous word is used for the evil of the Ninevites before their repentance and for the evil God planned to do to them before his own repentance. God has turned from the heat of his anger (3.9) and now Jonah is burning up with it. His barely-controlled rage at the idea that Nineveh will not be destroyed is as dramatic as any of the story’s more sensational happenings. It is here that the comic elements in the story turn dark, as the veiled hints of pathology in Jonah’s character abruptly intensify. Jonah has sought to escape not only God’s command, God’s regime, but the light of day. As Jonathan Magonet puts it, “Jonah in flight is on a journey away from God, on a journey towards death.” He has got himself below the waterline of his ship and slept like a dead man through the tempest. The belly of the fish was somehow where he wanted to be. Forcibly vomited forth, he has done what he had to do. His preaching has been effective beyond any prophet’s wildest dreams. Now, exposed to the brightness of the desert sun, he is like an angry shadow.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan asks Alyosha if he would—had he the ability—make the world into a paradise for human beings, at the cost of one child being beaten for eternity. Alyosha does not speak for a long time, and finally, weeping, says “No.”

Alyosha does not command a mass audience. As we know from a century of genocide that has touched every continent on the planet, the ease with which human beings can contemplate, not to mention participate in, the elimination of whole categories of fellow-creatures, seems to be rather basic to our species. People can be converted to wishing death to Americans, or Armenians, or Blacks, or Jews, or Palestinians, or Croatians, or Hutus, or homosexuals, or anyone who wears glasses and can read; and can be furiously indignant if prevented. We have in the United States the phenomenon of “shock jocks,” radio talk show hosts who imitate the manners of the sort of adolescent boy who has discovered he can get attention by being loudly, crudely, publicly bad. One such entertainer is famous for saying “There is only one way to get rid of nuclear weapons—use them.” Another called on the President to “drop a nuclear weapon” on a random Arab capital. “I think these people need to be forcibly converted to Christianity,” he told his many millions of listeners. “It’s the only thing that can probably turn them into human beings.” The gleeful stupidity of such utterances may be feigned for commercial purposes, but the hostility they represent is surely real, and addresses a welcoming audience.

Now let us imagine Jonah, utterly alone, sun beating down on him, praying to God to take his life. Of course he knew (or claims he did) that God was gracious and merciful, etc. Everyone knows that—these words are central to Jewish liturgy, because these are the words with which God proclaims his own attributes to Moses on Sinai: “Now the Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there and proclaimed, The Lord, the Lord God, gracious and merciful, longsuffering and abounding in lovingkindness and truth, keeping mercy to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Ex 34.5-7). But Jonah, like many of us—Jews, Christians, Muslims–does not in fact want God to be merciful. Jonah speaks the familiar devotional words with bitter teeth-grinding irony. It is as if he were saying to God “I knew you would act like a frigging bleeding-heart liberal.” He would rather die than see the Ninevites unharmed and himself embarrassed after predicting their annihilation. Here is one of the most devastating insights in the entire Bible. When God asks him if he is right to be so angry, Jonah does not answer. Does not deign to answer. Cannot. Too sullen to speak, he leaves the city and sits on its east side, making himself a shelter and waiting to see what will happen to the city. He wants it to suffer the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, apparently. Cataclysmic fire, smoke and ashes are what he waits for. He wants to see God nuke the city.

Just as he earlier appointed a fish, God at this point appoints a gourd to grow up over Jonah to give him shade and deliver him from misery. Jonah is “exceedingly grateful” for the gourd, in a mood swing that mirrors how he was “exceedingly angry” a short while before, for he is unaware that God now is playing a game with him. At dawn God appoints a worm to attack the plant so that it withers. When the sun rises he appoints a scorching east wind. Imagine Jonah now sitting there in the desert, fainting in the heat that reflects his own anger (just as the storm reflects his own storm) but also the desert sun, and thrashed by the east wind that is also the soul, ruach. “It is better for me to die than to live,” he says. Now comes God’s delicate joke. God has set Jonah up with the gourd trick.

And God said to Jonah, Is it right for you to be angry about the gourd? And he said, I do right to be angry, even unto death. Then said the Lord, You pity the gourd for which you have not labored nor made it grow, which was born in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?

Curtain. Blackout. The Book of Jonah concludes with this unanswered question. To read it is like running at top speed into a glass wall. Of course, God knows quite well that Jonah does not pity the plant, only himself. Pretending that he thinks otherwise is merely a tease; the divine tongue in the divine cheek. His description of the Ninevites as simple innocents is breathtakingly different from describing them either as wicked or as repentant; it is rather a means of making clear that from God’s perspective they are mere human beings, pathetic creatures not terribly different from their cattle. The cattle seem to be the crowning absurd touch in God’s little joke. Or perhaps this punch line is more than a joke, more than a way of equating the Ninevites with dumb animals, and even more than a statement of God’s ecological sensitivities. Cattle are supposed to rest on Shabbat just as people are. In Picasso’s Guernica, the twentieth century’s most powerful single image of the disasters of war may be the image of the screaming horse at the painting’s center.

The silence at the end of the book of Jonah is one of the most remarkable silences in all of literature. In both the Masoretic Torah and the Dead Sea Scrolls a space is left in the text after Jonah’s statement that he wants to die. The space indicates that Jonah’s shocking utterance must give us pause. Now at the text’s final stopping place, the silent space expands to circle the globe. Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and also much cattle? The question hangs in the air. The air is filled with ghosts. The silence in the air is as resonant as the final sentence of Beckett’s The Unnameable; “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

It is like the silence at the end of Dan Pagis’ poem, “Written in Pencil in a Sealed Railway Car:”
here in this transport
I eve
and abel my son
if you should see my older son
cain son of man

tell him that I

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* Jonah as Everyman

The stories of the prophets are peculiar to Jewish history. These men lived and preached in a tiny, rocky land that to them was a land of milk and honey, and in a city in which stood one of the greatest temples of the then-known world. They attacked corrupt kings, they attacked corrupt priests, they attacked the rich and powerful of their own society, they predicted the downfall of their own nation. In God’s name—commanded by God—they raved in the street, saying what God ordered them to say. Feed widows, children and strangers. Do justice, love mercy. Don’t take bribes. Pay workers the wages you’ve promised. Worship the true God, not idols. All of this was too difficult for the Israelites.
It is still too difficult for us. God was raving at the Israelites through the voices of the prophets. The audience could not hear, of course, just as we cannot. As a consequence, the prophets often experience abuse, death threats, despair. Still, it is to the prophetic tradition that we owe the concept of free speech, of “speaking truth to power,” as well as the concept of social justice.

Jonah is not a typical prophet, though he is given that title in Kings. Jonah seems to be the underside of prophecy, the seams and hanging threads of righteousness. The tree uprooted, showing its massive system of roots with earthen clods still clinging to them. Perhaps he is a parody prophet. Perhaps he is intended as the model bad example in contrast to Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah and the rest. But Jonah is also Everyman. He is our stubborn fear of change, our rejection of connection and love, our secret death wish. His is the despair, the depression, that is a kind of paralysis in human life. The story of Jonah connects the psychic dots that demonstrate the link between self-hatred and hatred of others. To put that link theologically, we might say Jonah sits sullenly in that place within each of us that resists doing what we know God wants.

And what does the God who made heaven and earth want of us now, each in our little sphere of existence? Do we have a clue? Do we have any idea what God wants us to do collectively, as nations? Does anyone even think to ask? Those who are confident that they already know are legion. The worst, as Yeats said, are full of passionate intensity. The best lack all conviction. Nobody has ears to hear. If I were God, I would be upset. I would feel like a betrayed lover, which is a figure that recurs all through prophetic literature. Or, more likely, I would feel like a teacher in an unruly classroom.

God is patient with Jonah as one would be with a child who needs to learn a lesson. When Jonah runs from God, God hurls a storm at him. When he tries to die, God saves him, sets him on his feet and repeats the original instruction. When he sulks, God steps back and asks him to look at himself. When he goes on sulking, God teases him. Their final conversation is worthy of first place in any collection of aggressive jokes. Freud says this of “the situation in which one person adopts a humorous attitude toward others:”

the subject is behaving towards them as an adult towards a child when he recognizes and smiles at the triviality of interests and sufferings which seem so great to it. Thus the humorist would acquire his superiority by assuming the role of the grown-up… and reducing others to being children.”
But perhaps God merely wants Jonah and the rest of us to grow up. Perhaps the strategy of telling Jonah’s story like a child’s story is designed to put us in touch with how much of the sulking child we each retain.

Grow up? Well, we won’t if we don’t want to. We’d rather die.

And so we leave the Jonah who is an aspect of ourselves sitting in the desert outside Nineveh, a desert we may imagine as resembling that of Los Alamos, where the first nuclear weapon was developed. The actual Nineveh was destroyed in the year 612 BCE; but it was never a place merely of myth. Its site was across the Tigris River from the present-day city of Mosul, in present-day Iraq. Here too we leave God with his unanswered question of whether or not we human beings (Jonah in the first instance, Israelites in the second, but of course the book is written for everyone) should prefer to see Others, who share the planet with us, creatures who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle, destroyed or saved.

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Notes to Jonah
See Yvonne Sherwood, A Biblical Text and Its Afterlives: the Survival of Jonah in Western Culture, (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2000), an exhaustive and entertaining study of “mainstream” and minority interpretations of Jonah down to the present day, p. 105.
See James Limburg, Jonah: A Commentary (London: SCM Press, 1993), 105-06. Limburg’s Appendices excerpt several texts from early Jewish and Christian commentaries on Jonah.
See Sherwood, 104-05, Limburg, 44.
Carl Jung, Symbols of Transformation (New York: Pantheon, 1956), 205.
Sherwood, 130-140, 166-7.
Midrash Jonah explains that this was accomplished by locking newborn calves away from their mothers, so that both calves and cows cried for each other.
Even as early as the Exodus God’s willingness to change his mind is made clear. When, after the episode of the Golden Calf, God is so infuriated that he declares he is going to “consume” all the Israelites with his “burning wrath,” and start a new nation with Moses, Moses calms him down by reminding him of his promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, pointing out that if he destroys Israel, the Egyptians will think he delivered them from Egypt just to kill them; in other words, his reputation will suffer. On this occasion “God relented from the evil which he said he would do to his people” (Ex32.11-14).
In Sanhedrin 59a, BQ 38a, Aboda 3a, Sifra Shemoth 13, “When a non-Jew turns to God and repents, he becomes greater than the high priest, the day becomes greater than Yom Kippur, and the place that witnesses it holier than the Holy of Holies.” Quoted by André Lacocque and Pierre-Emmanuel Lacocque, Jonah: A Psycho-Religious Approach to the Prophet (University of S. Carolina Press, 1990), 140. Compare Luke 15.7, “There is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous who need no repentance.” Not all versions of the story include Ninevite repentance, however. In the 2nd C. BCE book of Tobit, the aged Tobit advises his son to leave Nineveh because Jonah has (presumably accurately) predicted its destruction. The version told by Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews, published in late 1st c. CE, concludes with Jonah praying for and receiving pardon for his sins, prophesying the destruction of Nineveh, which Josephus has said did occur, and returning home. In the Koran, both Jonah and the Ninevites become exemplars of faith.
See Louis Ginzburg, The Legends of the Jews (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1913), 246-53. The Lacocques see Nineveh as both a symbolic Sodom and the 8th century BCE equivalent of Nazi Germany. They argue, however, that the book of Jonah satirizes post-exilic theocracy and exclusivist nationalism: “The restoration [of Israel], intimates the author of Jonah, will occur only with the nations, not without them” (126-7). Jack M. Sasson, among others (The Anchor Bible: Jonah, A New Translation with Introduction, Commentary, and Interpretation (NY: Doubleday, 1990), 274, observes that “Jonah’s alleged incapacity to share God’s love with anyone who is not a Hebrew has unfortunately become a metaphor [among Christian commentators] by which to censure Judaism”– despite the fact that the text is itself a Jewish one in which Jonah is being criticized, while numerous Jewish commentaries emphasize that the Ninevites, like the Israelites, are God’s handiwork. Sherwood discusses anti-Jewish readings of Jonah, 21-32.
Rabbi Jonathan Magonet, Whither Shall I Go From Your Spirit: A Study of the Book of Jonah (London: The Guild of Pastoral Psychology. Guild Lecture No. 208, Colmore Press, n.d.), 11.
Jacqueline Osherow has pointed out that Jonah omits from his version of the litany the word emet, truth (conference paper April 2005).
Of all twentieth century authors, Beckett may be the closest to the spirit of the author of the Book of Jonah in his sense of absurdity. In his “Act Without Words I: A Mime for One Player,” the scene is “Desert. Dazzling light.” A man is flung onstage, attempts to leave, is flung back, several times. A tree with a single bough descends from above to shade him, then its fronds close and the shade vanishes. See Samuel Beckett, Breath and Other Shorts (London: Faber and Faber, 1971), 23-29.
See the Lacocques, xviii and passim, on the “Jonah complex,” and their diagnosis of Jonah as “an acutely depressed person,” 88. See also Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being (NY: D. Van Nostrand, 1968) on “the Jonah syndrome,” and A.D. Cohen, “The Tragedy of Jonah,” Judaism 21 (1972), 164-75: “Jonah’s behavior represents a clear clinical picture of despair and, more fundamentally, of depression.”
Sigmund Freud, “Humour,” Abstracts of the Standard Edition of the complete Psychological Works, ed. Carrie Lee Rothget (NY: International Universities press, 1973).