Day 2 of my Our Bible App series on the Book of Jonah.
Read Jonah 1:1-16
“Once upon a time . . .”
These words are all one needs to hear in order to know what sort of story they’re about to encounter. Like a spell, they immediately transport our mind, shifting our expectations. Anything now might be possible: dragons? Elves? Of course. Tower-kept princesses with magical hair? Frogs morphing into handsome princes? A little weird, but why not?
Much as these words prepare a modern, English-speaking audience for the tale to come, so would the opening sentence of Jonah prepare its Jewish audience: vah-yehi, or, “And it came to pass . . .” Every scribe and rabbi, every Hebrew from the smallest child to venerated elders, knew that a story was about to begin. It might be based in reality or it might be a fish story, but the point was to attend to the tale.
Jonah son of Amittai is the only biblical prophet whose entire book is a narrative. The only prophet sent to a distant foreign land as a missionary. And the only one who had to be told twice. In fact, Jonah is not even called a “prophet” in the book that bears his name; we only know of him from a passing reference in II Kings 14:25, where he’s named as a “servant of the Lord” and a “prophet.”
The next time we see Jonah son of Amittai, he’s in a story bearing his name and following the Hebrew equivalent of “Once upon a time . . . .” Scholars believe the story stems from oral sources near the end of the Babylonian captivity (539 BCE), so its original audiences would have seen Jonah as a fringe character in their national history almost 200 years in their past. Everything here is nonspecific: “Tarshish” is a placeholder for the end of the world; the nationless sailors pray to any gods; the fish is without detail; the “King of Nineveh” is not identified with the real-life Assyrian ruler; we have no dates, and the geography is fuzzy at best – so these ambiguities combined with the formulaic introduction would immediately set the audience out of their own world and into one in which anything is possible.
Its begins normally, but quickly (v3) takes a sharp turn when the protagonist takes the utterly ridiculous step of trying to “run away from God,” thereby introducing one of our first types of literature found in this book: satire. Not only is it unheard of that a prophet would disobey God’s direct command, but many Hebrew Scriptures display a growing understanding that God is everywhere (Jer. 23:24; Ps. 139:7-10; Prov. 15:3), so attempting to outrun the Divine is more than impossible, it borders on the comical . . . or the tragic.
So the question is, What could cause Jonah to fall so far? Because his fall is sort of the point. The spiritual and moral descent of Jonah is masterfully written into the very geography of the tale: God’s first words to him are “Up!” but he immediately goes down to Joppa (v3), where he boards a ship bound for Tarshish – another purposefully vague term meaning “the end of the world” – and goes down into the hold (v5). Later, he is cast down “into the heart of the sea” (2:4). But why? Where is God currently residing that Jonah wants so badly to stay away?
In the city of Nineveh, home to the enemies of God’s people.
Jonah’s attitude isn’t without warrant. For now, let it suffice to say that these people were the worst. No really, they make the Romans look cute. The epitome of evil. A people without God and without the hope of God, the very definition of the alien, the Other.
So as Jonah sits aboard the storm-tossed ship, calmly talking theology with the frightened sailors while the very world seems to be ending, we are confronted with a man whose xenophobia, nationalism, and fear are so great that he would willingly damn an entire city and ship crew to destruction; and the story neither excuses nor defends him. As the ship threatens to capsize, we see his confession of faith (v9); a faith that, for all its orthodoxy is stained with indifference and murderous hatred for those whom he considers beyond God’s love.
Contrasted with this well-trained yet small-minded prophet are the sailors: men who, though being in the dark theologically, are light years beyond a preacher who refuses even to pray (v6)! In fact, Jonah would rather die (an idea we’ll see again), which is exactly what he’s asking for when he tells them to throw him overboard – he doesn’t know there’s a fish, he only sees death in the waves, but he would rather drown than share everything that was “his” – his God, the covenant promises, community, peace, life, etc. – with those whom he feared, those he considered “unworthy.” In so doing, he completely forgot the constant refrain of his people as they entered their own promised rest: for you were aliens in the land of Egypt (Exod. 22:21; 23:9; Deut. 5:15; 6:21; 24:18, 22; Lev. 19:34).
Later, as Jonah’s descendants listened to his tale, they too may have asked themselves how the was lost. How they too could find perfection in their theology yet rottenness in their hearts and darkness in their eyes. Perhaps a few of the brave among them even ventured to voice the questions: “Have I forgotten that I was once the alien? Who am I willing to abandon for my prejudice and fear? Who is my Other?”
Though the Assyrians have long since disappeared into the sands of history, we are still called to journey through the tale of the prophet and ask the question:
Who is your Other?