Sunday, January 4, 2015

Jonah and the Rest of the Story

The story of Jonah is one of those Bible stories that everyone has heard of.  He’s the guy who was swallowed by the whale.
But although people like to focus on the fishy aspects of the tale, that’s only the beginning of the story, and not even necessarily the most important part.  What happened to Jonah after the whale, and what does it have to do with a Colocynth?

A what?

To begin with, let’s start out with the familiar part.

Jonah was a prophet living in a town called Gath Hepher in Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II, somewhere around 800-750 BC.  It was a time of relative peace and prosperity for Israel, and during this period King Jeroboam recovered territory which had previously been taken by the King of Damascus.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah, commanding him to go to the city of Nineveh, the Assyrian capital of King Sennacherib, and to preach against it.  Nineveh was a great city and in the Bible is associated with wickedness. The prophets Nahum and Zephaniah also prophesied the destruction of Nineveh; but they didn’t have to actually go there.

Jonah did not particularly want to go to Nineveh, so he went instead to the port of Joppa and booked passage on a ship bound for Tarshish, which many scholars identify with Tartessos, a Phoenician mining colony in southwestern Spain; about as far in the opposite direction from Nineveh as Jonah could go.

A violent storm came up which threatened to sink the ship, and the sailors guessed (rightly) that the gods must be pissed at someone.  They cast lots to try determining who the guilty one might be, and the lot fell to Jonah.

Jonah confessed that he had disobeyed God and that the storm was all his fault.  He told the sailors to throw him overboard and that then the sea would become calm.  At first the sailors refused and tried to save Jonah – showing a greater moral sensibility than the man of God did -- but the storm became even more violent and finally they felt they had no choice.  Begging the Lord’s forgiveness, they do as Jonah said and chuck the prophet overboard. 

But the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.  (Jonah 1:17 NIV)

This is the part that people get hung up on.  It sounds impossible.  Jonah couldn’t have been swallowed by a whale, because a whale’s throat is too narrow for a man to pass through.  Well, technically the original Hebrew says “big fish” not whale, but that doesn’t make things much better.  How many fish are there that big?  Was it a special fish, created specifically for this purpose, like an aquatic version of the Cat-bus from My Neighbor Totoro?  Or was it, as some more prosaic critics have suggested, merely a second ship whose name happened to be “The Fish” that came along in time to pick up Jonah before he drowned?

However he was saved, Jonah did not drown.  He spent three days in the belly of the beast, and he prayed.  And this is where we pick up the story:

“In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me.From the depths of the grave I called for help and you listened to my cry.” (Jonah 2:2)

After three days, God commands the fish to regurgitate Jonah on dry land.  Then once again he gives Jonah his commission:  “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I will give you.”  (Jonah 3:2)  Running away won’t do any good.  Jonah obeys and goes to Nineveh.

Nineveh was located on the Tigris river in the northern part of Mesopotamia, across from the modern day city of Mosul.  The King James version tells us that it was “an exceeding great city of three days’ journey.”  

That can’t mean that it took Jonah three days to get there; the coast of the Mediterranean Sea lies hundreds of miles away from the city. In order for the Big Fish to deposit Jonah three days away from Nineveh, it would have had to swim all the way around Africa, up the Persian Gulf, and most of the way up the river Tigris, all within the three days Jonah was inside its belly.  Herman Melville, dissecting Jonah in one of the chapters of Moby-Dick, found this even harder to believe than the whole “swallowed by a whale” business.

A more likely interpretation is that Nineveh was so big it took three days to walk around it.  Archaeological excavations around the site of Nineveh suggest that it was about eight miles around – considerably less than a three-day walk.  But perhaps the text is referring to the Greater Nineveh Metro Area, including a few nearby cities as suburbs.  Or perhaps it means that it took Jonah three days to visit all the neighborhoods of the city doing his preaching.  This is the interpretation the NIV translation leans toward:  “a visit required three days.”

So Jonah goes through Nineveh, warning them that the city would soon be destroyed.  “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” (Jonah 3:4)  And something remarkable happens.

People believe him.

The Ninevites believed God.  They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. (Jonah 3:5-6)

The king decrees a national period of prayer and fasting, and urges his citizens to give up their violent and evil ways in hopes that God would relent and decide not to destroy Nineveh after all.

And God does relent:

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened. (Jonah 3:10)

Now it’s Jonah’s turn to be pissed.  He knew this would happen.  He knew that God was so compassionate, just so dang slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love that he’d wind up forgiving everybody.  “That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish,” he gripes.

God doesn’t see any reason for Jonah to be all cranky; but Jonah doesn’t feel like listening to reason.  He goes to a place east of the city and builds himself a little shelter in order to watch and wait, hoping he might get to see some cool fire ‘n’ brimstone action eventually.

Jonah was a prophet, not an architect, and the rude shelter he put together didn’t provide him with much in terms of protection from the elements; but God once again provided for him.  A vine grew up over the shelter and provided Jonah with some degree of shade.

What kind of vine was it?  King Jim calls it a gourd.  Other translations call it a shrub or a bush.  Many versions just call it a vine and leave it at that.  J.R.R. Tolkien, who translated the Book of Jonah for the Jerusalem Bible, called it a “colocynth”, a type of wild gourd common to the middle east and looking like a small watermelon.  His editors changed it to a castor oil plant, a tall, leafy plant of the region, possibly because they suspected he made "colocynth" up.  "None of your elf-words, Tollers!  This is serious!  This is the Bible!"

But the shady leaves of the colocynth didn’t last long.  After a day or two, God also sent a worm to chew on the vine.  The plant withered and died, leaving Jonah to roast in the sun.  Miserable and faint with the heat, Jonah complains that he’d be better off dead.

But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?” “I do,” he said.  “I am angry enough to die.” But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow.  It sprang up overnight and died overnight.  But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well.  Should I not be concerned about that great city?”  (Jonah 4:9-11)

God leaves Jonah, and the reader, with that rhetorical question. 

We don’t know what happened to Jonah afterwards; presumably he went home to Gath Hepher.  Maybe, as tradition state, he wrote the book about his adventure which bears his name; or perhaps it was written some time later by someone else.

Presumably the Ninevites relapsed into wickedness, because we know from history that eventually the Babylonians conquered Assyria and destroyed the city; although not before Assyria conquered and absorbed the Kingdom of Israel.  But for a time, they gained a reprieve from the destruction to come.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus cites the story of Jonah on an occasion when some Pharisees and teachers of the Law ask him to provide a miraculous sign to prove his credentials.

He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign!  But none will be given it except for the sign of the prophet Jonah.  For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.  The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here.”  (Matthew 12:39-41)

Here Jesus is stretching things.  It is only by a generous interpretation of the Gospel narrative that we can say Jesus was in the tomb for three days; and it wasn’t three whole days and three whole nights.  Still, I think we can grant the Gospels some poetic license here.

Although I have to wonder if the most significant parallel between the story of Jonah and the story of the Resurrection is not the number of days the protagonist spent buried away from the surface world but the message that God had compassion on the sinners who knew not their right hand from their left, and extended to them forgiveness.



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