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Sunday, July 10, 2011

Jonah: The Ironic Anti-Prophet

I like to think of Jonah as the Ironic Anti-Prophet.  He’s not just the “Reluctant Prophet” He’s not just the Unwilling Prophet.  He is the Anti-prophet. And it’s a fitting title, I think, for the hero (anti-hero?) of a story so full of irony.  He’s the anti-prophet because he runs away form his mission.  He’s the anti-prophet because he is constantly shown to be less faithful to God than the gentile characters of the story.

He’s the ironic anti-prophet because he’s the only successful prophet.  All the others were ignored, laughed at, arrested, beaten, or even killed for their prophecy. When they spoke the word of God they were ignored.  But Jonah, the anti-prophet speaks and the people respond.  In his success he is the anti-prophet.

And, what is more, he is the ironic anti-prophet because he thinks of his success as a failure.  When his predicted destruction after 40 days failed to occur he was angry. Jonah is an ironic anti-prophet.

And Jonah is a story, not a history.  It is, in all probability, a fiction.  Sometimes I say this and people get very animated.  Some of them get angry.  “If Jonah is only a story…” they sputter. “If Jonah is merely a fiction…”  But I didn’t say that. Let’s not denigrate stories that way.  Only a story?  Stories are important.  We live on stories.  We tell stories because it’s part of who we are, part of what we are.  Stories shape us and then we tell stories about how stories have changed us, and then stories about those stories about stories.  To say that Jonah is a story isn’t to de-value it, or to diminish its truth.  Even fiction can tell the truth – and sometimes it tells the truth better than non-fiction.

Jonah is a story told to delight us and to make us laugh.  We can laugh at the anti-prophet’s attempts to flee from the omnipresent God.  We can laugh at the series of what seem to be successive practical jokes that Yahweh heaps upon the anti-prophet – the sudden storm, choice of Jonah by lots, the strange fish, the overnight vine and the devouring worm… But even as we’re amused and as we’re laughing at the antics of the anti-prophet we’re being challenged and confronted with very serious questions.  It’s not the Israelite anti-prophet who really hears and obeys the word of Yahweh, it’s the coarse gentile sailors and the wicked Assyrians.  What does this mean?  Those in the story who deserve God’s wrath receive his mercy, and the one who should be in God’s favor is hounded by his fury.  Why?  Even as we laugh at Jonah we are confronted with ourselves and with the presence of God.

These are thought provoking issues and are much more important than making the book of Jonah into a battleground for zoological debate, speculating about the size of fishes and the possibility of survival within the gastric juices of some marine monster.  (DiGangi – pg. 55)  [i]  This is not a story about a whale or a fish (a distinction not made by the ancients). This is story about an obstinate anti-prophet and about the mercy of God. 

The story begins, as so many biblical stories do, with the voice of God.  “The word of Yahweh was addressed to Jonah son of Amittai…”  Unlike most of the other prophets we’re not given a setting in place and time.  We’re not told when and where or during the reign of which kings.  This is the only completely narrative book among the prophets and it’s set in a sort of timelessness. Think “Once upon a time,” or “Long, long  ago…”[ii]

The Word of Yahweh came to Jonah son of Amittai.  These names are drawn from 2 Kings 14: 25 where the biblical historian records that the prophet Jonah son of Amittai –who lived during the reign of Jeroboam II (786 – 756 B.C.) - spoke the good word of Yahweh.  But there is nothing more than the names to connect the Jonah in 2 Kings with our story.  In fact in this story he’s not even called a prophet.  He’s the ‘anti-prophet’, remember.

These proper names are interesting, though.  He is Jonah, the son of Amittai – which taken at the most literal level could be read “Dove son of Truth” or “son of Faithfulness.”  But this is an ironic name.  Jonah is anything but the faithful son of God’s truth. (Trible, pg. 493)  Some commentators have seen in this a picture of Israel and God.  In Hosea 7:11 the nation of Israel is described as a “silly dove” and truth and faithfulness are defining characteristics of God.  In a sense, then, Jonah becomes a symbol for Israel.  Jonah’s actions and fears and anger are those of the people of Israel.  This gives the story a deep level of meaning. This is not merely a story.

Yona or “Dove” is an ironic name for our anti-prophet.  He’s not, after all, much of a dove.  Doves are a symbol for the presence of God’s spirit hovering over the waters as with Noah in the ark and with Jesus at his baptism.  But Jonah flees – or attempts to flee from the presence of God.  Doves are also a symbol of peace, but Jonah is not concerned with peace.  He seems more interested in vengeance.  His name is another irony in this ironic tale.

Another interesting possibility wrapped up in the name of Jonah suggests that the root of his name is the Hebrew word Yanah (very similar to Yona) and means “to oppress, to vex, to hurt, or to harm” This makes Jonah son of Amittai the “oppressor” or even “the Destroyer of Truth.”  Perhaps as a pun we have both meanings here, furthering the ironies of his name. This anti-prophet is not all what we would expect of a prophet.

The word of Yahweh came to Jonah: “Arise! Go to Nineveh, the great city, and proclaim that their wickedness has forced itself upon me.”  Jonah is given three imperative commands (a fact lost in translations like the NIV and the NRSV which blend them together…) He is to get up.  And he is to go to Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, the “great city” as God calls it.  And there he is to cry out, to proclaim that their (unspecified) wickedness has forced itself upon God. Their wickedness is in his face and he cannot ignore it any longer.  Jonah must go to them.

Jonah follows the first of the Divine commands. Arise!  Jonah arose, but instead of going North and East over land to the city of Nineveh, Jonah the anti-prophet flees South and West over the seas to Tarshish.  It remains unclear to us where exactly Tarshish was.  Some propose Sardinia (an island off the coast of Italy), or Carthage in North Africa, or perhaps a city in Spain.  Wherever it may have been, it is clear that it wasn’t Nineveh. Jonah is going as far away as he can in the opposite direction, trying to flee the presence of God.  The prophet Isaiah says that Tarshish was a “distant coast, a distant island,” that had never experienced the glory of Yahweh. (Isaiah 66: 19).  Jonah hears the word of Yahweh, but instead of following he flees.  Jonah attempts to flee not just the command to go to Nineveh, but from the very presence of Yahweh, trying to go to a place at the end of the world where they’d never even heard of the God who created the heavens and seas and the dry ground.

 But notice how the very structure of this verse (Jonah 1:3) highlights another irony here. (Trible, pg. 494) Jonah can't escape.

A. -Jonah arose to flee from Yahweh’s presence, going to Tarshish.
            B. - He went down to Joppa
                        C. - and found a ship
                                    D. - bound for Tarshish
                        C’ - and he paid her fare
 (“her” fare in Hebrew matches the feminine gender for “ship.)
            B’ - and he went down into the ship
A’ - to go with them to Tarshish and to get away from the presence of Yahweh.

Jonah descends and descends, deeper and deeper, first going down to the port city of Joppa, and then going down into the hold of the ship.  This is not the following the command to Arise! He is sinking and he will sink even further.  He wants to flee from the presence of Yahweh, but even in his flight he is surrounded by the presence of the Omnipresent God.

But Yahweh will have Jonah’s obedience.  He hurls a great wind over the sea.  Remember God’s spirit (in Hebrew, the same word as wind) hovering over the waters of creation like a bird (like a dove?) Jonah couldn’t escape on the waters.  The wind blows up a violent storm and the ship itself threatened to break up.  In Hebrew the words even sound like boards cracking from the force of  the wind and water. (Trible, pg. 495)

The sailors aboard the ship are terrified and they each cry out to his own go.  And then, in an unconscious mimicry of Yahweh who hurled the wind upon the seas, the sailors hurl the cargo overboard not just to lighten the ship, but perhaps attempting to appease an angry deity as well. 

But Jonah, our anti-prophet, had gone below deck into the hold of ship and was fast asleep, completely unconcerned for the safety of those who’d unwillingly been caught in the middle of this power struggle between the anti-prophet and his God.  When the ship’s captain discovered Jonah sleeping he, like Yahweh, ordered the anti-prophet to “Arise! and call on your god. Perhaps he will take notice of us and we will not perish.”  God is speaking to Jonah even through these gentile worshippers of foreign gods and idols, but where true prophets would speak the word of God, Jonah, the anti-prophet, remains silent.

The terrified sailors resort to the random casting of lots to determine who brought this calamity upon them and – surprise, surprise! – the lot falls on Jonah.  The narrator doesn’t say that Yahweh directed the outcome of the lot casting.  He doesn’t have to.

The sailors then fire off a round of staccato questions at Jonah:
Who is responsible for this calamity?
(And it should be pointed out that “calamity” here is the same Hebrew word for the “wickedness” of the people of Ninevehra’a) 
            What is your occupation? 
(Can Jonah answer this question without indicting himself?)
            Where do you come from?
            What is your country?
            From what people are you?

Only now, this third time that Jonah is addressed, does he finally speak, only when he was caught and he could flee no further.  “I am a Hebrew and I worship Yahweh, the God of Heaven, who made the sea and the land.”

But this is an answer without really answering. He's told the truth, but not the whole truth.  And we know, even if he hasn’t told the sailors, that it was his fault – his wickedness that brought the calamitous storm upon them.  He speaks piously about the creative power of his God, but he doesn’t speak the truth.  He tells the truth, but it is still a lie.

And here, also, the anti-prophet is ironically trapped by his own words, though the translation from Hebrew to English hides it from us.  What he says is “Yahweh, God of heavens, I worship, who made the sea and dry land.”  (Trible pg. 498) He is still surrounded by the presence of God. He cannot escape.

The sailors, even more terrified now, confront Jonah with his guilt – “What have you done to us?” And it’s the narrator –not Jonah himself – who finally makes the admission of guilt.  And the sailors ask him for advice – “What should we do with you?”  But they’re not asking because they want to punish him for his wickedness and for bringing the calamity upon them.  Their only concern is to quiet the seas which were growing rougher and rougher. 

He advises them that if they pick him up and hurl him into the sea (that same word Yahweh used and the sailors used) that the sea will become calm once more.

Now this sounds good, doesn't it?  It sounds as if Jonah is finally admitting his guilt, and that he is, in an effort to save the lives of the sailors, who through no fault of their own have been caught in this struggle, willing to face a noble self-sacrificing death.  But really?  I don’t think so.  He hasn't changed.  This is still the stubborn and obstinate anti-prophet. 

Instead of rising up and calling on his God, instead of obeying and going to Nineveh, Jonah is still trying to flee from God.  If he can’t escape by going across the waters to far distant islands, and if he can’t escape God by sleeping through the storm, he will try to escape God in death.  And even in this, he’s not willing to do the deed himself.  He doesn’t offer to throw himself into the sea.  No. He wants the sailors to bring about his death. 

But the sailors are unwilling to compound the wickedness and they refuse to hurl him overboard. Instead they valiantly attempt to row the boat to shore through the increasingly violent waves and wind.  But it’s of no use.  They cannot make any progress against the storm. 

Thus, doomed and damned if Jonah remains on board and damned and doomed if they throw an innocent man into the waters, the sailors pray to Yahweh. “O Yahweh, do not let us perish for the sake of this man’s life, and do not hold us responsible for causing an innocent man’s death; for you, Yahweh, have acted as you saw fit.”

These rough deckhands, worshippers of  foreign idols, now call upon Yahweh, God of heaven and creator of the sea and dry land, not the sulking Israelite would-be prophet.  Jonah does not speak to God. He does not pray.  He does not cry out.  He still wants to get away from God.

And seeing no other action available to them, the sailors hurl that sulking anti-prophet into the waters and only then does the raging sea grow calm.  The storm disappears as he disappears beneath the waters.  At this the men greatly feared Yahweh and they offered sacrifices and made vows to him.  In the face of the storm they feared and cried out, and threw the cargo overboard as a sacrifice to the angry sea.  Now, in the face of the storm’s dissipation they again fear Yahweh (and the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, right?) and they worship him with a sacrifice and vows.  From fear that moved them to desperate prayers to unnamed deities they have become worshippers of the God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land.  They have neither priest nor prophet to guide their worship, but even so it is authentic and true. 

And what of the ironic anti-prophet Jonah, who sought at every turn to flee from God, even by going down into death?  Can he escape?  Can he evade?  No.  Even in the deep of the abyss, the anti-prophet can not flee from God.  Yahweh provides a great fish to swallow him up.  It is a final irony that even the sea-monster, a symbol of all that is dangerous and evil, becomes a more obedient servant of Yahweh than this ironic anti-prophet Jonah. 

It is an amusing tale, well told, and we can laugh at the exploits of this miserable anti-prophet.  But careful.  The well crafted story pokes through our defenses and cuts us when and where we are least aware.   Laugh, but be aware that we, like Jonah, are pursued in love by that fearful Hound of Heaven.

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’
                        -from The Hound of Heaven – Francis Thompson

Bullock, C. Hassell, An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books,
            Moody Press, Chicago, IL, 1986.
DiGangi, Mariano Twelve Prophetic Voices: Major Messages from the Minor Prophets,
            Victor Books, Wheaton, IL 1989.
Trible, Phyllis, The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume VII Jonah Introduction,
            Commentary, and Reflections, Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN, 1996.

[i] It seems to me that those who wish to insist on the complete historical fact of the story of Jonah would do best to quit trying to prove that a human could live within the belly of some marine animal, would do best to quit trying to determine which species of whale or shark in the Mediterranean Sea is large enough to swallow a man and to admit with the critics and skeptics that it could not have happened naturally.  This was not a natural happening. It was fish prepared by God and not at all a natural event
[ii] Some have noticed in Jonah a sort of bridge between the pre-Classical non-writing prophets like Elijah and Elisha and the Classical writing prophets like Amos, Hosea, Micah and etc.  Like the pre-Classical prophets, Jonah announces judgment without the possibility of repentance and the story is filled with miraculous events.  But like the Classical prophets he speaks not just to kings and their courts, but to all levels of society.  (Bullock pg. 43)

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