Sarcophagus with Jonah portrayed on it.
Tuesday, February 12, 2008


The picture above is from a sarcophagus.

Jonah, in the JB, was translated by Tolkien.

Jonah, to my mind, is one of the comedic parts of the Bible. It’s comedic not in the sense of being full of jokes, but in the same sense that Dante’s Commedia is a comedy. I think it only fair to add though that with a bit of imagination Jonah is a comic figure in the common sense.

In 1 the word of Yahweh comes to Jonah. The first thing that Jonah does is to run away from Yahweh (1:2). Jonah finds he can run, but he can’t hide. This theme will echo through the centuries and will appear in well known works such as The Hound of Heaven. Jonah tries to take ship for Tartessos (Tarshish) in Spain. (It would be somewhere near Seville in the linked image, probably near the mouth of the Guadalquivir.) When the ship is threatened with sinking the sailors cast cargo overbaoard, and consult their gods to find the responsible party. Ultimately they realize that Jonah is the jinx, and they toss him overboard in an effort to appease Yahweh. Note that the sailors are more pious, and more attentive to the will of Yahweh than the prophet.

In 2 Jonah is saved by being swallowed by the great fish. This is usually thought to be a whale, but apparently whales are not capable of actually swallowing anything man-sized. I’m not sure how anything could actually survive in such a hostile environment anyhow. (Somebody like Steve White could probably make it into a SF novel featuring a submarine.) Jonah cries out to God, and ultimately says he will fulfill his vow:

But I, with a song of praise,
will sacrifice to you.
The vow I have made, I will fulfill.
Salvation comes from Yahweh (2:10).

In 3 Jonah goes to Nineveh, which is impossibly large, approximately 40 miles square, i.e., 4 times larger than Washington, D.C. (It takes 3 days to cross Nineveh (3:3). The standard marching distance for infantry is 14 miles a day. That gives a square of 42 miles, or 1,764 square miles. The population density is less than urban at 120,000 in those 1,764 square miles (4:11) or about 68 people per square mile.)

Jonah goes a third of the way into Nineveh (3:4), and preaches that Nineveh will be destroyed. The word reaches the king, and he and the city repent, and Nineveh is spared as a result of this repentance.

In 4 Jonah is really annoyed at God. He reproaches God and says, “I knew that you were a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in graciousness, relenting from evil” (4:2). Yahweh asks Jonah if he is right to be angry. Jonah doesn’t answer, he just goes outside of the city and fixes himself a shelter with some shade. God makes a castor-oil plant grow up over Jonah to shade him. Jonah enjoys the shade, and then God sends a worm to destroy the plant. God then sends a scorching east wind so that the sun beats down on Jonah, and he begs for death. God asks Jonah, “Are you right to be angry about the castor-oil plant?” Jonah is in a terrible snit about the plant, and replies “I have every right to be angry, to the point of death.” Yahweh, naturally, gets the last word “You are only upset about a castor-oil plant which cost you no labor, which you did not make grow, which sprouted in a night and has perished in a night. And am I not to feel sorry for Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, to say nothing of all the animals?” (4:9-11)

So Jonah concludes with a question. We have to respond to the question, and I think it is presumed that our answer is that it is right for Yahweh to feel sorry. Yet we might also ask, why is Yahweh concerned about the animals? In ordering arguments one typically moves from either weakest to strongest, or strongest to weakest, or orders facts in order of importance. There are only two factors in Yahweh’s list, which is of more importance? I would think that the “to say nothing of” indicates an off-handedness and lack of importance, but why mention them at all?

Jonah is taken by Christians as being a foreshadowing of Christ, and Jesus indicates as much by referring to the sign of Jonah. Jonah is not only this, he is also a comic image of the believer who is called, and who does not want to acknowledge the call. He spends his time kvetching to God, and is undercut by God’s response. He is finally left complaining to God, and cannot respond to God’s final rhetorical question.

Next up deutero-Isaiah, or Isaiah 40-55.