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Published:September 3rd, 2009 20:29 EST
Jonah:Interfaith Hero and Prophet

Jonah:Interfaith Hero and Prophet

By Geoff Dean


One of my favorite books in the Bible is the book of Jonah. Of course, I know that some doubt the accuracy of the Bible and/or the possibility of miracles, without which there could be no Jonah story. But even if you feel so, for a moment, try to put that aside and imagine that the story were true.

 Jonah is a rare, perhaps singular figure in as much as he is respected and honored by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. His book is listed among the "minor prophets", not exactly a glorious designation, and yet the scroll of Jonah (he gets his own separate scroll) is read on the Day of Atonement/Yom Kippur, the most solemn and serious day of the Jewish calendar. In the New Testament, when Jesus was pressed for a sign or miracle to prove his messiahship, he declined, except for offering the sign of Jonah, a comparison of Jonah`s fish experience to his own death and resurrection. In the Quran, Jonah is presented as a prophet worthy of high praise and equally significantly, his Quran story and that in the Old Testament are virtually identical, unlike most figures who appear in both. As I understand, always a risky proposition, Jonah is considered a saint and given his own day in the Roman Catholic calendar as well.

 Jonah is a hero of the three great monothesitic religions and therefore well over half of humanity, again according to my not altogether dependable calculations. My question is simple. Why?

 According to the book of Jonah, Jonah`s first act on becoming a prophet was to run away from God and refuse to deliver his prophesy. He, by his own admission, put an entire ship and its crew in mortal danger. He was punished, perhaps incarcerated by God, given a kind of three-day detention, if you will. Finally, he went to Nineveh as originally ordered, delivered his prophecy, and it failed to come true. When the people of Nineveh repented and turned to God with prayer and fasting, Jonah was crestfallen, as he had hoped for the Ninevites utter destruction. To the end of the book, he was kvetching with God. All in all, he doesn`t seem much of a role model. Hero? Despicable slime is more like it. Or is it?

 Actually, I feel compelled to give Jonah some credit. For instance, when God told him to go and prophesy to the Ninevites, he didn`t want to. Did he ignore God? Blow him off? Not Jonah! He got on a boat and headed for Tarshish (modern Spain). What would it mean to head off to a land he had never visited, where he had no job, didn`t speak the language, and probably would never be able to return from? Just traveling from Israel to Spain in Bible times was no mean feat. Say what you want, Jonah didn`t do things halfway. When God tells us to do something that we don`t want to do, are we as proactive as Jonah?

 Needless to say, God was not amused by Jonah`s escape attempt and sent the a storm to slow him down. Realizing the peril of the ship and crew and furthermore that he was responsible, Jonah was ready to give his life to save the pagan crew members. When they threw him in, he knew nothing of the great fish. He assumed he was going to die at the hands of an angry God. Still, he was willing to do so in order to save the crew and ship.

 Similarly, the fish ordeal (I can scarcely imagine) was punishment in a sense but it was also God`s peculiar way of rescuing Jonah from the sea as well. Who else but God would come up with rescuing someone from the sea by having them swallowed by a fish and spit up three days later? Guess the Almighty never heard of the Coast Guard or life jackets.

 Reaching Nineveh, Jonah preached destruction and, unfortunately, got repentance. God showed mercy to the Ninevites, just as Jonah feared. Of course, God had shown plenty of mercy to Jonah as well, which he conveniently forgot. I wonder if we ever do the same?

 Finally, there is the bizarre (it there anything not bizarre in this tiny book) incident of the plant and the worm. God raises up a plant which provides shade to Jonah and then strikes it down by sending a worm. God sends fish, worms, and plants in the space of four chapters. And they are more obedient than Jonah was! Jonah complains bitterly to God and wishes to be dead. When God calls him on his overacting, asking if he really has the right to complain, Jonah comes back with, "I sure do!" He has no hesitation to talk back to God, throw right in God`s face if you will.

 God has the final zinger, as God usually does, contrasting Jonah`s compassion for a plant to his lack thereof towards to citizens of Nineveh. Jonah`s reaction? We will never know. Does Jonah finally realize that he has been a recipient of God`s compassion and should show the same compassion to others, even enemies? Does he realize that repentance, not destruction, was God`s goal from the beginning? Did he learn anything at all from his three days in a fish, besides "fish, like guests, start to stink after three days?" Or did he remain a putz, bitter to the end, a Biblical and Quranical anti-hero, seeking God`s mercy for himself and condemnation for others? Don`t know, can`t know, will never know. Sorry. End of story.

 That`s the beauty of the book of Jonah, isn`t it? The book is really a question, a challenge to all of us. What Jonah ultimately did is neither here nor there to us? The question is: How will we respond?