The little book called “Jonah” shows us that the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, really can be a ‘good read’, especially if understood in a common sense, down-to-earth way. It wasn’t written by God, and shouldn’t be approached with literal woodenness, and kill-joy solemnity. But even it were, Psalm 2:4 tells us that, “In heaven the Lord laughs, as he sits on his throne, making fun of the nations”, so the book of Jonah would definitely raise a chuckle or two. It’s the work of a skilled story teller, with a delightfully sharp sense of humour, which he uses to sneak in a telling point or two, under our guard, until we catch on. I think he’d have been highly amused, rather than mortified, at the thought that some people would take his story literally, as if it were sober history. Those who do, impoverish both the book and, by extension, the entire collection of books to which this one makes, unashamedly, an entertainingly instructive contribution.
The author immediately catches his audience’s attention, by giving his hero the name of someone mentioned, helpfully briefly, in the Jewish scriptures – the prophet Jonah, son of Amittai. Remind us, where was that again? Oh yes, a quick mention in 2 Kings 14:25. This, of course, is a leg pull. Typically, the books of the ‘Prophets’ in the Hebrew Bible are randomly organised, lengthy collections of ‘oracles’ or proclamations. The Book of Jonah, in contrast, is a short story about a ‘prophet’, whose only ‘oracle’ consists of a mere five words, and has much more in common with two similar biblical short stories, ‘Ruth’ and ‘Esther’. The lack of information, in 2 Kings, about Jonah opens a wide door for the writer’s imagination to stride through. So, if you’re sitting comfortably, let’s see where this leads …..
Jonah is not so much a hero, as an anti-hero. He doesn’t see much profit in being a prophet, especially when considering what his God wants him to say, and to whom. It’s not a message of sweetness and light, but of darkness and doom – of imminent punishment for the people of Nineveh, who are considered to be a bunch of very bad people. This is not at all likely to go down too well, especially since the intended recipients of divine wrath are citizens of the chief city of the Assyrians, one of the principal, and most feared, enemies of the people of Israel. But Jonah’s given no time to think about this. God, of course, speaks in Hebrew, and the force of his opening two words is, “Go immediately, at once, now – why are you still here?”
Without so much as a toothbrush, Jonah is on his way, thinking on his feet – which rapidly take him to the Mediterranean port of Joppa. This seems a bit odd, since a trip from Palestine to Nineveh would normally suggest a donkey or camel, rather than a boat. But Jonah’s feet are formulating a cunning plan. There’s a boat going, of all places, to somewhere called Tarshish. Enquiries reveal that it’s on the far side of the Mediterranean, at the edge of the known world. Hopefully, it’ll not figure on God’s map, and will have lots of dark corners into which Jonah can vanish. Out of sight, out of mind.
But it’s Jonah who’s gone, temporarily, out of his mind. God’s not going to let him get away with this spontaneous, ill-thought-out piece of nonsense. Jonah, pleased with his cleverness and good fortune, finds a below-decks’ hammock and, tired out after his frenzied flight, settles down for some welcome, self-satisfied shuteye. No doubt he hadn’t read his Homer and Hesiod, and so wouldn’t known about Poseidon, the Greek God of the sea who, if upset by human disobedience, could make the ocean waves roil and boil, to the acute discomfort, to say the very least, of sea-going travellers. If he’d done his homework, it might have entered his head that anything Poseidon could do, his own God could do better (or worse). But let’s leave him, for now, enjoying his optimistically sweet dreams …..