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This article is taken from PN Review 253, Volume 46 Number 5, May - June 2020.

On the Surface of Events
Rereading the Book of Jonah
Iain Bamforth
When I was small and Biblical and made to realise that my Brethren parents saw no nuance in the matter of salvation – either you were swallowed whole by giant belief or spat out among the unsaved – I was irresistibly drawn to the story of Jonah’s going down to the lower deck of the ship taking him from Joppa to Tarshish. He is trying to reach the latter place, which present-day historians believe to have been the city of Carthage or a port on a trading island in the western Mediterranean, perhaps Sardinia, in order to avoid the divine command to get up and go to the glittering capital of the Assyrian empire, Nineveh – ‘that great city, and cry against it’. Nineveh lay overland, in the opposite direction altogether.

Like Adam in the Garden of Eden, Jonah is trying to hide from his maker.

Even as the wind starts to torment the haunted waters of the eastern Mediterranean, Jonah, who must have known that fish were more likely to climb trees than he ever get to Tarshish, decides to steal a quick nap in order to prepare himself for the possibly sterner trials ahead. Jonah goes to his sleeping quarters during what turns out to be an almighty bluster called up by the same Divine One, a squall so sudden and fierce even the ship itself has terrible visions, as the Hebrew original says: it thinks it’s going to capsize. This little ship would have much preferred to stay in a harbour.

Going below deck in the middle of a tempest for a snooze is an egregious act; being able to sleep through the chaos and commotion of an impending maritime disaster marks Jonah out as much odder still. The Hebrew keeps hinting that his ‘going down’ is a descent from conventional experience into something far more abyssal.

The only paying passenger makes himself conspicuous by making himself scarce: a precondition for surviving really bad storms is a collective effort to ride them out – ‘all must contribute their Quota of Exertion’, according to Coleridge (who had a bit of experience with storms in the Mediterranean). If a ship is anthropomorphic, and this roiling sea a formless argument of (as we shall discover) higher-sphere attributions, then all hands are needed on deck. Indeed, the sailors are already bailing out the hold and heaving everything overboard – their Bronze Age goods along with the contents of their stomachs. Every single bit of extraneous ballast has been thrown to the waves. And Jonah sleeps on, in a stupor or trance, insensible to the tumult thundering around him. Either he’s shamming dead, or trying to pass himself off as a philosopher.

That great precursor of the modern novel François Rabelais wrote a similar scene into Gargantua and Pantagruel. When Panurge encounters a storm at sea, in the Fourth Book, Rabelais leaves us in no doubt that his heroes wish they had been elsewhere too: ‘Believe me, it seem’d to us a lively Image of the Chaos, where Fire, Air, Sea, Land, and all the Elements, were in a refractory Confusion’ (in Sir Thomas Urquhart’s translation). In their distress, Panurge and Pantagruel eventually call out for the assistance of all the blessed saints. On Jonah’s boat, the sailors have evidently made similar if more animistic assumptions. One: a raging sea and fierce winds can only correlate to the anger of a god. Two: if they make a great show of throwing material objects overboard, they may be able to assuage this god’s wrath. Three: but whose god is it that’s in a huff? Nobody knows. These sailors are a rum bunch, since every man is appealing, as the verse says, ‘unto his god’.

Anthropologically speaking, this is how humans respond to a gathering menace: we cut peripheral losses in order to stave off the looming core catastrophe. In moments of crisis, we try to make ourselves lighter. To rid ourselves of ballast.

The entire cargo has gone, but it doesn’t calm the sea. The helmsman wakes Jonah, and urges him to ‘call upon’ his god, like the rest of the crew, in order to avert disaster. In the very next moment – in that abruptly foreshortened way the Bible has of moving on the action – lots are being drawn (in what seems an attempt to divine the intentions of that blind goddess later known to the Romans as Fortuna) and Jonah is owning up to being a Hebrew, somebody who, for all his disregard for the fate of others, is actually in awe of Yahweh, the Lord God of the heavens, ‘which hath made the sea and the dry land’. His admission certainly puts the wind up the rest of the men on board, because they now know that they are implicated in a bigger storm: one that has everything to do with Jonah’s being on their ship.

Terrified, the sailors try to row the ship towards land, and make no progress. Oars have never been much use in a storm. The men can’t swim either – but who among sailors has ever taken swimming lessons? In this regression into total helplessness that is the mark of every emergency Jonah does the right thing: he volunteers to leave the storm-tossed ship: he knows he’s the true cause of this commotion. He has the courage to be thrown overboard although he lacked it to go to Nineveh. ‘So they took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea: and the sea ceased from her raging.’ Man overboard does the trick. The sea calms, and the crew – being now ‘exceedingly fearful’ of Jehovah – decide to offer up another sacrifice in their overwhelming gratitude to the Hebrew God. The nature of this offering is unspecified: there can’t have been much left on board. Perhaps it was Jonah’s luggage.

Out of sight, Jonah, as every child used to know, has been swallowed by a sea monster ‘prepared’ by the Almighty. This is both an act of mercy and a punishment. It is a delayed response – a kind of dream supplement – to his earlier attempt to find a moment of rest as the storm assailed the ship.

The philosopher Gaston Bachelard called this act of bodily assimilation ‘the Jonas complex’, and observed that the notion of the ‘eater eaten’ (and yet surviving the act of bodily incorporation) is a common theme in children’s stories.  Phantasies of eating and being eaten are related to curiosity about the big questions of whence we come and whither we go. Jonas gets to spend three days knocking about in a great fish, the smelly insides of which must have resembled the rounded hull of another boat – a Phoenician cargo ship perhaps, ribbed just like those famous caravels Niña, Pinta or Santa Maria many, many centuries later. He has been removed from the belly of a ship to that of a great fish, and it is so dank and imposing that Jonah calls it Sheol: he is in the belly of hell. Lost to the world, condemned to his own company, he addresses God with a plaintive psalm in which he can see ‘the bars of the earth closing upon [him] for ever’. He asks to be delivered from this tenemented refuge. He has seen the dark inside of events, and he wants out.

And God has the fish vomit Jonah up on dry land.

When word comes again from the Almighty to go to Nineveh and tell its inhabitants that the city has forty days before it gets wiped off the map, Jonah drops everything and goes. Now the private person and the public office are one. A prophet has no ego, a prophet can’t withhold, a prophet doesn’t argue: he’s simply announces what he’s told to say. He’s a loudspeaker. When he gets to Nineveh – a kind of sea monster done up as a city – he discovers it is such a grand place that it takes three days to walk from the west gate to the east gate, as tallied by the punctilious Sir Thomas Browne: ‘So that if Jonah entered at the narrower side, he found enough for one Daye’s walk to attain the heart of the City, to make his Proclamation.’ Jonah cries against the citizens, crying in the Bible being sometimes less an act of communication than a hoarse exultation – God is vexed! Just wait and see what’s coming your way!

What happens is something altogether unheralded: the people of Nineveh listen to his message. They hearken, as the Bible says, to the five prophetic words. Like the sailors in the boat to Tarshish, the people of Nineveh are susceptible to Jonah’s words. ‘[A]ll genuine Morality, all applied practical vivified Moral Eloquence, is essentially prophetic’, wrote Coleridge. The whole city of Nineveh – under orders from the king – dons sackcloth and ashes, even the livestock is smeared with the stuff; and as Jonah walks through the streets he can hear the citizens ‘crying mightily’ to God. This is not the same kind of crying as was heard earlier from his throat: this is something that spills out of people’s mouth and resembles the phenomenon Socrates calls ‘opinion’ in Plato’s Philebus. Opinion is public and fearful; it can’t be held in and it won’t tolerate dissent.

The act of public penance works. When God hears the prayers of the people of Nineveh, he decides not to carry out his promise to level the city. ‘And God repented of the evil that He had said that He would do unto them; and He did it not.’

Jonah understands that he has been made to look ridiculous. His vision has taken in water, lots of it, and sunk ignominiously – to revert to the imagery of his earlier adventure. And by the agency of none other than the one true God, who is in one of his less readable moods. So all that business with the storm and sea monster was just a kind of joke! He even confesses to Jehovah that he suspected this might happen all along, which is why he had tried to escape to Tarshish in the first instance! A disturbing question takes shape in the mind, ours as was as his. What kind of prophet can he be if the weight of his world-historical warning is annulled simply by people acting upon its threat? That makes his prediction something less than a first-order truth. A prophecy and its fulfilment – aren’t those two sides of an event that has no front or back, no right or left, which is the same truth however perceived? As George Steiner points out, a prophet’s use of the future tense is ‘merely tautological’.

Perhaps Jonah isn’t a prophet at all but that modern thing: a weather-forecaster. But what on earth was he predicting? Did he even know? ‘The expert is a man who has stopped thinking – he knows!’, the architect Frank Lloyd Wright is reported to have said. Experts get it right but sometimes they get it wrong, and wildly wrong at that. It even appears as if the king of Nineveh – sitting in cinders, with all his advisors around him wearing grey – might even possess more insight into God’s intentions that his appointed prophet. And Jonah can hardly fail to have noticed that the Almighty himself is in flagrant contradiction of the law of direct reciprocal justice. Nineveh had been wicked enough to bring itself to His attention – and here it is, still glittering and splendid, its towers and flagstones intact, and all its debts cancelled. Surely the message from an angry God didn’t come with a non-performance clause?

This dramatic change in Nineveh’s fortunes so riles Jonah that he goes into a deep sulk. He camps outside the city walls. By merely hanging around he means to force Jehovah to wipe it off the map. (Rembrandt made a sketch of the scene in 1655.) Imagine! God commands him to proclaim the religion of impending doom – and then the doom doesn’t happen! All his brother prophets, too, had vowed Nineveh would become ‘a desolation’. To be prophetic was to show how the great scroll of universal history unfolded from the Word, as the Book of Deuteronomy says – anything else was merely human conceit. ‘When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; be not afraid of him.’ Prophecy is a rebuke, as well as a declaration of things to come. Prophecy is as irreversible as time itself. How could he, Jonah, be wrong on such a key issue?

Jonah is exhibiting, as Elias Canetti writes, ‘the most repulsive and dangerous trait in a prophet’: having foretold the most terrible events he needs them to come true. As we now know, being a prophet has nothing to do with the private life: being a prophet is to exercise a public function. Any dark glamour the calling has comes from being able to say ‘I told you so’ – but in the name of the Lord. Someone might have written in the Talmud that whoever saves a life saves the world, but at this moment in time Jonah doesn’t give a jot about other lives. He just doesn’t want to be remembered as a phoney.

God asks Jonah if he is right to get angry at what hasn’t happened. He seems to be trying to win Jonah round to the viewpoint that he, the Lord of all Creation, is an artist: somebody who doesn’t have to believe what he is capable of doing, but merely has to entertain it as a possibility. (Had Jonah suspected this, he could have reminded the Lord of all Creation that a religion without prophets is bound, in the fullness of time, to subside into a cult of universal happiness.)

Observing Jonah’s discomfort as he sits sulking outside the city walls, at risk of sunstroke, God causes a miraculous gourd to spring up beside him in order to protect him from the heat and glare: Jonah isn’t unappreciative of its shelter. This plant grows fast, miraculously fast. ‘It grew faster than any plant outside Eden, by sinuous thrusts, putting out leaves like geese stretching their wings’, as Guy Davenport has it, in his adaptation of the story. But the next day God withers the gourd: as straightforward a procedure as flattening a city. Now the desert wind blowing in from the east is so stifling it causes Jonah to faint from the oppressive heat. When he comes round he is even angrier: he tells Jehovah that he is going to be in a funk ‘even unto death’. He wants to die not only because of his physical torment; he is in ‘ideological’ distress too, as Jonathan Magonet puts it. Such is the pride of prophets. God continues to reason with him, drawing an a fortiori argument out of Jonah’s chagrin about the here-today gone-tomorrow gourd – ‘which came up in a night, and perished in a night’ – and the rather more considerable matter of the fate of the city of Nineveh: ‘And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand [a formulaic Biblical number indicating very many] persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?’

The Everlasting is scoring rhetorical – and ethical – points off his prophet.

The critic Harold Bloom insists that the four chapters of Jonah constitute the drollest, most ‘Swiftian’ book in the Tanakh. He also wonders whether the compilers of the canon dumped the Book of Jonah among the other minor prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, all of whose names I was once able to recite in correct order of presentation to my parents) in order to conceal its sublime subversive farce. After all, the chronicler has just exposed the petulant Jonah as a false prophet, and cast doubt on the very efficacy of prophecy itself. Future prophets are going to have to bring glad tidings, at least as an optional extra.

The chronicler of the Book of Jonah certainly raises some incongruities. After his initial recalcitrance, Jonah is ultimately shown to take the whole business of a summons from the future more seriously than God himself. Having initially been presented as a rather sympathetic shirker who wanted to have nothing to do with the dubious glamour of being a prophet, he ends up embodying the very evil he threatens people with. Jonah, as that distinguished reader and writer Jorge Luis Borges might have said, finds himself trapped in the labyrinth ordinary beings call time. What we say about the future influences how it turns out: that is one of the folds peculiar to this labyrinth. We could even say that future events happen because we all have a universally shared conception of what the future is. In that sense, the future is a fixed point in the present.

The chronicler further reveals a Jehovah who, to convince Jonah of his powers, withers a pumpkin. (Jerome is his translation indicates that the Hebrew word qiqayon translated in the Septuagint as ‘gourd’ actually refers to a kind of preternaturally rapid-growing, self-supporting plant ‘having large leaves like a vine’, something like the magically sprouting seed in the story of Jack and the Beanstalk; Everett Fox in his new translation of the book identifies it – following Henri Meschonnic – as ‘a castor-oil plant’). The comedy of the scene is lost on Jonah. If displaying mercy means eliminating not the wrongdoing – an impossibility in any case – but rather the resentment that follows a wrong we never get to find out whether Jonah ultimately acquires generosity and fellow-feeling. That would require him to recover some of the insouciance he showed at the tale’s beginning.

So where the Book of Job ends with the unjustly suffering Job silent in adoration, the Book of Jonah ends with Jonah mired in perplexity.

It has been said that there is no humour in the Bible. Humour doesn’t necessarily come in guffaws. We are left to consider the scene, as Jehovah spells out his rationale for sparing the inhabitants of Nineveh: although humans can’t tell their right hand from their left the city is also full of ‘much cattle’ which merit consideration. Cattle are dumb and don’t talk back.

Uniquely among the books of the bible, the Book of Jonah ends with a question: it is the voice of God – Yahweh or Elohim, since both names are present in the Book of Jonah – asking why it should be impossible for Him to be moved by a charitable impulse towards the beings He has nurtured, especially if they lack common sense. It is an ending that teeters on ambivalence, in a book that is all about turnings: the Eternally Prescient Predictor has learned to feel pity, although only a moment before He might just as easily have wiped a city off the face of the earth. It suggests a future where divine prophecy will be able to walk away from its implications, even as Jonah, a little man at the last, petulantly insists on a more deterministic universe.

This article is taken from PN Review 253, Volume 46 Number 5, May - June 2020.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to
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