Friday, September 10, 2010

Jonah and the Anguish of History

Here in Australia, the dramas of government and the election seem to have reached a resolution in a Labor minority government with the support of the Greens and several Independents. We're entering a new phase of federal politics about which I'm cautiously optimistic. It's certainly the best result given what was on offer at the election last month. And we have been spared the ordeal of an Abbott Coalition government which would represent a return to Howardism at its worst. And I actually think the current arrangement will result in fairly progressive government with some quite worthwhile policy. I'm not planning another election post but rather to indicate that much of my thinking of late has been dominated by the election and its aftermath. That combined with the fact that I've been busy with a range of other things has meant I've been quiet here for a while.

One of the things I've been doing is copyediting contributions for a volume due out next year. I'm one of its three editors. This week we received one more of the contributions (only two more left to come), an essay on Jonah from the perspective of First Peoples and minority biblical criticism. I won't say any more about the essay itself - you'll have to wait until the volume is published next year.

But the essay provided an opportunity to reflect some more on Jonah and and some quite disturbing aspects of this story. For those who might not be familiar with it, Jonah is the prophet sent by YHWH to preach repentance to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. He refuses and flees to escape his prophetic commission, boarding a ship going to Tarshish i.e. roughly the opposite direction to Niniveh. He doesn't get far because YHWH calls up a fierce storm. The sailors try their best to outlast the storm but eventually cast Jonah overboard to appease the deity. Jonah is then promptly swallowed by a big fish. He is trapped inside the fish three days and three nights before being disgorged on land. He then goes to Nineveh and preaches to them warning that they will be destroyed unless they repent. Jonah's preaching is astonishingly successful. All the Ninevites repent and Jonah's mission is a success. Jonah however is angry and despondent about his success and wishes for death. He complains to YHWH saying that this is the reason he fled and tried to refuse his commission. The book ends with a sulky and bitter Jonah wanting to die and being rebuked by YHWH for his bitterness.

Jonah is a most reluctant prophet and his reluctance and his subsequent bitterness at the success of his preaching has generated considerable puzzlement for many generations of biblical readers and interpreters. Why does he go such extraordinary lengths to avoid his divine commission and why is he so bitter at his success? A range of answers have been given which I will examine but first I'll give Jonah some context.

According to 2 Kings 14.25, Jonah son of Amittai came from the the village of Gath-Hepher in the north of Israel (not far from Nazareth). He correctly prophecies that the king of Israel, Jeroboam II (c. 786-746 BCE), will recover some territories lost to foreign invaders. Of course, Jonah is also the main character in the book that bears his name and which recounts his hapless sea flight and adventure with the fish and successful preaching in Nineveh. The book of Jonah is one of what's known as the 12 Minor Prophets, the 12 short books from Hosea to Malachi. While Christians have regarded them as 12 separate books, in Judaism they comprise one scroll known as The Twelve. For Jews the book of Jonah, is a sub-section of the larger book of the Twelve Minor Prophets. Jonah is the fifth of the Twelve in the Hebrew version following Hosea, Joel, Amos and Obadiah and immediately preceding Micah which is then followed by Nahum and the rest (in the Greek Septuagint Jonah is the 6th of the 12 and follows Hosea, Amos, Micah, Joel and Obadiah to immediately precede Nahum).

The Hebrew ordering will be significant when it comes to one explanation of Jonah's behaviour but first I want to look at a couple of others. Jonah's time in the belly of the fish, has from the gospels onwards been seen as prefiguring of Jesus' time in the tomb and so Jonah has long served as a type of Christ and even, by his mission to Gentile Nineveh, a foreshadowing of the Christian mission to the Gentiles as well as the Jews. There is a nastier Christian variant to this pattern, pioneered by Augustine but only picked up by Luther and then developed into a full anti-Jewish reading in the Enlightenment. Augustine's move, and Luther's following him, was to contrast the book with the prophet. Thus the book represents a universalist tendency in ancient Judaism that will be fulfilled in Christianity. Jonah the prophet however stands for insular, parochial and exclusivist Judaism and his bizarrre behaviour is the book's way of attacking and even mocking such Jewish exclusivism. Nineveh's repentance signifies the deity's shifting favor to the Gentiles and away from hidebound and insular Judaism.

In Islam, Jonah's repentance and not Nineveh's is understood is central to the story. Jonah is known as Yunus and Sura 10 of the Qur'an is named for him. Human repentance and the corresponding divine grace and mercy are the key messages for Islamic understanding.

Jewish readings have tended to highlight the problem of the successful prophet. According to Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer, Jonah had already been sent to preach doom to Jerusalem. The people heard his message and heeded, repenting and averting disaster. Paradoxically Jonah's success counts against him; he becomes the lying prophet. Preaching doom to Jerusalem generates Jerusalem's repentance meaning no doom. Jonah knows the same will happen in Nineveh so once again he will preach a doom that doesn't happen thus reinforcing his reputation as a failed prophet. By other accounts, it's not so much concern for his own reputation that so upsets Jonah but YHWH's reputation. Jonah delivers YHWH's message of doom, a doom that doesn't fall due to the people's repentance.

But there is yet another and even more disturbing possibility that derives from Jonah's placement in the Hebrew ordering of the Twelve (and his chronological location in 2 Kings). Jonah is a prophet and he knows that Nineveh/Assyria will ultimately destroy Israel, the kingdom and people to which Jonah belongs. In the biblical account not only is Israel destroyed by the Assyrians but its inhabitants are deported en masse never to return. The book of Micah which follows Jonah in the Hebrew ordering represents that catastrophe. It's from that image was derived the notion of the 10 lost tribes of Israel. From an historical point of view, while the Assyrians destroyed the kingdom of Israel, only about a third of the population were probably deported - there are no lost tribes, their descendants live on in the Samaritans and Palestinians. But Israel, the northern kingdom, would never more be seen again. The southern kingdom, Judah, was ravaged by and barely survived the Assyrians. It would eventually be destroyed by Babylon. At the time Jonah was likely written both Judah and Israel were provinces of the Persian empire (or perhaps even provinces of the post-Alexandrian empires). Unbeknown to the book's author, Judah would again become an independent kingdom under the Hasmoneans in the second century BCE and be a client Roman kingdom under Herod before finally being destroyed in the wars with Rome in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE. But not so the north; while its people were never lost, there would never again be an independent state located in the old Israelite heartland of Samaria.

Seen in that light Jonah's behaviour makes tragic sense. He is a prophet and he knows what Nineveh means for his people. If he preaches doom to Nineveh they will heed his message and be spared and thus enabled to go on and destroy Jonah's land and people. No wonder Jonah tries to run away, to even seek death in the depths of the ocean. There is an even more disturbing prospect to the story too. When Jonah preaches doom to Nineveh, all the Ninevites, from the highest to the lowest respond and repent most extravagantly. It could be argued that by their repentance they make themselves worthy to be YHWH's agents of destruction against Israel. By repenting they are now consecrated to YHWH's service for vengeance and punishment.

No wonder when last we see him, Jonah is bitter and wishing for death. He has aided and abetted the destruction of his own people.

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