A Reluctant Prophet

Norm Gibbons

A Reluctant Prophet

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Jonah Cast to the Sea

The plot line in the Old Testament story of Jonah goes something like this:

Chapter 1. The Lord tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and cry out against their wickedness. Not accustomed to obedience, the reluctant prophet runs the other way. He buys passage on a ship and the Lord manufactures a perfect storm. Jonah tells the crew he is to blame for the tempest and asks them to throw him overboard. They do and the sea calms. The Lord prepares a big fish. The fish (or whale) swallows Jonah and he lives in its belly for three days and three nights.

Chapter 2. Inside the cavern of the whale, he prays to the Lord and the Lord “spake unto the fish and it vomited him upon the shore.”

Chapter 3. For the second time, The Lord instructs Jonah to go to the wicked city. This time he does what he is told, but not with enthusiasm. He proclaims only eight words, “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Unbelievably, the six score thousand people listen to the prophet, they turn from their evil ways, and repent. God spares them, an outcome Jonah finds offensive.

Chapter 4. Now depressed that he has converted so many sinners, Jonah asks the Lord to take his life. The Lord causes a vine to grow and protect him from the sun. Next day He instructs a worm to wither the vine so now Jonah suffers from sunstroke. He speaks to Jonah for the third time and says, “If Yahweh can forgive those who know not their right hand from the left,  so can you.”

This Old Testament story is unique in that humour, irony and fancy, all tools of the contemporary writer, overflow onto the Biblical page. Perhaps for the first time in literature an anti-hero is allowed to walk and run on stage. Jonah is not only reluctant, he is also defiant. Few characters in the Bible have the cheek to disobey the Lord, and not just once, but twice. We get no back-story on the recalcitrant fellow so we get no clue about the reasons for his misgivings, nor his fearlessness in the face of the Lord. Surely this minor prophet was aware of the casting out from the Garden of Eden, the Great Flood, the constant threat of apocalypse, Moses making his way down from the mountain with a handful of stone tablets,  and the perpetuations of new beginnings, each prior one ending up as another heavenly experiment gone awry. For whatever reason, Jonah fails to be intimidated in the presence of the Lord, not at all honoured that he is chosen to speak for the Lord. He is no Abraham willing to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and no Noah accepting the blueprints for the Ark. Jonah understands his mission, but initially refuses to accept it. And, being a trifle obtuse, believes that he can hide from the Almighty.

In the belly of the whale, he prays, so we suspect (or hope) that he has learned his lesson: Namely, that you do what you are told, especially if the telling comes from above. The irony in the story is that our prophet has a conversion rate, which far surpasses that of the Major Prophets. This rate is calculated as follows: number of converted divided by prophetic words spoken. 120,000/8 = 15,000 converts per word.

In searching for lessons learned, the account of Jonah leaves us with a chowderheaded ending. We wish that the author of the story wrote just one more sentence. He or she could have at least hinted whether or not Jonah was ever capable of forgiveness. This omission makes the story a precursor to modern story telling, where endings are rarely wrapped in pretty packages and gaudy bows. Instead, today’s readers are left to exercise their imagination in the gymnasium of a frenetic mind, to wonder on the pervasiveness of a world of wrong doing, to question the effectiveness of forgiveness, and to suffer the darkness in the belly of our own cave as we await resurrection.