Jonah, the Miserable Prophet

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Although Jeremiah is usually ranked as the most miserable of prophets, Jonah follows close behind. I have tried to show in a previous essay on Jonah that there is a lot of humor in the way the small book is written and presented, but the prophet's pathos and pain should not be underestimated. Let us begin by comparing Jeremiah (1) and Jonah's reactions to God's call to action. Like Jonah, Jeremiah was called to be "a prophet to the nations." Jonah is called to give God's word to the people of Nineveh, that "great city." Jeremiah registers a mild protest. "I am only a lad," he says to God's revelation that God, with the name of YHWH (any set of vowels attached to YHWH is speculative), has chosen Jeremiah from the womb. YHWH brushes aside Jeremiah's objection, and Jeremiah goes on to become the prophet that God wants him to be.

Jonah, on the other hand, is terrified by the prospect of prophesying to Nineveh, and he grabs the first boat out of town, "to Tarshish." Yet, in this simple but sophisticated tale of prophecy that we find in the Book of Jonah, God is not satisfied to let Jonah flee; YHWH does not throw up the divine hands and pick a more suitable candidate to prophesy to Nineveh. No, God insists that Jonah is the prophet who must bow to the divine behest that Jonah go to Nineveh and prophesy.

Not to go over all the details--well known as they are of Jonah's story--he ends up being thrown overboard and is instantly swallowed by the "great fish," which in the popular imagination is known as a whale. From the bowels of the ship, where the wretched prophet had found refuge in sleep, Jonah finds himself in the bowels of a great fish. On one level, this transfer has rightly been the cause of much hilarity and incredulity ("It ain't necessarily so," as the Gershwin song put it). However, in our amusement at this unbelievable development we have perhaps lost sight of what it meant to Jonah. Never was there a prophet as miserable as Jonah was in the bowels of the fish. So we learn from Jonah's prayer to YHWH at that time.

Now some critical scholars have made the pronouncement that Jonah's prayer was not in fact the product of the same pen that wrote the prose. As far as I can see, there is no epistemological basis for this assessment. The writer of Jonah was one of the great prose writers of the Bible, and who is to say that he could not have composed Jonah's prayer, which though poetry appears completely appropriate for Jonah's situation, and need not have been a more archaic composition. While it is not out of the realm of possibility that the writer of the Book of Jonah found an old prayer and inserted it, this is to me not a likely possibility. Just as William Shakespeare penned his plays (at least according to Ben Johnson) and his great sonnets (and there are sonnets in his plays as well), so in my view it is likely that the author of Jonah was fully up to the task of writing the poem of which I will presently speak.

Although the sailors of the ship prayed to YHWH before they tossed Jonah overboard and prayed to Jonah's God after the sea calmed down, it is the calamity of finding himself ensconced in the bowels of the great fish that brings Jonah, to pray to YHWH. As the text says, Jonah has fled from YHWH's presence even though, in an irony the writer of the book must have been fully conscious of, Jonah describes his God to the sailors on his escape boat as the one who "made the sea and the dry land." The first line of the prayer is unequalled for its pathos. "I am calling in my distress to YHWH, may he answer me! From the belly of Sheol I have screamed; [will] You hear my voice?" How better to describe the timorous prophet's predicament than to say he is in the belly, not of a fish, but of Sheol, the underworld, the place of the dead.

Sheol is a word of uncertain etymology, nor does it have cognates in other Semitic languages, but it is clear from its over sixty appearances in the Hebrew Bible that it means the netherworld, called in an ancient Mesopotamian myth the "land of no return. …