Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Observe His Prayer

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Observe His Prayer

Article excerpt

August 2017

At the outset of Moby Dick, Father Mapple preaches to a congregation of whalers. His text is the Book of Jonah, and it stands out as one of the most enjoyable fictional sermons of all time. After God has assigned him the task of preaching repentance to the city of Nineveh, Jonah flees "with slouched hat and guilty eye, skulking from his God; prowling among the shipping like a vile burglar hastening to cross the seas . . . no baggage, not a hat-box, valise, or carpet-bag,-no friends accompany him to the wharf with their adieux." Melville's elaborate, melodramatic, and humorous descriptions engage the imagination, but they can distract from the interesting theology of the sermon.

Father Mapple deliberately leaves out the substance of Jonah's mission, to bring a word of warning to Nineveh: "Never mind now what that command was, or how conveyed," he tells the seamen. The only question is obedience or disobedience. This focus may be acceptable Calvinist theology. It follows the commentary Calvin wrote on Jonah. It also sets the stage for Auden's quirky Kierkegaardian interpretation of Moby Dick in The Enchafed Flood. But turning the Book of Jonah into an illustration of the choice between obedience or Kisobedience brackets the questions that emerge directly from a reading of the text. How will Nineveh react? How will God respond? And what will the prophet make of all this?

But let us accept the preacher's narrowing agenda, for it sheds light on a matter of theological importance. In the first chapter, Jonah is disobedient and boards a ship that he imagines will take him far from God's commanding authority. But it is not to be so. Jonah's willfulness stirs up trouble. His shipmates come to see that he has brought upon them a storm of divine wrath. They must throw him overboard, but his reluctant confession inspires their penitence before God.

It is at this point that Jonah is famously swallowed by a whale, which ensures his survival, though in rather uncertain circumstances. When he prays in his extremity, says Father Mapple, he becomes obedient. Jonah thus is held up as a model of repentance.

If we look to the second chapter of Jonah, however, we cannot help but ask: Where are the ordinary marks of repentance in his prayer? There is no expression of remorse and no confession of sin. We hear of no resolve to heed God's commands. The overall mood of the prayer is one of thanksgiving rather than penitence. In fact, when the first-century Jewish historian Josephus paraphrased the story in his Jewish Antiquities, he moved the prayer to a later moment, after Jonah is restored to dry land, probably because the stress on thanksgiving made better sense that way. Not a few modern scholars dismiss Jonah's prayer as a generic psalm of deliverance interpolated without regard for the logic of the narrative. If Jonah is repentant, and if the prayer expresses his state of mind in extremis, why don't we hear of his penitence and resolve to go to Nineveh?

Father Mapple acknowledges that Jonah does not display remorse, even "when he drops seething into the yawning jaws awaiting him; and the whale shoots-to all his ivory teeth, like so many white bolts, upon his prison." Precisely that is the lesson:

Jonah does not weep and wail for direct deliverance. He feels that his dreadful punishment is just. He leaves all his deliverance to God, contenting himself with this, that spite of all his pains and pangs, he will still look towards His holy temple. …

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