Sunday, September 28, 2014

Jonah: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

The short book of Jonah (only four chapters) is one of the most memorable and action-packed in the Bible.  It is unique among the prophets in that it focuses on the prophet’s actions more than his message.  The book reads like a short story instead of a poem.  Here’s my summary:

Once there lived a Hebrew prophet named Jonah.  God told him to go to Nineveh, the capitol of Assyria (Israel’s enemy) and tell the people to repent, so they would be saved from a genocide God had planned for them.  Without a word, Jonah fled from his mission.  He didn’t want to go to Nineveh.  They were his enemies.  So he boarded a ship heading away from Assyria in a futile attempt to flee from God.  

While at sea, a great storm threatened to destroy the ship.  The sailors threw their cargo overboard, hoping the keep the boat afloat.  They prayed to their different gods, but the storm didn’t relent.  The panic-stricken sailors found Jonah sound asleep in his cabin.

The Tempest

“Dude, how are you sleeping right now?!” they asked, “Wake up and pray to your god so we won’t die!”

The sailors drew straws to see whose fault the storm was.  They were superstitious.  Jonah drew the short straw.

“Who are you?” the sailors asked.

“I am a Hebrew,” Jonah said, “I worship the God who created the land and the sea.”

The sailors became afraid.  Though they likely believed in different gods, they’d heard of this Yahweh God, and knew that Jonah must have pissed him off something fierce.  Meanwhile, the storm raged on.

“What should we do?” the sailors asked Jonah.

“Throw me into the sea!” Jonah said.

“Dude, we’re not murderers!” the sailors said, and continued trying to guide the ship toward safe harbor.  When they realized it was hopeless, they prayed to Jonah’s god, “Forgive us for killing this guy,” and they threw Jonah into the sea!

Jonah inside the whale, praying.

Instead of drowning, however, Jonah was swallowed up by a whale.  While inside the belly of the whale, he sang a song of thanks to God.  After three days, the whale barfed up Jonah onto dry land.  It was a miracle.

The whale barfs up Jonah.

For a second time, God told Jonah to go to Nineveh.  This time, the reluctant prophet obeyed.  He went to the capitol of Assyria and said eight words, “Forty more days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”  Miraculously, that did the trick.  The people of Nineveh, who had a well-established religion of their own, believed this foreign enemy, prayed to his god, and even fasted.  So God changed his mind about genociding Nineveh.

Instead of being happy, however, Jonah was angry.  He didn’t want the Assyrians spared.  They were his enemy.  He hated them.  This was the real reason he fled in the first place.  He wanted God to destroy them, not show them mercy.

So God used an allegory to teach Jonah the fault in this way of thinking.  When he left the city, Jonah sat down to take a rest.  God caused bush to bloom and give him shade from the heat.  Then God caused the bush to wither, and Jonah became uncomfortably hot.  He got sunstroke, and wanted to die.

God said to Jonah, “Are you right to be angry about the bush?”

“Yes, angry enough to die,” Jonah said boldly.

“You are more concerned about a bush than about the 120,000 human beings (and countless animals) you just helped save from destruction?  That’s not cool,” God said.

The End

The “moral” of the story seems to be that God cares about all people, not just Israel.  This is a welcome message for readers like me, who are disturbed by the previous book of Obadiah, which preaches judgment against Israel’s neighbor Edom.  The book of Jonah seems to completely reverse this way of thinking.  The Bible is full of paradoxical gems like this.

That being said, I have a couple problems with the book of Jonah, in terms of ideology:

1.) Religious intolerance.  While the Assyrians are indeed saved, they are only saved by praying to Yahweh.  Their religion is seen as useless.  This seems a rather ethnocentric point of view.  I’m sure the Assyrians had stories which told of the power of their gods, and weakness of foreign gods.

2.) God was going to kill the Assyrians!  Let’s not forget that the genocide which the Assyrians are spared from is a genocide planned by God.  This is an ongoing issue I have with the Bible, which is the brutal vengeance of God.

The ancient city of Nineveh is now called Mosul, the second largest city of Iraq, which has seen much fighting in recent months between ISIL, Kurds, and other groups.  One result of this fighting has been the destruction of priceless ancient cultural sites, which is something that should be a topic of greater conversation regarding war in the Middle East, aka the Cradle of Civilization.  By bombing ancient sites, it's like we're saying "Fuck you" to history and culture.

Mosul (aka Nineveh) today.

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