Prophecy as farce: The Book of Jonah

Andy Oram
October 2, 2009

The Bible is a pretty serious work (written to last), and there’s little humor aside from a few wise-cracks by Elijah and some passages in Samuel that could be interpreted satirically. But two books are unambiguous belly-achers: Esther and Jonah.

The travails of the Korsakoff’s-afflicted King Ahasuerus and the egotistical Haman (who can’t imagine anybody being worth public honor but himself) are universally recognized as farce and are suitably celebrated as such on the most irreverent holiday in the Jewish calendar. Nevertheless, this book conveys a sense of real dread: one realizes as it moves along just how precarious is the lot of the Jews in every country, or of any marginalized minority. The inevitability of violence is also saddening.

Jonah, in contrast, the other farce in the Bible, is read at the most solemn moment of the year: the afternoon Yom Kippur service, when a hungry and spiritually worn down congregation is mustering itself for its final petitions for redemption before the gates of heaven close. What could the message of Jonah be at this time?

There’s no indication that the ancient rabbis who chose to insert Jonah into this service considered its humorous element. But we have to face it. The text dissolves into humor at virtually every key moment, and culminates in a magnificent punchline. Here are a few examples:

  1. Threatened by God’s wind on the sea, the Gentile sailors try to outrow the storm. Anyone brought up on the message that God can make the mountains skip like rams (Psalm 144:4) and unleash a Leviathon to play in the ocean (Psalm 104:26) would instinctively laugh at this attempt to thwart God’s will.
  2. A classic plot action, God’s rescue of a prophet, takes on a scatological twist as the fish vomits Jonah onto the shore.
  3. The people of Nineveh, fattened and smug, panic far too quickly at a few words from Jonah, who must have looked quite bedraggled from his ordeal with the storm and indistinguishable from any demented beggar.
  4. Most significant is a tiny detail in the King’s speech of repentance. So earnest is he to curry favor with God that he imposes fasting not only on his people, but on their cattle. This must appear absurd to righteous listeners, who know that cattle can’t tell right from wrong and can’t be implicated in the crimes of their masters.

Most pathetic is Jonah himself. Some prophet he makes! On the most elementary level he’s a fraud, because he fails to predict the future correctly. He says “Nineveh will be overthrown,” which it turns out later he didn’t even believe himself. (In a sense, though, their unanticipated change of heart could be considered a fulfillment of the prediction.)

But we have to grade Jonah more fundamentally on the two contradictory and consumately difficult tasks of a prophet, as described by Abraham Joshua Heschel. One the one hand, a prophet empathizes with God’s will and the disgruntlement God feels toward the people. On the other, the prophet must feel deeply the pain of his people and argue for them before God. Jonah utterly fails both tasks, concerned more with his own comfort in the desert than the city he just abandoned.

Like any good farce, the book on Jonah ends on a punchline. God is in the middle of explaining (for the first time, I should point out) his mission to Jonah, which involves persuading the prophet that the people of Nineveh deserve pity rather than hate. Thus, God describes the inhabitants of this supremely powerful metropolis as inconceivably naive (“don’t know their right from their left”). Then, out of the blue, he mentions the cattle—-thereby reminding Jonah of the King’s demonstrable ignorance.

In this single word (“cattle”) that ends the book, God thus shares a private joke with Jonah; the audience is obviously invited to join in. At the same time, the shared joke shows a sudden softening on God’s part. By acknowledging that Jonah is at a level of consciousness above the one shown by the Ninevites, a level close enough to God to understand the cruelty and pointlessness of starving one’s domesticated animals, God is hinting that he appreciates Jonah for who he is. It’s a tiny step toward the redemption of Jonah himself.

All right, then. The author of Jonah (who many scholars think, on unconvincingly sketchy evidence, was a woman) was making fun. But what was he making fun of?

After years of pondering this question, I have a tentative answer. The author Jonah is challenging the efficacy of prophecy. More to the point (in an age long past prophets) he is challenging the idea that we can act righteously out of mere conviction. This is a big challenge to religion!

The choice of Nineveh as the setting for redemption was not a coincidence. Nineveh exemplified the most destructive, inhumane, exploitative social system of the era, as I have described in another setting. Nineveh thrived on the slaughter of innocents and the looting of many nations. It was inconceivable for it to support one hundred and twenty thousand people without this economic hegemony.

Of course, cities have had hinterlands since they were first founded—by Cain, according to legend (Genesis 4:17). And cities have always enjoyed a higher standard of living than the hinterlands, which is why the history of civilization has been one of people moving from the hinterlands to the cities. Still, agricultural dwellers have appreciated the city as both a market and a source of ideas and goods that could not be generated in the countryside.

The rise of empires, of which Nineveh was a milestone in cruelty, represented a qualitative change. One can’ conceive of a righteous empire. I think that’s the essential point underlying Jonah. What good is individual repentance when one lives in Nineveh?

And how about today? Can we enjoy the fruits of capitalism without oppressing the poor? Karl Marx would argue no (and Michael Moore would fervently utter “amen”). A few of us have opportunities for heroic actions, like Oskar Schindler or the manager in Hotel Rwanda. The rest of us can just try to act a little better and buy more intelligently. Not exactly the visions of a prophet. And this has always been true of any social system that evolved on our planet.

In this context, one has to judge idealistic movements that have emerged over the centuries, such as locavorism. I certainly am in favor of reducing our burden on the environment and supporting communities, which are the foundation of democracy and a healthy culture. But a well-argued backlash has emerged against locavorism. Those who continue to practice it seem concerned with cleansing themselves by dissociating themselves from factory farms (which treat their cattle far worse than the King of Nineveh). But the locavorists still eat food picked by exploited Mexican labor, as well as make calls on cell phones manufactured with magnesium provided by people who slice up their victims in the Congo.

Somehow, I think the author of Jonah knew all this. He or she was telling us a truth about the world we don’t like to think about—and in fact, can’t think about if we hope to pursue our own lives day by day. Yom Kippur may be the one time we can integrate it into our lives.

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