God said to Jonah, the prophet of Gath-hepher, “Go to Nineveh, the city of the Assyrians; tell them to repent, for the outcry of all they have oppressed and killed has come up to me like a foul incense.” But Jonah, knowing the nature of his God, rose up and fled west, away from Nineveh. He paid to sail on a ship out of Joppa, heading toward Tarshish, to flee the face of God.
A storm troubled the ship. The sailors, mostly Phoenicians, cried out to their hollow-eyed gods to no avail. Soon, they began to seek whom brought such a nemesis upon them–who had angered the gods? They brought all to the deck to pray and plead; perhaps this spot of sea was the dominion of one of these sailers’ gods. Jonah sat, praying; but no avail came. Obviously, it was some divine fury. Cleromancy would bring the answer. The lots fell on Jonah. One said to Jonah, “What have you done? By Tanit and Molech, tell us, who is your god? Is he god of the Great Sea? Of the storms? For we have cried unto ours but they act not. You have wronged your god. Plead with him, lest we all die for your wrong!”
Jonah said, “I am a Hebrew. I fear YHWH, god of the sky-roof. He made the Sea and the Land.”
“Then mayhap he will hear you and have mercy on us.”
“I made an oath to be his oracle, but I have fled his face.”
“What shall be done, then? Yamm will soon swallow us, and we will descend into the house of Melqart.”
Jonah clenched his jaw. “Throw me to him then. The Sea will calm.” So they lifted Jonah up and threw him into the Sea. Within moments the storm ceased, and the waves rested. So the Phoenicians made vows that day to make offerings to the Hebrew’s god in thanks. Jonah sank into the arms of the deep, down into the abyss of tehom. He had escaped, he believed. Soon, his chest would burn, and he would die. And the Assyrians would not be given the chance to be redeemed, and would be destroyed like Sodom.
But something happened.
In the wine-dark sea, something rose up from the abyss and swallowed Jonah, some ancient Leviathan. He didn’t drown. He wasn’t escaped yet. In that strange belly he lay, his skin raw and scrubbed and reeking. And Jonah relented, saying, “YHWH, to you I cry. I know you will answer. In Sheol’s belly I am weeping, and you hear. You hurled me into the abyss, into the sea’s very heart, and the deluge surrounds me. They are your billows and waves that pass over me like the angel of death. I thought I was beyond your sight…but I know I will see your holy temple again. I will not be left here, though the abyss itself closes its fist around me. Crowned with weeds, I descended to the very moorings of the mountains of the world; I heard the earthen gate close behind me, at the edge between the world of the living and dead.
“Yet you have raised my life up out of the pit. O YHWH, my god…when my soul corpsed within me, I remembered you, YHWH, and I prayed to you, and that incense ascended to you in the heavenly temple. Anyone who prays to a worthless idol is unworthy of mercy (like those Assyrians!)…but I will do as I vowed to you, thankfully. Only YHWH can save.”
Light, as in the beginning. Blinding, and so making us able to see.
There is a gush around him. Putrid waters. He tumbles, rushing outward.
If you had been on the shore you would have seen a wild-haired man cast onto the sand. His clothing is tattered and stinks like a fisherboat. He stands on wobbling legs. His skin looks bleached. He coughs. His eyes and nose run. He hacks another cough out. Then, resolutely, he goes east., muttering prayers…sometimes it sounds like he is arguing.
Jonah came to Nineveh. He cried out, “In forty days, Nineveh shall be overthrown for her great evils!” This he cried, this wild man borne up out of the sea. The prophet, seized by the enthusiastic grasp of his god. The king of Nineveh heard his words and heeded them, for the prophet is the mouth of his god; the god of the Hebrews was known among them: the slave-freeing god, the sea and river-parting god, the defeater of the Peleshtim and of Mitsrayim. A god of fire. Maker of sky, water, and land. The king set a vow on the city: all went in sackcloth, their hair full of ashes, and they wept, and no food touched their lips. Even their beasts fasted. And a great cry went up from Nineveh.
Jonah received word from the Lord, and so came to the Assyrians and told them, “YHWH has seen your works; he will relent; he has shown you mercy.” And the Assyrians wept for joy. And Jonah went out of the gates of Nineveh.
But Jonah did not go home. Instead he went up a hill overlooking great Nineveh, sat, and watched them day and night, awaiting their destruction. He said to his god, “This is why I refused you! I know you are merciful and full of grace. I knew you would forgive for any chance you could take! Forgive the Assyrians? I have seen their works, O Merciful One, O Relenting One: children spitted on a post, still alive. Men impaled in rows in city streets, and down the highways to the next city! Women torn open! TORN OPEN! And their babes torn from their bellies and their skulls bashed open on stones! And you forgive them! I saw men with hooks put through their noses and drug across the desert. They put out the eyes of the sons of Israel! I have seen them lay the skins of men on walls as if they were blankets! Savages! They are not men, and they all deserve to burn forever. They are demons in human flesh–and you wanted to save them. I wanted justice for Israel! For my people on this horde of demons! But not you, oh, you always seek a path of redemption, even for these beasts! They nailed children–children!–to the ground and left them. And you tell me you love them! So, yes, I am angry. And I will sit here and wait. They have not changed; I will wait. They will return to their evil and some nemesis or fury shall befall them and Nineveh shall be a memory like Gomorrah and her sister-cities. If not, let me sit here and die in peace.”
Days went by. Jonah made a booth beneath a great tree and rested in its shade. And a kikayon began to grow, and it gave him him great shade; and he sat in the cool shadow, watching Nineveh. He could hear the laughter of children, the bustle of voices in the bazaar, the calls of cattle–and he waited for all of it to die. He wished it. He prayed it. But no voice came to him to tell him Nineveh would burn and tumble into perdition. But at least he was comfortable.
But one day a worm crept along the root of the kikayon; and it killed the root and the plant withered away, so Jonah’s countenance fell. Then the hot sirocco wind came from the east, a wind of Yah, and the shade was gone, and Jonah felt as if he would fall over dead from the heat of the burning eye of the sun. “It is better to just be dead. If they are not dead, I would be dead.”
At last the voice came.
“Jonah, why has your countenance fallen? If one does well, will I not receive them into my fold?”
Jonah groaned. “Lord. Lord, please. Let me die. I am bitter unto death.It is more than I can bear. You have left me in this land of Nod like Cain.”
“And like Cain you wish your brethren dead.”
“Abel had done no wrong. I fail to see your point.”
“No man is without wickedness in his heart. Even you, Jonah. You say Cain’s only sin was that his reason to want to kill his brother was not satisfactory to your judgment? That you may kill your brother as long as your reason is satisfactory to you or those like you?”
“My Lord. Please. Enough.”
“Are you angry that the plant has burnt up and is no more? That the kikayon has died?”
“Yes! Of course I’m angry! Let me die!”
“You pitied a plant. You did not seed it in the soil. You did not give it water or sunlight. You did not rejoice as it grew and spread. You only loved it because it profited you…Yet you cannot love the Assyrians? You loved what you did not conceive. You loved what you did not tend and watch grow up. You loved it though you did not hold it in your hands like a child of your own. There are more than 120 thousand souls in Nineveh. I made them all with my hands. I have watched them grow. I have tended them as my garden. I have loved them, though they profited me little. Yet I desired that they might live, as you desired that the kikayon might live, though you did naught for it but sit in its wealth of shade.”
The voice seemed to almost chuckle. “If not the people, what of the cattle in the city? Its sheep? Its doves? Or do you only love what benefits you and you alone?”
What did Jonah say? What do we say?