Why the Book of Jonah?

book-of-jonahWhen you write a novel called The Book of Jonah, when you base that book on the biblical Book of Jonah, one thing is for sure: People are going to ask you why you wrote a novel based on the Biblical Book of Jonah. Why not, say, Job? Or Daniel? Aren’t there some juicy parts of Kings? (Yes, there are.)

For the record, I think there are many stories in the Bible that could form the basis of a successful novel, or play, or poem, or what have you. To me, the Hebrew Bible is a nearly matchless compendium of human drama, portraying our mythic forebears with far more recognizable fallibility than we typically acknowledge.

But ever since I first encountered the Book of Jonah—probably as a third grader in Hebrew School—I’ve been especially intrigued by it, and the more I’ve returned to it, the more intrigued I’ve become. There is quality to text that defies easy interpretation—and I believe it is just this quality that makes it particularly well suited to our own times.

While the Book of Jonah is grouped among the Prophets, the text in fact contains only five words of prophecy. The bulk of the story chronicles a sort of on-going feud between Jonah, a most reluctant Biblical protagonist, and God: When God orders Jonah to “preach against” the distant city of Nineveh, he promptly flees in the opposite direction; when Jonah finally does acquiesce to God’s instructions, he does nothing but complain about the outcome. The story follows Jonah from one end of the ancient world to the other, with a sojourn in the belly of a “great fish” (not, in the original Hebrew, a whale) in between, and features characters as varied as kings and cattle, sailors, and worms. The story is rife with humor, satire, ironies, and ambiguities.

Tellingly, the book is also rife with questions: Every speaker in the book poses at least one, and often several. And just as most of these literal questions go unanswered, the Book of Jonah by implication raises far more questions than it answers. Why does Jonah flee from God’s commands? Why do the Ninevites repent so dramatically when Jonah finally delivers his prophecy? What are we meant to make of the strange analogy with which the book ends, in which God compares a dead bush and a city?

While the Bible is generally thought of as a font of certainties, the Book of Jonah stands out as tantalizingly equivocal.

Predictably, scholars and sages of many religious stripes have done their best over the centuries to fill in the book’s perceived blanks. Jonah has been characterized as heroically self-sacrificing or hypocritical and cruel; the story has been read in the context of ancient Judaic political concerns or as a prefiguration of the narrative of Jesus. More recent thinkers have argued the book should be treated as fable, or allegory, or parody, or parable.

To me, the reason these interpretations ultimately fail in their attempts to dispel the book’s central questions is the same reason the Book of Jonah has remained so compelling over the two-thousand-plus years since its composition: The Book of Jonah’s ambiguities, its gaps, its questions, are neither incidental nor resolvable. Rather, they are integral features of the work as a whole. Like unresolved chords in a symphony, the omissions are what give the book its power. This is a tale that embraces uncertainty, that acknowledges the unanswerable.

And this is precisely why I think the Book of Jonah is so relevant in our time. Like Jonah, we can’t escape a confrontation with the complexities of our world—be they moral, political, scientific, or spiritual. We are bombarded every day through a myriad of technologies with examples of injustice across the globe: sin going unpunished, virtue unrewarded. That many, Jew and Gentile alike, are unsatisfied with attempts to account for all this within a theological framework can be seen in the dwindling participation in religion generally.

The Book of Jonah offers the reassurance that perplexity at the world around us is not new, nor is it irreligious. It is, rather, a sometimes inevitable part of engagement with the world. Further, in Jonah’s troubled relationship with God, the story suggests that our relationship with the divine will always be characterized by some degree of incomprehension. The Book of Jonah does not present lessons to dispatch spiritual dilemmas. Rather, it affirms their essential mystery.

These are the qualities that drew me to this particular Biblical story—and these are the qualities I tried to bring out in reimagining it in our own, so frequently confounding age.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

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Posted on January 30, 2014

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