There are many Bible stories that many who have never read the Bible know.
Or think they know.
Jonah and the whale is one of them. Many seem to be familiar with the hapless Jonah who gets swallowed by a whale, in whose belly he lives for three days. Some might even know that he was running away from an assignment given to him by God.
What many might not appreciate, even those who know the story, is that Jonah is not really the hero of the story, in the sense that he is meant to be an exemplar of behaviour, a model to be emulated. Rather, he is an angry, judgmental, small-minded man who bitterly opposes God’s compassion and God’s mercy on those who don’t follow the rules. He’s kind of a proto-fundamentalist.
And what’s more, the story is told about him in the Bible in a way that intends for listeners or readers of the story to laugh at Jonah. It’s a funny story. It’s a comedy. Which is another surprise to those who think of the Bible as being dreadfully boring or humourless. The story of Jonah is a bit of a caricature of religious and ethnic intolerance, a parody of small-mindedness which lampoons those who would not be gracious or forgiving.
The word of God comes to Jonah, the way that it comes to all of the Jewish prophets. Prophets receive word from God usually to proclaim that God’s justice cannot be ignored, and that judgment will fall on those who oppress the poor, cheat their workers, or ignore the needs of the most vulnerable. A major theme for the Jewish prophets is the tendency of the Hebrews to worship other gods and goddesses, and how mad God, the God of the Hebrew people, gets when this happens.
So Jonah receives word from the God of Israel to go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it. The wickedness of its people has come to the attention of God and God wants Jonah to go tell them about it. (Jonah 1:1-2) Nineveh was the flourishing capital of the Assyrian empire, at the time of this story, the largest city in the ancient world. In other words, the seat of an imperial power amassing wealth through the domination of other lands. And one that is not Jewish. The Assyrians were pagan, after all.
So God is sending Jonah there to preach against Nineveh. What does he do?
He gets on the next ship out of there and goes—in the opposite direction.
He heads for Tarshish, a fabled name for a place probably on the Iberian peninsula, pretty much the outer edge of the known world. Jonah wants to get as far away as possible. If we were telling this story today, we might say something like, “Jonah got on the next plane to Timbuktu.”
God stirs up a violent storm that tosses and pounds the ship that Jonah is on. Everyone aboard starts praying to their own god while Jonah, incredibly, is asleep below deck.
The sailors wake him up and say, “What are you doing? Get up and call on your God to save us!” (1:6)
The sailors also cast lots to find out who is responsible for the calamity that has befallen them, which they discover is Jonah.
“Who are you? Where are you from? Do you know who’s responsible for the trouble we’re in?”
Jonah replies that he is a Hebrew and that he has angered his God by running away from him.
“What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?” they ask.
“Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” is the answer Jonah gives. (1:11-12)
That is when a huge fish (not a whale but a “huge fish”) swallows Jonah and carries Jonah in its belly for three days and three nights and spits him up onto dry land.
There, God again commands Jonah to go to Nineveh and proclaim there the message God gave Jonah. Reluctantly, Jonah goes.
Now much of the Hebrew Bible devoted to the prophets is full of threats, all of the things that God will do to the wicked. The prophets give long lists of what has made God angry: oppression of the poor, unfaithfulness, chasing after ostentatious wealth. They give long lists of punishments and tribulations: famines and droughts (economic losses) and military invasions.
Jonah, on the other hand, walks into the city of Nineveh and says, “You have forty days.” (3:4)
That’s all he says.
No “Woe to you,” no explanation of the wickedness that God has seen, no long lists of things to repent from.
Jonah is doing his best to make sure they don’t repent and that God punishes them.
“You have forty days.”
And then, to Jonah’s great dismay, that’s all it takes for the Ninevites to be sorry and repent.
He’s not even working that hard at prophesying, and they all are sorry for what they’ve done and immediately begin to fast and ask forgiveness. Including the king who proclaims a fast and urges everybody to “give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows,” the king says, “God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” (3:8-9)
“When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” (3:10)
Well. Jonah is angry! He is so angry!
He storms out of the city. “I knew you were going to this! I knew it!” he rails at God.
“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, LORD, take away my life for it is better for me to die than to live.” (4:3)
God acts like a soothing parent. “Oh, honey you don’t mean that.”
“Yes I do! I’d rather be dead than glad that you didn’t destroy them!”
“Is it right for you to be angry?” God asks repeatedly.
“I’m going to sit right here and watch the city and wait and see what happens to them.” (4:5)
And that’s pretty much how the story ends. (Although we also get this comic situation where God shelters Jonah out there in the desert with a tree that grows up where he is sulking, after which God takes it away and Jonah blows up again).
But that is pretty much how the story ends. Jonah sulking and a soothing parental God saying, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Is it right for you to be angry?
Sometimes it is right to be angry. Anger at an injustice is a sign of an active moral conscience. Getting mad when something unfair happens is a good sign. It can be the energy that gets us to move toward making justice, toward righting the wrong. Anger can be the motivation for action.
But Jonah is mad because the people of Nineveh have been spared. The compassion—the mercy—of the God he reveres is greater than Jonah’s petty need for revenge and retribution. Jonah is angry because he didn’t get what he wanted— God smiting the people he doesn’t like.
The citizens of Nineveh, remember, are not even Jews. The story plays on the distinction that the Hebrews made between themselves and other nations, that they had been chosen out of all the nations of the world in a special covenant with God. That God’s covenant could be universal, and could include all peoples, was anathema to those who claimed the superiority of their ethnic and national group over all others.
I myself have known people like Jonah, given to jingoistic sloganeering about their nation being the best nation on Earth, given to confirming their prejudices by quoting a scripture chapter and verse, and who refuse to acknowledge goodness in people different from them or deemed enemies to themselves.
I see in the character of Jonah something I see all the time. When you’re really mad at somebody who has wronged you in some way. They’ve really done something unskillful and hurtful and you just can’t wait until you see them because you are going to let them have it. You are going to tell them what they did and how it made you feel and what you’re going to do about it and what they should do about it and the kind of person you think they are.
You rehearse what you’re going to say in your mind, making all kinds of brilliant points about this other person’s shortcomings and failures.
When you see them, before you can even get a word out, they apologize.
Without your explaining it, they acknowledge what they’ve done. They say they realize what they did and see how unskillful and hurtful it was toward you, and they are sorry. And they ask you to accept their apology.
You don’t want them to be sorry!
You want to have the fight you’ve been rehearsing in your head!
You don’t want to accept their apology, you want to enumerate the ways in which they are wrong, and now you’re even angrier because they’ve taken that away from you.
They’ve done it themselves and apologized for it.
Sometimes we don’t want reconciliation or resolution. We want to be proven right. We want to triumph in victory over another. We ourselves can be vengeful or spiteful and in so doing, perpetuate a conflict, continue a difference we have with another.
Maybe you have known people like Jonah, who refuse to give up their resentments, refuse to let go of a justified anger or a grudge, who seethe with bitterness at the perceived or actual wrongdoing of others.
Some people collect grievances.
There was a woman in a church I once served who was known to take people to task for not following rules or procedures, or for being sloppy or incorrect. She’d phone you and go on and on about everything you had done wrong, some of them quite petty, and if you hung up on her, she’d call right back and continue.
Just wait, I was told when I arrived in this church, you’ll see. When I asked about the covenant of right-relation this congregation had, people scoffed. “You try holding her to that!”
Sure enough, in due time, this woman called me on the phone and lay into me everything that I had done wrong since I had arrived at this church, on and on with great vehemence.
I had been there three weeks.
She collected grievances. She derived some benefit to always feeling wronged. She needed to always be right.
I have known people who always have to win, whether it’s a game or an argument. They have to be right. A wall of righteousness and arrogance and ego blocks them from acknowledging they could be wrong, their knowledge could be partial, that there could be goodness and thoughtfulness in a person or people they designate their opponent.
I think we all know somebody who is like Jonah and I think that we all, in one way or another, are ourselves quite like him.
We don’t need to look very far to find smug and self-righteous people. We’re right here.
We don’t need to look to other groups of people in other religions or with different politics from us to find people who are convinced that they are right. We’re right here.
Some of the most smug and self-righteous people I’ve ever known I met in supposedly liberal circles. Tell such people that you eat meat, or can’t stand listening to NPR, or that you own a gun, or vote Republican—and just see what happens.
Jonah needed to be right. There are rules and if you don’t follow them, you are to be punished. That is the correct way of running an ordered and predictable world. There is a moral and good way to act and an immoral and evil way to act. The good are rewarded. Wrongdoers are punished. God is on the side of those who are right, moral and good. God is on our side and against them.
This either-or, black-and-white way of ordering people and the world can’t handle compassion and forgiveness. The idea that wrong can go unpunished is unbearable and upsetting.
Anger can, as Thich Nhat Hanh notes, form a kind of knot within us, a formation that is difficult to undo. When that knot has formed within us, the person with whom we disagree or who has wronged us is all wrong, all the time.
We cannot see anything else about that person.
We hold on to that anger, as resentment, because we think that doing so is going to punish them for what they did wrong. It’s like swallowing a burning poison to hurt somebody else. We are only hurting ourselves.
Physically, even, when we carry anger and resentment around within us, our bodies are affected negatively—ulcers, headaches, muscle pain. If we choose to be free of suffering, it will be because we let go of the resentment we are holding on to.
We need to ask ourselves, Do I want to be right? Or do I want to be free?
And we can choose freedom. In living a compassionate life, practicing forgiveness, we do the hard spiritual work of giving up the demand to be vindicated.
What about those that have harmed us? What happens when they do not reach out to make amends, or insist they have done nothing wrong, or will not engage with you at all? What about needing to forgive somebody who has died or is otherwise indisposed?
It seems to me we then have the choice of either holding on to our sense of being aggrieved or let it go. We can constantly tell ourselves the story of how we were wronged and live out that identity of the righteous victim. Or, without excusing the other’s actions, without forgetting the harm they caused, we can let go of the hurt and the anger and the acrimony and vindictiveness.
Anger and resentment are corrosive to the soul, eating you up inside. Forgiveness can be an act of self-care, even as one stands in opposition to the others’ actions, firmly standing against their behaviour.
One does the work of justice, of resolving conflict, of being in relation with difficult people, without becoming full of negative emotion. It’s a kind of non-attached engagement; we are not detached, but we don’t get hooked and reeled in by the reactivity, the ill will of those with whom we are in conflict. We maintain a spacious, serene mind and equilibrium in our hearts. Even as we oppose them.
Being unforgiving is essentially a fantasy of making the past different and wanting to punish somebody for doing something they cannot change.
Forgiveness is a practice that liberates us from what cannot be undone; it frees us from an unchanging past.
Forgiveness, being fully in the present moment and oriented toward possibilities of the future, is what it takes for peace and understanding.
I can understand and appreciate how the story of Jonah is traditionally the Haftorah reading for the afternoon Yom Kippur service. Yom Kippur is an intense time of self-scrutiny and prayer, a time for forgiveness of wrongs, making amends, and reconciliation.
We can laugh at the caricature that Jonah represents, but let it be the laughter of recognition and not derision, that we see in this character something of our own character.
And let us recognize that we ourselves at times are like the citizens of Nineveh, unable to tell our right hand from our left, and that concern and grace and love is shown to us, even in our confusion and uncertainty, more than we sometimes know.
And let us find it within ourselves to live more graciously and with more compassion, for ourselves as well as others, forgiving and asking forgiveness, that we may live with ease and at peace.