Jonah as Everyman


The stories of the prophets are peculiar to Jewish history. These men lived and preached in a tiny, rocky land that to them was a land of milk and honey, and in a city in which stood one of the greatest temples of the then-known world. They attacked corrupt kings, they attacked corrupt priests, they attacked the rich and powerful of their own society, they predicted the downfall of their own nation. In God’s name—commanded by God—they raved in the street, saying what God ordered them to say. Feed widows, children, and strangers. Do justice, love mercy. Don’t take bribes. Pay workers the wages you’ve promised. Worship the true God, not idols. All of this was too difficult for the Israelites.

It is still too difficult for us. God was raving at the Israelites through the voices of the prophets. The audience could not hear, of course, just as we cannot.  As a consequence, the prophets often experience abuse, death threats, despair. Still, it is to the prophetic tradition that we owe the concept of free speech, of “speaking truth to power,” as well as the concept of social justice.

Jonah is not a typical prophet, though he is given that title in Kings. Jonah seems to be the underside of prophecy, the seams and hanging threads of righteousness. The tree uprooted, showing its massive system of roots with earthen clods still clinging to them. Perhaps he is a parody prophet. Perhaps he is intended as the model bad example in contrast to Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and the rest. But Jonah is also Everyman. He is our stubborn fear of change, our rejection of connection and love, our secret death wish. His is the despair, the depression, that is a kind of paralysis in human life. The story of Jonah connects the psychic dots that demonstrate the link between self-hatred and hatred of others. To put that link theologically, we might say Jonah sits sullenly in that place within each of us that resists doing what we know God wants.

And what does the God who made heaven and earth want of us now, each in our little sphere of existence? Do we have a clue? Do we have any idea what God wants us to do collectively, as nations? Does anyone even think to ask? Those who are confident that they already know are legion. The worst, as Yeats said, are full of passionate intensity. The best lack all conviction. Nobody has ears to hear. If I were God, I would be upset. I would feel like a betrayed lover, which is a figure that recurs all through prophetic literature. Or, more likely, I would feel like a teacher in an unruly classroom.

God is patient with Jonah as one would be with a child who needs to learn a lesson. When Jonah runs from God, God hurls a storm at him. When he tries to die, God saves him, sets him on his feet and repeats the original instruction. When he sulks, God steps back and asks him to look at himself. When he goes on sulking, God teases him. Their final conversation is worthy of first place in any collection of aggressive jokes. Freud says this of “the situation in which one person adopts a humorous attitude toward others”:

the subject is behaving towards them as an adult towards a child when he recognizes and smiles at the triviality of interests and sufferings which seem so great to it. Thus the humorist would acquire his superiority by assuming the role of the grown-up… and reducing others to being children.”

But perhaps God merely wants Jonah and the rest of us to grow up. Perhaps the strategy of telling Jonah’s story like a child’s story is designed to put us in touch with how much of the sulking child we each retain.

Grow up? Well, we won’t if we don’t want to. We’d rather die.

And so we leave the Jonah who is an aspect of ourselves sitting in the desert outside Nineveh, a desert we may imagine as resembling that of Los Alamos, where the first nuclear weapon was developed.  The actual Nineveh was destroyed in the year 612 BCE; but it was never a place merely of myth. Its site was across the Tigris River from the present-day city of Mosul, in present-day Iraq. Here too we leave God with his unanswered question of whether or not we human beings (Jonah in the first instance, Israelites in the second, but of course the book is written for everyone) should prefer to see Others, who share the planet with us, creatures who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle, destroyed or saved.

Excerpted from For the Love of God: the Bible as an Open Book. Copyright © 2007 by Alicia Suskin Ostriker. Published by Rutgers University Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.