I’ve always had a soft spot for the book of Jonah because he’s such a terrible jerk and yet completely against his will ends up doing more actual good in the world than most of the other, more well-intentioned prophets put together. True, it’s not as if any of the prophets would necessarily have chosen their role in life if given the option–even Moses protests strenuously before assenting to serve as God’s representative to the rebellious and “stiff-necked” people Yisrael, and complains every step of the way from the Sea of Reeds to the promised land. Indeed, it’s this quality of the Jewish understanding of prophecy that serves to reinforce over and over again what Emmanuel Levinas calls the “transcendent” quality of religion–the sense that the ethical mission, the sense of responsibility for the other than serves as the beating heart of every truly inspired religious point of view is something imposed on us from without and, as it were, against our will.
Jonah, however, is something else entirely. I mean, what can you say about a guy who objects to God’s decision to send him to Nineveh precisely on the grounds that the mission might succeed and result in the Ninevites repenting and escaping destruction? You have to get up pretty early in the day to achieve that level of supreme douchebaggery. And yet I can’t help but wonder if that reluctance, the crazy degree to which God had to send him through the wringer to get him to the place he was supposed to be and to do what needed to be done, wasn’t somehow necessary to the success of the whole undertaking after all. Could it be that the king of Nineveh, a city admittedly so steeped in wickedness that God was about to pull a second “Sodom and Gomorrah” on the place, could not have been persuaded of the necessity of repentance by anything less than the spooky intensity of a man who’s just been dragged half-way across the world, against his will, inside a fish? Surely at the very least the state of the messenger would serve as a potent indicator that this God meant Serious Business.
The way I see it, in this world, at this time, we’re all Jonahs to one degree or another. Steeped in a political climate in which compromise and sympathy for another’s position are looked upon more often than not as the most grave sort of weakness, we would rather rave and thrash against the hand of God himself than show the slightest concern or consideration for those we regard as “them.” Given how “stiff-necked” humanity has been for as long as anyone can remember, and how grave the various crises we are faced with today, isn’t it just a little comforting to imagine that God might occasionally be willing to deal with our own uncompromising stubbornness with the same divine lack of patience he showed Jonah? May we all have the enlightenment and presence of mind to learn the lesson the first time around, but barring that, may we be fortunate enough that God continues beating us over the head if need be until we get the picture. I mean, what are a few bruises compared to the possibility of going through life with our eyes closed to the moral reality of the people around us?