Jonah – The Reluctant Hero

Rachel S. Harris
September 11, 2012
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In the four chapters that constitute The Book of Jonah, Jonah’s mission to talk to the people of Nineveh and convince them to repent constitutes only seven verses (3:3-10). The exercise itself is relatively easy: the people heed his message, are penitent and quick to atone. It is Jonah’s own narrative that makes up the majority of this story. His journey as a reluctant hero, and his attempts to avoid this task, his flight, his reflections in the belly of the great fish, his relief at the shade provided by a kikayon (gourd), constitute the heart of this story. Jonah is afraid of God’s request and leaves immediately for Tarshish. But despite hiding deep in the bowels of the ship, he is a man who is moved by the pleas of the mariners. He does not ignore them, but explains the cause of the storm, and following the casting of lots, admits that he must be thrown overboard in order to save them. Jonah is never cold or aloof, and we witness his sorrow in the depths of the ocean. After finally delivering his message, he is angry at Nineveh’s salvation. This anger is repeated at the destruction of the gourd which had sheltered him. Yet even in this broad representation of his emotional states Jonah never deviates from his love or his fear of God. It is his deep emotional responses that elevate Jonah’s experiences beyond his unusual adventure creating a character whose feelings and reactions resonate beyond the boundaries of the text and depict Jonah in a universal light.

Though often looked at as a paradigm for understanding repentance and God’s constant presence, this story can also be read as the process of Jonah’s transformation. Despite his constant mistakes, through the nurturing kindness, constant attention, and gentle education that God gives Jonah, he comes to find enlightenment, understanding, and compassion.

Jonah is an unusual choice for a biblical protagonist. He does not share the pedigree of numerous figures whose coming is foretold (Samson, Moses) or whose acts of bravery and heroism mark them out (most of Judges and Kings). He doesn’t slay enemies or rescue the Jewish people. In the book itself we have no sense of previous acts of prophecy, though he is identified as the son of Ammitai, who elsewhere is described as a prophet (II Kings XIV:25). Throughout the story, Jonah is alone and, though the sailors reach out to him, he is isolated. Not only is he unenthusiastic about his task, he repeatedly argues with God’s choices. Though he is not the first biblical hero to question God’s strange requests, his lack of princely birth or entitled position indicates that he has no expectation of a call to duty. Nor does he see the task as a test by God, as Abraham and others had. Jonah is not set apart by birth or by his actions, and in fact, he is noteworthy for his very unremarkableness.

Jonah’s refusal to follow God’s commands is not the result of laziness or indifference – it takes a great deal of energy to orchestrate his departure “he rose up to flee” (1:3). Nor does he doubt God’s power “I know that You are compassionate, long suffering, abundant in mercy and accept repentance of evil” (4:2) Nevertheless he is held back from the task. Jonah’s refusal to undertake God’s command is not based on ignorance—he even tells God that he knew the people would repent—but of his own bloodthirsty desire to see them suffer. Jonah longs for their punishment and lacks the willingness to forgive that God himself possesses.

Nevertheless, Jonah, as the hero of a parable relating man’s lust for vengeance, is too apathetic. Rather, we are given a stubborn, misguided, and deeply flawed human who is unable to find compassion for others. This Jonah is contrasted with a kind benevolent God who is willing to repeat his request of the reluctant hero. Though God chases him to the depths of the ocean, he does not abandon him, or lead him to his death. Even in his isolation God remains with Jonah. Instead of punishing him for his transgressions, God patiently saves Jonah, and repeats his request: “And God spoke to Jonah a second time” (3:1). After Nineveh’s redemption, God witnesses Jonah’s anger, and his storming off like a spoiled child. Instead of punishing Jonah God gives him the gourd to shade him from the sun. Finally, when his covering is destroyed, and Jonah is again angry, God explains his compassion for Nineveh and his reasons for asking Jonah to undertake this task in the first place.

In choosing to create a hero out of the most ordinary of men, the story of Jonah comes to explain man’s own hesitancy. In this story we are given a world in which, held back by anger and jealousy, Jonah misunderstands God’s motives. From the depths of the ship (where he is asleep) and from the fish (where he is entombed) Jonah is unable to see the bigger picture. By contrast it is God’s patience, kindness, and determination to educate and explain that changes Jonah’s world, giving him insight into lives that are not his own. There are few anti-heroes in the biblical canon, and fewer still that have books named after them. Thus Jonah is a figure who is singled out for his unique message. If asked to provide a moral to the tale of Jonah, then perhaps it is that we, as ordinary individuals, can triumph over our own pettiness through empathy, to see beyond our own limited horizons.

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Rachel S. Harris is Assistant Professor of Israeli Literature and Culture in Comparative &World Literature and the Program in Jewish Culture & Society at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She has published on contemporary Israeli literature and culture in the journals Israel Studies, Shofar, and Modern Jewish Studies. She has written on suicide in Israeli literature, and more recently on women in Israeli film. Her co-edited volume bringing together articles on a range of subjects “Narratives of Dissent: War in Israeli Culture and Arts” will be published in the Fall through Wayne State Press. She is also the series editor for the Dalkey Archive Press “Hebrew Literature in Translation Series” and the Hebrew editor of “The Levant Notebook” an online literary magazine bringing together Middle Eastern fiction and poetry in English translation, along with reviews, and opinion pieces on the state of culture.

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