In the Belly of the Whale

In the Belly of the Whale

My favorite book of Tanach [the Hebrew Bible] is Jonah; short, memorable, funny, profound, endlessly enigmatic. My favorite service of the Jewish year is Saturday afternoon Yom Kippur, when the Book of Jonah is read, when because you’re getting a bit loopy from this fasting business,  the story is somehow making more and more sense––“why can’t a person spend three days in the belly of a big fish, after all, stranger things have happened.”

There are many interpretations of the Book of Jonah. Some see it as a satire, some as a stern moral lesson.   Some say it is supposed to be humorous, some not.  Some argue it is critique of religious parochialism. Some argue—this was a favorite of the rabbis—that if read correctly, it is a defense of religious parochialism, and the insincerity of the gentiles.  Others see it as the paradigmatic story of repentance—surely that is why it is in the Yom Kippur liturgy. Or a dramatization of the tension between God’s justice and God’s mercy.  

Sitting in synagogue this weekend, I had another thought.  What Jonah hates, above all, is good news.  After God spares Nineveh, Jonah complains to God, in effect: 

If you are going to be so merciful, what’s the point of me going around telling people to repent or face doom?  You’re making me look bad, and what’s more, you’re making yourself look bad.  If God starts not following his own laws, how do you expect people, especially the gentiles, to follow them?  Look, if you don’t zap people, no one will believe in you.  In the God business, it’s better to be feared than loved. If you threaten doom, unless you carry out your threat, no one will take you seriously.  I’m a prophet, remember? Our stock in trade is doom and gloom, sackcloth and ashes.  Everyone knows (please read Isaiah and Jeremiah in case you have forgotten) how this is supposed to work—prophets say to the people repent, the end is near; and of course the people don’t repent, or don’t repent enough, and then you get to destroy Jerusalem again.  Being a prophet is a hard enough way to earn a living without you undermining us.

There are a lot of Jonahs, especially when it comes to the Middle East, who think the more direr, the better, or at least the more truthful.  Good news is for the happy-faced cretins who really think things have changed. Or can’t see good news for what it is really isa brief interregnum before the resumption of the usual misery. Good news is for those weak in mind and body, simple-minded and superficial.  Bad news is profound, almost sublime. What doesn’t kill you (or what does kill you) makes you stronger and tougher. (This is what some rabbis argue, by the way—since Nineveh was eventually destroyed, their repenting was obviously insincere.)

So we turn to the Middle East. Almost forgotten in this summer’s litany of horrors, was the destruction by ISIS, after its capture of Mosul, of the tomb of Jonah, the Islamic prophet Yunus.  Mosul was built on and around the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh, and if Jonah ever lived (which is highly doubtful) I suppose he would have been buried in Nineveh, where he supposedly preached. His reputed tomb was the site of an ancient Nestorian church, which became a mosque, where it stood for many centuries until this summer. Presumably it was destroyed out of ISIS’s Salafist puritanism, but a deeper reason, perhaps, is their detestation of one of the main messages of the book (the treatment of Jonah in the Koran is similar to the Tanach), the importance of divine mercy.

ISIS itself, has of course become the latest Exhibit A that the Middle East is irredeemably crazy and evil, and anyone expecting any sort of peace there is the sort of rube who sends money to Nigeria after receiving one of those emails.  And there are so many people, left, right, and center, who would rather flee to Tarshish than believe that our gloomy prophecies might be wrong. People have given up hope that a two-state solution is possible.  People have given up hope in a stable Middle East, as if it was the only part of the world to ever experience a prolonged period of instability.  And once again, as we read in the papers today, rabbis in their High Holy Day sermons are demonizing Islam and all Muslims.

So let me be simple-minded.  First, let me acknowledge what is obvious.  If you are a prophet of doom, the Middle East is once again a great place to be.  But I believe in the power of repentance, and the possibility of mercy.  People change because they have to, not because they want to.  And the one reality in the Middle East today, in Israel and Palestine, in Iraq and Syria, and what threatens to become a Pan-Islamic War, is instability.  And out of instability comes change, either positive or negative change.  And while no one ever lost money in the Middle East betting on things getting worse, the point of the Book of Jonah, as I see it, and that of all religions, is to insist on the possibility of spiritual transformationeven knowing how difficult this isboth personal and societal transformation, and to insist that God (or the world God created, external evidence to the contrary) is good and merciful. 

Even leaving God out of it, we need mercy in the Middle East today, mercy toward others, mercy toward ourselves. As Portia said in the most famous anti-Semitic speech of all time, “the quality of mercy is not strained” and the Middle East needs dollops of it, liberally applied.      

What I think the Book of Jonah is saying is that remarkable, even seemingly miraculous transformations are possible, and perhaps are necessary: Europe after 1945, the American South after 1965; South Africa after 1995; or the availability of same-sex marriage in this country today. In none of these casesbad news trolls will rapidly point outwas the transformation total or without problems.  Sure.  But in all these cases the changes for the good were so sudden as to take the breath away of doom purveyors.

This is a sermon, and let me end on a properly hortatory note—repent, and turn away from evil. Discover the evil of your own ways. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.  If this message worked for Jonah in Nineveh back then, it is a message still relevant to Nineveh today, and all the Ninevehs in the Middle East.  Without the sort of faith God showed to the Ninevehites, there is no hope for the future.  And you don’t have to be God, or believe in God, to think that in the end, our goodness, our kindness, our mercy will win out, and we will find a way to  deal with all of our woes.  And this isn’t just a foolish whim. It is the necessary undergirding for all the hard negotiations that will go into a two-state solution, containing ISIS and other issues.  As the book of Jonah teaches, prophets of doom don’t have all the answers. 
By | 2014-10-08T17:33:00-04:00 October 8th, 2014|Blog|2 Comments


  1. Lilly Rivlin October 9, 2014 at 1:59 am - Reply

    Peter, thank you for the hopeful, if not optimistic, beginning of the year hermeneutic. May it be so.

  2. Molly Freeman October 10, 2014 at 4:11 pm - Reply

    Yes, to echo Lilly, Thank You, Peter, for this eloquent reading of Jonah.

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