Let’s consider for a moment one of the literary peculiarities of the book of Jonah. It’s quite bad storytelling to go from beginning to middle to end without the main character developing in some way, but Jonah’s final exchanges with God in chapter four relays the depressing sentiment that he feels no different about the whole appalling business than he did at the start of chapter one. He ends as he began; wanting no part in God’s mercy for the brutal Neo-Assyrian city of Nineveh.
I wonder if perhaps we are missing a chapter? God’s closing declaration of compassion on those who seem irredeemably terrible gives us a stark theological source for radical non-violent enemy-love as well as for equality and universal human rights; but what are we to make of the pregnant silence that comes after? How does Jonah respond to God’s question? What does he say? What does he do next?
Does he make his peace with this alarming new situation and live the rest of his days in Nineveh as an unlikely national treasure? Were his bones really entombed in that ill-fated mosque in Mosul, on the Nineveh plains, which was blown up by extremists in 2014? Or did he return to Israel and live in abject poverty with his widowed mother as some rabbinic stories tell, perhaps unable to stomach his old job as the King Jeroboam’s border patrol (2 Kings 14:25)?
Was he changed by his strange story, or was he unchanged? Was he made by it, or unmade? Did he actually survive his rebirth, or did he manage to accomplish the task but was himself miscarried in the process? The story is unfinished, or at least open-ended, and we flounder confusedly into the vacant space after it.
It’s all very well to agree, at the end of the book of Jonah, that God is right and Jonah is wrong, but it would be quite false to talk, with an air of condescending piety, as though we have really accepted what God has said. We have not.
If we think we have, it’s probably because we’ve set the bar low from the start by saying that Jonah was just racist – and too many popular commentaries would have us believe that he is, in this respect, somehow representative of all the Jews. This way we have already learned the lesson before we’ve begun, or so we think, and the story has nothing new to teach us. Jonah was racist, and we are not: well done us!
But I would like to see all those writers and commentators and preachers who have talked about Jonah as though he were just a stubborn, prejudiced and over-emotional sort of person, march through the gates of Mosul in Northern Iraq to beg an audience with the Islamic State militants who now occupy the city, saying: “You can cut my head off if you want it, but, either way, I’ve come to tell you that you should stop everything because your political project is both wrong and doomed.”
I don’t know anybody who has done anything like this. And I hear only stories of a few remarkable people who have. It’s an absurd and unreasonable thing to do. The book doesn’t invite us to an idiotic, gung ho response about how right God is and how wrong Jonah is. Rather, it invites us to move towards a call so terrible that even when the story’s curtain falls, the protagonist still can’t accept it.
Jonah wasn’t called to criticise the enemy from a distance, as Nahum was. Nor was he called to muster force or resistance, as he had been in his previous job, as one who built walls and strengthened borders.
Rather, he was called to go to the terrible ‘other’ in search of the image of God. If the Book of Jonah is about anything, I believe this is it.
It’s a book for the idealist; calling us to the most radical political ideal imaginable. It’s a book for the realist, since even the protagonist can’t stomach its ridiculous ideal. And in the end, it’s a book for the audacious – stubbornly upholding its impossible ideal anyway.
The call is terrible. And yet the call stands.
Note: This is an excerpt from David Benjamin Blower’s new book Sympathy for Jonah – Terror, Humiliation and the Politics of Enemy-Love.