Whale of a tale for today's world

Jonah and the Whale, an oil on oak by Pieter Lastman (1583-1633), at present in the Museum...
Jonah and the Whale, an oil on oak by Pieter Lastman (1583-1633), at present in the Museum Kunstpalast. PHOTO: WIKIPEDIA
Heard about Jonah and the whale? The stroppy Jew tossed overboard into the Mediterranean, swallowed by a sea monster, then vomited on to a beach? It's an unlikely tale and if taken literally, hardly worthy of a spot in the Bible.

There's a whole lot more to the story, however, and treating it as a news report misses the mark by a country mile. It's actually a parable about a nation's sense of itself, a wake-up call to the Jewish people to fulfil their role in the world as the model of a higher good. It's also a parable for every nation, including our own.

A pity, then, that in the popular imagination the story is only about a hapless man's encounter with a whale. Even that distorts the biblical story somewhat, because that has no whale. It's a big fish, and even that's incidental. The focus is Jonah, a name meaning "dove". And the dove was a symbol of Israel.

At the time the parable was written, in the 5th century BC, the Jewish leaders were bent on making Israel great again, after the shame of being conquered by Babylon and having its leaders carted off into exile. Their priority was now to keep themselves free from contamination by other peoples. After all, their God was exclusive to them, and racial purity was a way to honour him.

Jonah lived and breathed their intolerance and bigotry. He stands in diametric opposition to the vision of an earlier prophet, Isaiah, for Israel to be "a light to other nations", such that they would want to emulate it.

Three centuries earlier the Assyrian empire had cruelly ravaged the northern kingdom of "God's chosen people", and a special hatred simmered for the people of Nineveh, Assyria's capital.

So when Jonah, in the spirit of Isaiah, suddenly feels an impulse to go to the Ninevites and tell them of God's mercy, he responds with a visceral "Not likely!"

Instead, he hops on a boat heading in the opposite direction, to Spain.

A storm puts the ship in danger. The sailors pray to their gods to save them, but Jonah lets drop that he's actually trying to get away from his God. He would rather be thrown overboard than do as he'd been instructed. The sailors, thinking Jonah must be some sort of hoodoo, duly oblige, the fish swallows him whole, and three days later spews him out on the shore.

Now comes the point of the parable. God has another go, and this time Jonah reluctantly obeys. His message to the Ninevites is stark: "In 40 days you lot will be cinders". The response would have made Billy Graham green with envy: the whole city, from the greatest to the least, turns from its evil ways, begins fasting, and begs God to spare them. Which, being a God of mercy, he does.

Jonah/Israel is furious. "That's exactly why I tried to flee to Spain!" he says. "I knew you were a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in graciousness. I wish I was dead." And he frumps off out of the city to sulk, still hoping Nineveh would be wiped off the map.

A leafy plant springs up and provides soothing shelter from the sun - but suddenly it wilts, collapsing into a heap. The heat becomes unbearable. Again Jonah wishes he was dead.

God asks him: "Do you have a right to be angry about the plant?" "Every right," Jonah barks back.

"You're only upset about a plant that came up and perished with no effort at all on your part," God replies. "Should I not feel pity for Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, to say nothing of all the animals?"

With that laser question the parable ends. Its beam falls not only on Isaiah's call to modern Israel in relation to the Palestinians, say, but on any country so consumed with its own special identity and status that it dismisses other nations and their people as unworthy of consideration or care. "Shithole countries," President Trump revealingly calls them.

It also applies to dominant groups despising minorities - and sometimes majorities - within their own countries, as if they were inferior beings. Five hundred years of Europe's imperial adventurism provide plenty of examples, as our own history shows.

The parable of Jonah challenges every age and nation to be more human, more humane. It's a gem.

Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator.

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