Sermon for the Morning Prayer

Donald Seekins

Jonah and the Whale

          The last time I spoke here in front of the altar in December, I mentioned the Amalekites, a people whom the Lord through Samuel commanded the Israelites to slaughter without mercy. When the Prime Minister of Israel launched his war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip last year, he told his people that “You must remember what Amalek has done to you, says our Holy Bible. And we do remember.” At present, about 24,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have been killed in Israel’s brutal attacks on the Gaza Strip and the total keeps climbing.

            The story of Jonah and the Whale is different, and probably less challenging to our modern sensibilities. Jonah is considered one of the twelve “minor prophets” in the Hebrew Bible and in the Book of Kings it is recorded that as a child he was brought back to life by one of the major prophets, Elijah. The Book of Jonah is one of the shortest, if not the shortest, in the Old Testament. We all know that in this story, he was swallowed by a whale or, literally, a “great fish.” The Book is important in Jewish tradition since it is recited in Hebrew in its entirety during Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), the most important Jewish holiday. Jonah is venerated not only in Judaism and Christianity, but in Islam and the Baha’i Faith.

            In talking about the Bible, one never gets far from today’s Middle East crises. Yunis is Jonah in Arabic, and the Nebi Yunis, or Tomb of Jonah, was located in Mosul, Iraq, until the Islamic State destroyed it in July 2014. Khan Yunis, a place in Gaza well-known to anyone who follows the news, is the “caravansaray of Jonah,” where caravans crossing the desert stopped over for the night, though the Yunis in question was a 14th century emir (ruler) rather than the original Jonah.

            The major theme in the Book of Jonah is, in Hebrew, teshuva, the ability of mankind to find repentance from God, which is in striking contrast to Yahweh’s merciless command to annihilate the Amalekites in the Book of Samuel. A person who truly repents shall be spared divine punishment. This is very significant, because it marks a departure from the legalism of the Ten Commandments, in which obedience to the law is supreme to the idea that a person can feel guilt for his commission of sins and this – in the end – is what matters. The story of Jonah could be seen as an example of what the theologian Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age, from the 8th to the 3rd centuries B.C., when the focus of religious life shifted from ritual, ceremony and obedience to divine law to the internality of people, their souls, their spirits, their consciences. In a sense, one could see people before the Axial Age as motivated to act from largely external forces: fear of punishments from one’s parents, the king or, above all, God. This could also be described as a shame society rather than a guilt society, to borrow the terms of the anthropologist Ruth Benedict. The Axial Age brought about the birth of autonomous man, the possessor of knowledge of right and wrong, a knowledge which constitutes one’s being – an inner thing, part of one’s thoughts and feelings, rather than an external force. Of course, the Axial Age did not make it impossible for humans to do bad things; in fact, the rationalization of bad acts is, in a sense, an attempt to anesthetise the conscience. Thus, we see both Israel and its supporters in the West justifying its war against Hamas in terms of the assertion: “Israel has the right to defend itself.”

            Jonah was an Israelite who lived in the late 9th-early 8th centuries B.C. One day, God commanded him to go to Nineveh, a large city which was close to the modern city of Mosul in Iraq, to tell its inhabitants that they were wicked and would be punished for their many sins unless they changed their ways. Jonah refused to obey, and went to the port city of Joppa, now known as Jaffa, which is north along the Mediterranean coast from the city of Gaza (another geography lesson). He wanted to flee to a place called Tarshish, which is described as being “far from the presence of the Lord.” But the ship he boarded was caught in a great storm. Realizing that God’s displeasure with Jonah was its cause, the crew tossed him overboard and he was swallowed by the “great fish,” in whose belly he remained for three days and three nights. It is an interesting fact that Jonah himself advised the sailors to toss him off the vessel.

            Jonah pleaded desperately to God for mercy, saying “Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” God then commanded the fish to vomit him up onto the dry land.

               So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the Word of the Lord.

            Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth.

            Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he cried: ‘Yet

            forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh

            believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the

            greatest of them to the least of them.

            Even the king of Nineveh heard about Jonah’s preaching and, rising from his throne, proclaimed that:

               By the decree of the king and his nobles: “Let neither man nor beast,

            herd nor flock, taste anything; let them not feed, or drink water, but let

            man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them cry mightily

            to God; yea, let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence

            which is in his hands. Who knows, God may yet repent and turn from

            his fierce anger, so that we perish not?”

            Seeing how the king and the people of Nineveh repented of their wicked ways, God did not destroy their city. But Jonah was displeased, since he believed that God would have spared the city anyway, and it was unnecessarily for him to have travelled so far (from what is now Israel-Palestine to Iraq) in order to forewarn them. He retires from the city, and God causes a plant to miraculously grow, giving Jonah shade. But then He causes a worm to kill the plant, and Jonah asks God to kill him since he couldn’t bear the hot sun.

            And God said:

               “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he [Jonah] said. “I do

            well to be angry, angry enough to die.” And the Lord said, “you pity the

            plant, for which you did not labour, nor did you make it grow, which

            came into being in a night, and perished in a night.

               “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more

            than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who did not know their

            right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”

            I believe that the God of the Book of Jonah is rather different – or showed a different aspect of Himself – from God as he shows Himself in earlier books of the Old Testament. In the Book of Exodus, we find Him full of wrath, anger, and willing to cause suffering to innocent Egyptians. It also does not seem to him – or Prime Minister Netanyahu – that any of the Amalekites were innocent, that they should be spared.

            But Nineveh, a great city (at 120,000 people, it must have been one of the largest cities in the world at the time), He feels pity for. It seems to distress Him that so many of its people have fallen into sin. Rather than immediately wiping them out, He sends a messenger, Jonah, to warn them that unless they change their ways they will feel his wrath.

            I want to conclude my remarks by saying that one of the interesting things about “Right and Wrong,” or ethics, is that it cannot be coercive. People do wrong, and often get away with it – even if not especially in the 21st century. If people were automatically punished for bad acts, or rewarded for good things, there would be no ethics, only a highly efficient stimulus-response system of rewards/punishments that depends entirely on outward performance. Much like a Skinner Box, where rats are trained by psychologists to push certain buttons in order to get a treat (stimulus-response conditioning). Ethics depends then not simply on a list of things we ought to or ought not to do, but upon an inner state, a conscience, which works independently of the consequences of our actions. This view of ethnics – not as adherence to law but to conscience – is a fundamental legacy of the Axial Age.