My favorite anti-hero is Jonah, "the son of Amittai," the title character in the one comic book in the Bible. Now, in its full-scale historical sweep, the Christian Bible is a "Divine Comedy" of a rather bloody sort: the tragedy of The Fall of Man leading through an eventful but largely sad and violent history of humankind to the Incarnation and Sacrifice by torture of the Son of God, then moving on the rebirth of the Resurrection and then, for a conclusion, "a new and better world coalescing around a central couple" of Christ in glory, and the saved — the Church, the Bride of Christ — at the end of The Book of Revelation.
looking at the Bible from Genesis to Revelation is getting technical,
and technical in the fairly limited sense of Rich Erlich's correcting
Northrop Frye's chemical imagery in talking about the conclusion of a
comedy (in Anatomy of Criticism,
1954). So I'm using a technical usage of comedy with the Christian
Bible and one I've applied to a pretty vast narrative arc — covering
human history, as Bible Christians see it — and getting me into
dangerous territory: the prejudice against comedy is sufficient that
many English-speakers habitually contrast "comic" with "serious," as if
you can't have serious comedy; and a fair number of Christians get
pissed off if you tell them they have a comic religion. Many of them
were taught in school that Dante Alighieri ca. 1302 called his major
work La Commédia, with the Divina added later, but that doesn't stop them from seeing "comic" as a put-down.
The opinions of at least one of my scholarly betters notwithstanding —
Rabbi Ken Ehrlich, the former Dean of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati
sees the Book of Jonah as tragic; that expert opinion respectfully
noted, I'll stick with the reading of Jonah as comic. The book starts in
alienation, with the great City of Nineveh all sinful and (therefore)
separated from God, and ends in reconciliation and integration, with a
reformed Nineveh reconciled to God. And along the way Jonah converts a
boatload of sailors and he himself goes from misery in the depths to
release and freedom and pulling off the greatest Prophetic success of
all time in saving Nineveh.
(That "depths" part is literal. Jonah isn't swallowed by a whale but by
a "huge fish." Whales are air-breathing mammals and have to surface;
fish don't. That fish goes to the bottom and stays there until Jonah at
least mouths the proper formulas about the lesson in mercy that God is
going to pretty great lengths to teach him.)
Anyway, the Book of Jonah has a classic comic happy ending, just not
for Jonah, in Jonah's view of things. Jonah is kind of dense, the object
of a satire.
And in addition to his Book's propagandizing for a universalist view of a
merciful God (with a sense of humor), that's what I like about Jonah,
that he's such a nebbish — and a bit of an alazon and, in a useful word that has not gone into scholarly vocabulary, a putz.
Jonah is a nebbish as an unholy fool, and he's the alazon of a festive
comedy: the curmudgeon who excludes himself from the celebrations at the
end of a comedy, like Malvolio in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, or Shylock in a simplistic reading of The Merchant of Venice.
In the synagog, Jonah's story caps the High Holidays: it's the last
reading from Scriptures, on the afternoon on Yom Kippur: it's the stressed book in synagog liturgy, elevated even beyond the great respect it holds among Christians.
Anyway, Jonah is up there with the biggies of the tradition. His story
ends a Days of Awe cycle that begins with God's remembering Sarah in her
old age and giving her and Abraham a son, Isaac: thus giving the Jewish
version of how the Arabs are blood relatives to Jews, but we get the
better land (Genesis 21). The story of Sarah and Hagar and Ishmael is
followed by The Binding of Isaac, with Abraham's reaching out his hand
to slay his son, his favorite son, whom he truly loves: either the act
of a murderous fanatic or (if Søren Kierkegaard is right), the leap into
the absurd of a Knight of Faith. However
you see Abraham here, he's a big-time figure, as are the others in the
High Holy Day readings: Hannah and the great prophets Jeremiah and
Isaiah, and recounting the Day of Atonement ceremony of the High Priest,
plus a major Martyrology from the Roman persecutions.
"Heavy matters! Heavy matters!", as a Shakespeare character says in a very different tragi-comic context.
And then Jonah shuffles in.
The word of the Lord comes to Jonah and in the standard summons to
prophecy commands him to go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim
against it. And Jonah immediately sets forth — hauling ass in more or
less in the opposite direction to Tarshish, which was probably near the
Straits of Gibraltar: in any event, in the opposite direction to pretty
much the end of the earth.
Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrians, the
enemy city for a while, and Jonah wants nothing to do with it: a Hebrew
prophet may be without honor in his own country, but he's dead meat in a
place like Nineveh. Worst that can happen, the Ninevites kill him,
horribly; second worst: by some miracle his mission is successful and
the goddamn Ninevites don't get the destruction they deserve.
So Jonah runs away, and we get the storm at sea and Jonah going down
and sleeping in the figurative bowels of the ship, a womb with no view,
so to speak. The brave pagan sailors try to save the ship — throwing off
cargo and calling to their gods — but the Lord keeps the storm raging and they throw lots to determine the cause and, of course, "the lot fell upon Jonah" (1.7).
To a degree hard to believe nowadays, the ancients believed in
divination and omens and portents and all; more important, Jonah is a
story, and it's rare in a well-made story that you'd get a divination
scene like this where the lot falls wrong, unless, of course, that's the
point of the story.
In any event, the bones or dice or straw-pulling or whatever points out
Jonah, and the sailors throw questions at him trying to find out who he
is, all of which he answers with " I am a Hebrew; and I fear the Lord,
the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land," which is kind of
a strange answer. As a student of mine elegantly if flippantly put it,
for all Jonah's use of orthodox and cliché answers about Yahweh as
planetary Creator and Ruler, Jonah acts as if God were "back in
Jerusalem, in a box in the Temple" (1.1-10).
The sailors try to save the boat, but the storm gets worse, and Jonah
tells them to throw him overboard: Jonah has a thing about giving up.
The sailors decline to sacrifice Jonah; but when the storm gets still
worse they very reluctantly "took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the
sea: and the sea ceased from her raging. Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice unto the Lord, and made vows" (1.13-16). Note the spelling there: Lord, as in "Adonai," as in the traditional replacement for Yahweh: the sailors, at least for now, have given up their gods and gone over to Jonah's.
From Jonah's point of view, his trip toward Tarshish has been a
disaster: going from bad to awful, and leading to his isolation from
human society and a symbolic death. From the point of view of God,
angels, and people listening to the story, though, this is typically
cruel comedy, but with a touch of pathos as Jonah sinks into the sea.
But then — ta-dum! — comes the most famous part of the story, for "[…] the Lord
had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the
belly of the fish three days and three nights" (1.17)— an important
point in the Christian reading of Scripture, prefiguring (in this
reading) the death, burial, and resurrection of the Christ, and maybe "the Harrowing of Hell," which is a neat bit of doctrine — and must have made a great Medieval mystery play — if no longer fashionable.
A prefiguration of the Christ or not, in Jonah's story we definitely
have The Descent of the Hero, twice over. Going into The Belly of the
Beast is a substitute for descent into the Underworld; and, in Jonah's
experience, that great fish dives and dives deep (2.1 f.). From Odysseus
in The Odyssey to Christ in The Descent of Christ into Hell and The Apostles' Creed to Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back to Ellen Ripley in Aliens, heroes and (of late) heras have descended; and Jonah descends, if not exactly in a heroic exercise of choice.
Jonah combines images nicely — we're in a poetic section of the Book —
and says that from the belly of the fish and "from the belly of hell,"
or Sheol, he cried out, and "When my soul fainted within me I remembered the Lord:
and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple" (2.7). Okay,
he's learning: Yahweh the cultic deity may be back in that box in the
Temple — in and around the Ark in the Holy of Holies — but God is,
pretty obviously to the audience, also the God Jonah told the sailors he
worshiped, the creator of sea and land, and firmly in charge of sea,
sky, storms, and the occasional really big fish. And if that is the
If that is the case, the Lord God
might well also be the God of the Ninevites, and the Revised Standard
Version translates the difficult next verse of the Hebrew with the
strongly universalist, "Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their
true loyalty." And a couple lines later God "spake unto the fish, and
it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land" (2.10).
And here I need to pay a debt to a literalist, Fundamentalist,
propagandizer for hearing the Word — and a guy who taught this literary
critic and eventual film critic a crucial lesson about seeing a text.
A couple students invited me in to teach Jonah (and later Ecclesiastes)
to their BASIC group: "Brothers and Sisters in Christ," associated with
the local Campus Crusade for Christ. Their minister wasn't about to let
a non-Christian infidel such as I in with his flock so he stayed and —
the Spirit coming upon him — kind of broke into my shtick here at
Jonah's, let's say, landfall, and described in detail what someone would
look like if he'd just been puked up after three days in the guts of
some humongous fish.
I was about to jump to the second part of the story and the story's theological and philosophical significance as a mashal, here,
a parable and satire. But in the world of the story there is that
moment when Jonah was vomited up, and on theological, philosophical,
moral, and LitCrit grounds the minister was right: we owe Jonah a look.
The dude just had one really rotten experience, and part of the genius
of the story is the balance between what should be our sympathy for
Jonah from a human point of view balanced by an objective view of this
poor dumb schmuck from a god-like, audience point of view. (Authors and
audiences are to fictional characters as God is to humans: potentially
omniscient, e.g., in reading characters' thoughts, omnipotent in being
able to, say, move them faster than the speed of light.)
So look down on Jonah standing there getting the call for the second
time, "Arise, go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it
what I tell you" (3.2). And Jonah trudges off dripping slime and
arrives at Nineveh and walks a third of the way into the city — it's a
three-days walk across, that's how big Nineveh is — and speaks his
oracle to the Ninevites: "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be
overthrown." And that is it: "Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be
overthrown" — the collected prophecies of Jonah. You don't have to
believe the Prophets or like them (here and there they say some awful
things), but the major Prophets did know their poetry. Jeremiah on
exile, imaged as a resurrected Rachel wordlessly mourning: "A cry is
heard in Ramah — / Wailing, bitter weeping — Rachel weeping for her
children" (31.15). Isaiah on proper repentance: "To loose the fetters of
wickedness, / To undo the bands of the yoke, / And to let the oppressed
go free" (58.6). Even by much lower standards, Jonah's line is really
Maybe the idea here is like a bit in Paddy Chayefsky's play, Gideon,
where the Lord intentionally chooses a loser like Gideon for a general
and intentionally commands him to use battle tactics even Gideon knows
are stupid; God wants everyone to be very sure that if the Hebrews won,
it had to be a miracle, literally a miracle.
And, oh, there is a kind of miracle at Nineveh. One line from Jonah,
and the Ninevites repent, from the king and his nobles all the way down
the Assyrian social hierarchy. Sackcloth, fasting, sitting in ashes,
tears, turning away from evil — the whole moral conversion, repentance
routine. "And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way;
and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto
them; and he did it not" (3.5-10).
Yay! The greatest prophetic triumph in the Bible. And Jonah's reaction?
"But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry. And he
prayed unto the Lord, and said, I pray thee, O Lord,
was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled
before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and
merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of
the evil" (4:2).
Now the Jewish tradition of story-telling from The Binding of Isaac story to Stanley Kubrick's version of 2001: A Space Odyssey
(1968) is to just hit the high points, so maybe the Narrator here just
left out Jonah's saying back in Judah what he says here he said; or
Jonah's lying to God. For sure, Jonah repeats here a very important
cultic creed. In Exodus 34.6, at Sinai in the renewal of the Covenant,
the Lord "descended in a cloud and stood there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him [Moses] and proclaimed 'The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast
love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving
iniquity and transgression and sin […]'" — with the ellipsis marking the
"but" part often stressed in arguments for an Old Testament God of
Judgment: that God will punish the guilty unto the third and fourth
generation. (And if the Revelation to John gets it right, a New
Testament God who will punish the wicked forever.) Jonah, though, quotes
only the part on grace, mercy, and kindness. He knows the cultic line
but even now he doesn't really believe it. Or, he believes and doesn't
approve: not if mercy extends to Assyria and the Ninevites.
If I were scripting this moment as a shot in film, I'd put a "beat"
here, a pause in which God's answer to Job's little outburst is silence.
Jonah continues, with a word from logic: "therefore." "Therefore now, O
Lord, take, I beseech
thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live"
(4.3) Again with the giving up! Identifying with Jonah, we'd find this
very sad; looking down on him as a satiric anti-hero, it's just
pathetic, and there's much to be said for God's answering question —
hey, it's a Jewish God; He's going to answer your question with
questions — God answers with the rhetorical question, "Doest thou do well
to be angry?" or, "Are you that deeply grieved?" (4.4).
Jonah doesn't answer but cuts out and sits, we are told explicitly "on
the east side of the city" and makes a booth there "and sat under it in
the shadow, till he might see what would become of the city." My
Bible-as-Lit teacher, Lloyd E. Berry, noted that back in mythic times,
city-killing fire and brimstone come out of the east, so maybe Jonah
sits on the east side just in case God overshoots. In Berry's (comic)
reading — I'm not saying anything original here — Jonah still has hope
that God will destroy Nineveh and the Ninevites (4.4). Then God prepares
a gourd, or some sort of plant (the God of the Universe does plants as
well as storms and fish) and has it grow over Jonah as a kind of
umbrella, for which Jonah, gracious for once, is grateful (4.6).
So then God
comes up with a worm that kills the plant, arguably carrying
micro-management of the cosmos to an extreme, but moving toward teaching
Jonah a lesson, and the world a lesson about what Jonah represents.
"And it came to pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a
vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he
fainted, and wished in himself to die, and said, 'It is better for me to
die than to live.'" Again we see God doing weather and Jonah doing
despair, and parody. Jonah under the plant, after the greatest prophetic
feat in history, despairs. Elijah, having defeated and, by our
standards, murdered, the priests of Baal, is pursued by the forces of
Queen Jezebel, finally (about 130 miles later) ending up under a broom
tree. "Enough!" Elijah cries out. "Now, O Lord, take my life […]" (1
Kings 19.1-4). It's not great parody, but it's a nice little touch for
those who know First Kings: Jonah is no Elijah.
"And God said to Jonah, 'Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd?'
And Jonah said, 'I do well to be angry, even unto death.' Then said the Lord,
'Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for which thou hast not labored,
neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a
night: And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more
then six score thousand persons that cannot discern between their right
hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?" (4.9-11).
Ken Ehrlich declined to read "and also much cattle" at a service, but
the annotators in Tanakh — a fairly recent Jewish translation (5746,
1985 C.E.) — and in the Oxford Revised Standard Version (1962), call
attention to it.
The Tanakh editors note that "Infants and beasts are not held
responsible for their actions." The Oxford editors say, "The point of
the book is that God loves every creature in his universe, even the
used to follow that assertion by the Oxford editors by asking my class
"What do you see as 'The point of the book'?" and add, "It should have
one." Jonah "is read in the Church as part of Holy Week," and, again, it
has a place of high honor in the Synagog. "If the Book of Jonah is a
mashal in the sense of 'satire,' what's being satirized? If Jonah is
the butt — target —what does Jonah represent?"
To help my students answer that question I added, in the manner of a
Jewish God or parent — or fairly typical teacher — more questions,
starting with, Is it wrong to look forward to the Day of the Lord as the day the Ninevites get it, when all
your enemies get it? How about the enemies of God? John tells us in The
Book of Revelation, climaxing the Christian Bible: "But as for the
cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators,
sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that
burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death" (21.8) — is
it OK to want them not just to die horribly but to die "the second
death"? Or, if that's a matter of Divine Justice, how about getting back
to the Assyrians and how one should feel about conquerors? Should you
forgive foreign oppressors who have killed your children? Or try to
repay them "in kind"?
Fair Babylon, you predator,
a blessing on him who repays you in kind
what you have inflicted on us;
a blessing on him who seizes your babies
and dashes them against the rocks! (Psalm 137.8)
is the anti-hero of a Divine Comedy that is also a profound satire.
Jonah is nobody special (as prophets go), the average human being as
Hebrew, a "synecdoche" for Israel: God's chosen who should be bearer of the Word of mercy and grace, a light to the world. Instead Jonah is a run-of-the-mill believer, whose values are tribal and just
starting to move into nationalism, a guy (or gal) who mouths formulas
that are the product of a logic he really won't follow: One God, one
Loving Parent, one humankind, — and therefore those bloody Assyrian (or
whatever) pig fellators are our kin. Even the Assyrians might have a
call on God's mercy and can demand our compassion: inclusion within the
circle of humanity The Book of Jonah makes some serious satiric demands
on us, calling us to high ethics and a kind of nobility.
Unlike Jonah, whom we should find so laughable.
So the competition is tough, but as anti-heroes go, Jonah is my favorite.