Jonah and the Whale Is the Bible's Perfect Story

The Complete Books of Jonah, Micah, and Nahum

Jonah and the Whale Is the Bible's Perfect Story

The Complete Books of Jonah, Micah, and Nahum

Jonah and the Whale Is the Bible's Perfect Story
What's really in the Good Book.
Feb. 21 2007 3:47 PM

The Complete Books of Jonah, Micah, and Nahum


Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

Since I'm not a Bible scholar, I'm not very embarrassed about the theological and historical errors I've made while blogging. But since I'm an American citizen, I am extremely embarrassed about the following oversight: In my last entry, I asked if the wonderful line from Amos, Chapter 5:24, "Let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream," is familiar because it appears in Jewish prayers.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

No! That's not why it's familiar.


As many sharp-eyed readers pointed out, it's familiar because Martin Luther King Jr. quoted it (a modified American Standard Version of it, that is) during the "I Have a Dream" speech:

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

The Amos line was a King staple: He used it eight years earlier during the Montgomery bus boycott and five years later in the "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech the night before he died. Also, special kudos to reader Gabriel Winant, who noticed Barack Obama quoting King quoting Amos in his Feb. 10 presidential campaign announcement speech.

The Book of Jonah


Chapter 1
Jonah and the whale—finally a story I already know! It's been months since I've read a Bible story that I've heard before. (I think the last one was Solomon splitting the baby in two, way back in 1 Kings.)

It's even better than I remember from Hebrew school. God orders Jonah to Nineveh, near what is now Mosul, Iraq, to warn that the Lord is going smite it for its sins. Like many folks these days, Jonah isn't thrilled about his Iraq assignment. So he goes AWOL. He jumps a ship at Joppa, bound for Tarshish (location unknown but perhaps across the Mediterranean, near Spain).

You know the story. The aggrieved Lord sends a mighty storm, and the sailors pray for rescue—"each cried to his own god." Now comes the first of three baffling incidents in the Jonah tale: As the storm rages, the prophet heads below decks to take a nap! Why is Jonah sleeping at this terrifying moment? I assume his snoozing signifies his deplorable tendency to flee from difficulty, to avoid trouble at all costs.

It doesn't work, of course. The captain wakes him up. Then the sailors cast lots to determine who caused their misfortune, and Jonah comes up snake eyes. They ask who he is, and he tells them he worships the Lord, who created the sea and land, and that he's fleeing the Lord's service. This leads to baffling incident No. 2: The sailors are terrified to hear about God. This puzzles me. The sailors are all believers in one god or another: Why should they be alarmed to hear about the Lord? The sailors have presumably picked their gods—Baal or Moloch or whoever—because they believe their deity is almighty, just as Jonah believes God is. It doesn't make sense that they would blanch when they heard about the Lord. Put yourself in their shoes: You're on a sinking ship, and a fellow passenger admits that he's a Zoroastrian at odds with his god. Would you quake, fretting that his god is almightier than yours? Of course not—you'd assume his god was impotent.


Finally, the prophet faces up to his duty. He offers to be chucked overboard to appease God. The sailors are reluctant—admirably reluctant—to toss him. They try to row their way out of the storm. (These sailors are the uncredited heroes of the Jonah tale—brave, moral, careful.) Finally, after pleading not to be held responsible, they throw him overboard, and the storm lifts. The sailors then make a sacrifice to the Lord.

The Lord "provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah." The word provided is marvelous, with its echoes of providence. The fish is not the punishment: The fish is the salvation. Let's note a second curiosity in that sentence: It's not a whale. Ichthyologists, I'd like a consultation: What kind of big fish could hold a man? Bible literalists, I'd also like some help from you: How do you explain Jonah's survival? It would need to be a fish that could a) swallow him whole, b) not digest him, and c) supply air for him in an undersea environment. More than almost any Bible story, Jonah seems to defy science. I'd love to hear from believers, and unbelievers, with theories on the Jonah tale.

Chapter 2
Jonah spends a long weekend in the big fish, praying the whole time. He thanks God for rescuing him from the edge of death. God commands the fish to spit Jonah up on the shore.

Chapter 3 and Chapter 4
The prophet makes his way to Nineveh, a megalopolis of the ancient Middle East, Mexico City on the Tigris. It takes three days just to walk across it! Jonah stands in the middle of the city and announces that God's going to smite it in 40 days (yes, another 40 days!). And here comes baffling incident three, the most perplexing of all: The people of Nineveh heed his warning! The king wears sackcloth, squats in ashes, and orders the entire population to fast in order to gain God's mercy. Why on earth would they listen to Jonah? He's a foreigner—he may not even speak their language—he prays to an alien God, and he's a stranger. No one in Nineveh has ever seen him before. How could he mesmerize an entire city? His success seems especially unlikely given our experience with prophets so far: From Isaiah to Jeremiah to Obadiah, prophets are notable principally for being ignored. It's inexplicable that Jonah would be the exception to that rule.


The Ninevites' prayer works. God relents and pardons the city. This leads to the funniest part of the book: Jonah's professional bitterness. Jonah is furious when God forgives Nineveh because that mercy turns Jonah into a false prophet. Jonah has been screaming about the city's doom, and nothing happens. Jonah looks like a fraud. The prophet is peeved at God and his kindness. Jonah kvetches that that's why he fled God's order in the first place, because he knew God would be compassionate and would never actually punish the city. His pettiness—that combination of utter self-involvement and indifference to the saved Ninevites—is awful and yet so recognizably human. (He reminds me powerfully of a character in a Woody Allen movie.)

Showing a keen psychological perception, God decides to teach Jonah a lesson about selfishness. God sends Jonah to the desert, and provides him a lovely ricinus plant for shade. Jonah loves the plant. God—sly deity!—then kills the ricinus. Jonah freaks out, and whines melodramatically that he's so sad about the plant that he wants to die. At this point, God delivers the knockout punch, in what are also the final words of the book: "You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons?"

Jonah is really the perfect Bible story. God is demanding yet merciful, wise and tricky. The tale is suspenseful from beginning to end. The hero is deeply flawed, mostly learns his lesson, and behaves with both the grace and selfishness that are in all of us. There is no unnecessary violence. And it's even pretty funny.

The Book of Micah


Chapter 1 through Chapter 4
I don't envy Micah: Jonah's a hard act to follow. Rather than tell a story, Micah goes the enigmatic route. Like Isaiah and Jeremiah, he favors flighty poetic metaphors about God's coming vengeance. Micah directs much of his rage at the corrupt leaders of Judah and Samaria. (This makes him sound, at times, like George W. Bush: "You hate good and love evil.") Like his predecessors, Micah predicts the destruction of Jerusalem, followed by the restoration of Zion. He plagiarizes the entire swords-into-ploughshares speech from Isaiah.

Chapter 5
Micah must be a Christian source, too. This chapter prophesies that the savior of Israel will come from Bethlehem.

Chapter 6 and Chapter 7
The Lord declares that he is filing "a suit against Israel." This is the third or fourth reference to lawsuits in the Bible, and the second, I think, that proposes litigation between God and His people. Is this idea of God and His people in a legal dispute unique to Judeo-Christian tradition? Do other holy texts use the same metaphor? I wouldn't be surprised if it's unique to us, because the lawsuit highlights the contractual nature of God's relationship with his Chosen People. He and they are constantly making covenants. He promises land or redemption or love. They promise faith and obedience to law. One side or the other then breaks the contract and tries to argue out of the deal. In this case, for example, God presents the evidence in His favor: He brought us out of Egypt, gave us prophets, and granted us victory in battle. Therefore, we owe Him. I strongly suspect that this ancient legalistic framework helps explain why Jews continue to be wildly overrepresented in legal and argumentative professions. The very foundation of our faith is contract law. After going toe-to-toe with God in the courtroom, even Justice Scalia must seem like a pussycat.

There is a wonderful passage about what God expects of us. He doesn't care for our professions of faith and burnt offerings. He wants us, "Only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God."

The Book of Nahum

Chapter 1 through Chapter 3
Micah is an interruption. If the Bible were a bit better organized, Nahum would directly follow Jonah, because it is a gruesome response to the jolly optimism of the whale prophet.

Nahum begins with a spectacular litany of praise to the Lord. There have been lots of Bible hymns to God, but this is the most over-the-top in its hyperbolic, florid grandiosity. Nahum was the Don King of his day. A taste of his shtick: "He travels in whirlwind and storm, and clouds are the dust on His feet. He rebukes the sea and dries it up … The earth heaves before Him … Who can stand before His wrath? Who can resist His fury? ... No adversary opposes him twice … " etc. etc.

This patter builds up to a denunciation of the Lord's chief enemy, which is … Nineveh! Yes, the city that Jonah helped save is now on God's do-not-call list. Nineveh has conquered Zion, and the Lord wants payback. (Not explained is how the God-fearing Nineveh of the Jonah story became the ruthless enemy in Nahum.)

Nahum is both the Don King of the Bible and the Ernest Hemingway. He can also write in a spare, compelling style. From Chapter 2: "Desolation, devastation, and destruction! Spirits sink. Knees buckle. All loins tremble. All faces turn ashen." Or from Chapter 3: "Ah, city of crime, utterly treacherous, full of violence, where killing never stops!"

God promises to "lift up" Nineveh's skirts and humiliate her, to devour her, to scatter her people like sheep without a shepherd. (A deft reversal of Ezekiel Chapter 34, when God promises to be shepherd to His chosen people.) The final verse of the book encapsulates the stiletto brilliance of Nahum. Discussing Nineveh's destruction he writes: "All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you. For who has not suffered from your constant malice?"

I'd never heard of Nahum before I read it. What a shame this book isn't better known! It's so muscular and so brilliantly written.

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