To Reluctantly Go Where No Jew had Gone Before: The Adventures of the First Global Prophet

Jonah is a book of firsts. It is the first time in the Bible that an Israelite gets on a boat (Moses’ basket joyride notwithstanding). It is the first time that an Israelite prophet is sent on a good will mission to a foreign nation. It is also one of the first cliffhangers in Biblical history: we are left with God’s zinger about the men and cattle of Niniveh and no witty retort from Jonah. These firsts place Jonah in a very sui generis category of prophet that can teach us a lot in these troubled times in our global village.

One of the most baffling aspects of early Jewish history was the Israelite’s reticence to be a “people of the sea”. Every other nation blessed with a Mediterranean coast exploited that fact and participated extensively in the world’s global trade. And although there are hints in the Bible of Hebrew seamanship (Zebulon’s blessing, some business deals of King Solomon), for the most part, the People of the Book seemed to be hopelessly landlocked. So much so, that we could not even go to Lebanon to get the wood for the First Temple; it had to be imported by the Phoenician government. Thus, Jonah’s aquatic choice of flight should strike us as extremely odd, extremely un-Jewish, and probably grant us a glimpse into the extreme mindset that would force a landlubbing Israelite into a rickety Tarshish-bound ship.

And yet, as strange and desperate as this walking down the plank might have been for the prophet, as soon as his feet leave the beloved Land of Israel, Jonah steps outside of his earthy world of comfort into our own topsy-turvy global world. Jonah is suddenly the only Jew among Gentiles who “each cry to their own god”, experiencing the complexities of a self-contained floating diaspora. By leaving the Land, Jonah steps into the larger Mediterranean world that his nation of mountain folk, with their backs to the sea, had been ignoring since the beginning of their history. This situation certainly does not please Jonah. He isolates himself from the crew and it is only in the dire moment in which he is extracted from the bowels of the ship that he, graciously, takes responsibility and sacrifices himself for the welfare of this people that he knows not. Forced, reluctantly into global interaction, the Jewish prophet delivers and, in doing so, saves the crew and then himself as he is rescued by God.

A very similar insight is offered by the nature of the mission of Jonah to the city of Nineveh. Nineveh, as the capital of the Assyrian Empire was one of the historical enemies of the Jewish people, being responsible for the destruction of the Northern Kingdom and the exile of the Ten Lost Tribes. Understandably, Jonah feels no desire to help these wicked people. God has other plans. Once again, Jonah is plunged into a global world that is foreign and threatening. The great city of Niniveh is so large that it takes three days to traverse it. Jonah, as it were, only dips his toes in the water, entering only one day´s worth into this massive metropolis and delivers, one imagines, a curt and less than enthusiastic prophecy to a people to whom he feels no sympathy and, historically, has no reason to love. And, as in the case of the boat, this reluctant incursion into the larger global scenario is greeted with overwhelming success. The sinful metropolis of Nineveh hearkens to this Jewish message of repentance despite the messenger’s reluctance. Although uncomfortable and reluctant of being put in this confusing and messy global situation, the prophet delivers and salvation ensues for everybody involved.

In its long tragic history, the Jewish people have often viewed themselves as a “nation abiding alone”, interested only in being left alone to live as they have been commanded. And yet, again and again, from Alexandria to Cordoba to Berlin to New York to the modern State of Israel, we have been thrust by providence in the midst of the messiness of the larger world. And, again and again, there has been the impulse of reaching inward and witholding our message from a world that is often brutish and seemingly undeserving of this light with which we steward. Nevertheless, again and again, like Jonah, we have shared this light to the improvement and transformation of this uncaring world into a slightly better place.

Perhaps this explains why the book end in so poignant and yet obvious cliffhanger. The question of why we should be involved and care deeply about the welfare of our global community is a no brainer, but yet it is a question that each generation of reluctant Jonah’s needs to answer in the affirmative. Today, when the walls of Nineveh are ever so smaller that we are all contained in them, this question loudly demands our assent. Whether we like it or not, whether we are able to forgive or not, this world desperately needs the Jewish people and its prophetic message of hope, responsibility and justice to stand up and deliver.