This essay is a review of the biblical book entitled JONAH which was written by some unknown author. At least, there is no designated writer of this third person accounting, so it has never been made clear who actually wrote this odd tale. Jonah himself is often thought to perhaps be the author, although it seems unlikely that anyone would intentionally write such a dark and unflattering self-portrait! Which is to say that the main character comes off rather badly in the telling of his own story.
At first glance the book of Jonah appears to be a tale of adventure. It chronicles the wild journey of a man who is commanded by “the word of the Lord” to preach against the sinful city of Nineveh, but who quickly decides against performing such a mission and instead buys a boat ticket headed in the exact opposite direction. He is subsequently thrown overboard by the ship’s crew during a violent storm, gets swallowed by a whale, funny dog portraits and after a three-day ordeal is regurgitated onto a beach. Jonah apparently repents of his initial disobedient decision, redirects himself to Nineveh, and ultimately gets everyone there to repent of their evildoing ways. It is at this point in the story that Jonah inexplicably throws a temper tantrum about the unusually positive results and matters abruptly end after some extended bickering with the Lord over Jonah’s right to be angry about a mysteriously fast growing vine. It really is about the oddest story ever written and my brief outline here contains only slightly less information than the Bible itself. In fact, the presumption has to be that most readers quickly come to the end of this very brief book only to wonder if their Bible’s version contains the actual finished work as written. That’s how disjointed the story strikes the reader the first time through it.
And yet, there is something extremely engaging about this fantastic tale of Jonah that must surely have lasting appeal to any modern reader.
For example, the twists and turns in the narrative of Jonah’s tale will immediately remind almost anyone at some point of the infamous Rube Goldberg machines that take such complicated and indirect approaches to even the simplest of tasks. They are humorous because of the ridiculous nature of using overwrought designs to achieve results that could be far more easily accomplished. Ultimately, this is the best approach to take in understanding the tale of Jonah the Prophet. That is, there is a natural temptation to come to the conclusion that JONAH is neither an adventure story nor a particularly theological effort. It is instead best understood primarily as a work of comedy. I believe this story was written to make the reader laugh. It’s main purpose is to provide comic relief.
Would God commit such an unexpected act as to inspire a work designed solely to make people laugh? This question is one that leads to the ultimate conundrum of the universe. Or at least the ultimate conundrum of our place in that universe! Everyone at some point must wonder whether the Lord’s creation is a proper place for entities who thoroughly enjoy laughing or was it designed with more sober hearts in mind? If the answer is the latter, then one surely has to ask why about the only thing we humans all agree upon is that laughing is the surest sign that folks are having a good time. Even very young children have no trouble identifying if a painting is of God’s heaven by using this very simple rule of thumb: If there are smiles and laughter, you can be sure it’s a fun place to be!
It should be stated that parts of the book of Jonah are a little cartoonish, but most of it is quite hilarious. The dialogue with the sailors on the boat is right out of a Monty Python skit and the subsequent whale swallowing episode summons up some of the best sardonic comedy routines of early film. Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd maybe. And then chapter two of this four chapter saga is very funny stuff. The ultimate shaggy dog joke.
Obviously you can read chapter two for yourself (you can read the whole “book” in ten minutes, for goodness sakes!) but I’ll tell the gist of the joke here very quickly. Jonah recites his long, rambling and ultimately self-serving plea for forgiveness in hopes of extracting himself from the unpleasant ordeal of being digested by a whale (“great fish” to be accurate). His language is reminiscent of Eddie Haskell in the Leave It To Beaver series where Eddie’s trademark disingenuous flattery is so obviously put forth for self-aggrandizing purposes. In a similar vein, Jonah’s prayer states: “That which I have vowed, I will pay. Salvation is from the Lord.” This from the same guy who ran away in such blatant disobedience to the very same Lord in the previous first chapter! Anyway, the long saccharine prayer is designed solely to benefit Jonah and save him from his proper punishment and when it is finally concluded, the last verse gives the Lord’s droll response: “Then the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah up onto dry land.” I’m sorry, but if you don’t think that’s pretty funny, we’ll just have to cancel our carpooling plans and make our own separate ways to the comedy club.
Chapter three finds the king of Nineveh responding to the reports of Jonah walking around his city and crying “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown” by ordering a citywide fast from all food or drink, as well as the putting on of itch inducing sackcloth by all inhabitants of his city. His decree includes, get this, all of the animals! I’m picturing Mel Brooks as the king, in case you are curious. The king of the great city of Nineveh then gives his big punchline, after making such a huge commitment of time, lost productivity, and physical pain for his numerous subjects and all of their pets: “Who knows, God may turn and relent, and withdraw His burning anger so that we shall not perish?”
All that bother for man and beast followed by the shoulder shrugging who knows?! Right up there with “It’s good to be king,” don’t you think?
The fourth and final chapter’s conceit of actually having an argument with your creator about your inalienable rights may not be for every comedic taste, but the whole bit about the fast growing shady vine ends in the absurd result of Jonah’s pleas for death at the unhappiness it brings him. This temper tantrum just has to remind any parent of the funny postures three-year-olds take as they come to a full understanding of the wide span of parental empowerment. You can easily imagine Jonah’s bottom lip sticking out as he spouts, “I have good reason to be angry.’“