Sometimes I wonder at what seems to be the perverse logic of the editors of the lectionary (can any of you explain it?). Why wouldn’t you include enough of the Book of Jonah to allow preachers and people to wrestle with it? There are exactly two Sundays when anything from Jonah is read–this week, and Proper 20, year A, when Jonah 3:10-4:11 is read.
I suppose there are biblical stories that are more familiar to most people than “Jonah and the Whale” but really, does anyone not know at least that Jonah was swallowed by a whale? It even received notice from Salon last week.
I suspect that lectionary’s focus on Jonah’s activity in Nineveh, and not on the events leading up to it, has to do with our squeamishness with the details of the story. Our overly literal minds tend to focus on the details that make it read like a tall tale. But that’s precisely what it is. I remember hearing one professor who had written a commentary on it describe it as an elaborate joke. More seriously, it stands as a critique of Hebrew prophecy, about which one could say more.
The story deserves our attention because it is well-written, memorable, and in its way, describes a very human, natural response to divine call. Of course, we are inclined to find a way to avoid God’s call. We do it every day, in small ways, when we turn away from those in need, or stay silent about the good news of Jesus Christ when the person with whom we are speaking clearly needs to experience the love of Christ. Rarely are we eaten by big fish, however.
There is a great deal of humor in Jonah–not just the opening drama of Jonah fleeing the call of God, being thrown overboard, swallowed up, and then ignominiously vomited up on land near Nineveh (check a map to see the likelihood of that happening). There is also Jonah’s prophetic message and the response of the Ninevites. There is also the response of Jonah, his settling in at a good spot to which Nineveh’s destruction, and the vine that protects him, being killed by a worm. It’s a great story and it preaches.
It preaches so well that there was a tradition in central and eastern Europe to build pulpits in the shape of a whale, so that the preacher was proclaiming out of the whale’s belly.