The extremist Muslim terrorist organisation Islamic State (formerly ISIS) recently captured Nineveh in northern Iraq. The atrocities they have since committed there led me to revisit this ancient story…
The word of Yahweh came to Jonah the Jew. “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it because the stench of its wickedness has reached me.” But Jonah fled to Tarshish in Spain, where the days of the Caliphate had long faded.
On the sea crossing a great storm racked the boat, and each sailor called in desperation to his god for salvation. They submitted to dice to divine the person responsible, and the dice fell upon Jonah. So they questioned him: “Who are you, and from where do you come?”
He replied, “I am a Jew and I sacrifice to Yahweh, who made the seas and the dry land. But I am running away from him, towards the land where an Islamic State tolerated Jews (before the Christians drove us out). Yahweh rides the storm clouds like a chariot and he has awoken the chaos of the seas because of me. Offer me to the sea as a sacrifice and he will be appeased.”
The sailors were unwilling to sacrifice Jonah and tried to row to dry land. But the storm grew stronger. Pleading with Yahweh for mercy they threw Jonah overboard and into the depths of the sea. At once the storm calmed; the sailors pledged themselves to Yahweh.
Jonah, however, was swallowed by a mighty fish and spent three days and three nights in its belly before it vomited him onto the land.
The word of Yahweh came again to Jonah the Jew. “Go to Nineveh, in the heart of the Islamic State, and preach against it as I commanded you before.”
So Jonah went to Nineveh. It was a vast and ancient city, the seat of mighty empires that had sprawled out across the world. Jonah walked through its streets proclaiming that in forty days the Islamic State would be overthrown.
His words reached the ears of Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The Caliph tore his robes and ordered a fast for every man, woman, child and animal; no one was to eat or drink for three days. “Let everyone call on Allah,” he commanded. “Let us give up our evil ways and our violence. Perhaps then Allah may relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we may not perish.”
When Allah saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways he did relent and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.
But Jonah became very angry at Yahweh. “Isn’t this what I said would happen? Isn’t this why I fled to Spain? I know that you are a gracious and compassionate god, slow to anger and overflowing with love! A god who decides not to destroy after all! Take my life – I am so ashamed. I would far rather die than live!”
But Yahweh replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Jonah went to the east of the city and sat down on the baking sand. He made himself a shelter and waited to see what would happen to Nineveh. Then Allah made a leafy plant grow up over Jonah to give him shade – and Jonah was pleased with the plant. But at dawn the next day Allah sent a worm which chewed the plant so that it withered. And when the sun rose, Allah sent a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die.
But Allah said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about this plant?”
“It is!” said Jonah. “I’m so angry I wish I were dead!!”
But Yahweh said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It came one day and went the next. Should I not be concerned about this great city of Nineveh full of countless innocent children?”
Some notes on the text…
I’ve long been fascinated by the way Jonah is read/misread – all the controversy about whether a man could be eaten by a whale or not (a pretty incidental feature of the plot) diverting attention from the bit at the end where God pleads with Jonah to be more compassionate (an unexpected turn).
Jonah is a story set at a time where Nineveh was the most powerful city on earth. It was the capital of the brutal Assyrian Empire. For Jonah to walk into Nineveh and proclaim destruction in the 8th century BCE would have been similar insanity to an unarmed Jew walking into the heart of the Islamic State today and proclaiming its overthrow. That was the historical moment that provoked the rewrite.
The names for ‘God’ have been kept as per the original; ‘Allah’ is an Arabic translation of the Hebrew ‘Elohim’, the word translated as ‘God’ in most versions of the Old Testament.
I’m very interested by the nuance of the names for ‘God’ used in the Bible; for example the way that Elohim (the Hebrew word for God) is a plural word used as a singular and drawn from Canaanite mythology (El is the chief Canaanite god and the Elohim is variously the divine pantheon and the sole god to whom one pledges fidelity). In the story of Jonah, both ‘Yahweh’ and ‘Elohim’ speak with Jonah, but the Ninevites only know ‘Elohim’. Elohim is a more generic way of referring to God than Yahweh, and operates within the language in the same way that ‘Allah’ operates in Arabic.
It is poignant to me that Jonah fled to Spain, the heart of the Islamic Caliphate of the West which from the 10th to the 14th century was broadly tolerant towards Jews, before the Christians took over and mercilessly persecuted them. Through a few accidents of history, Nineveh and Spain are now connected again by their opposite approaches to religious tolerance, the theme of Jonah.
In all of this mix the story of Jonah tells itself, mixing up our expectations about different gods – their names and loyalties – and offering an outrageous and provocative story through which to imagine the seemingly impossible; more than anything else the softening of our hard hearts and the prospect of peace.
Matt Valler is a social entrepreneur who specialises in the disruption and reimagination of religious narratives. He tweets at @mattvaller