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I start to think about Jonah again towards the end of summer: the need to find something to say about Jonah has become such a part of my personal rhythm, my particular calendar, that I would find it hard to give it up. Like the four-mile walk I take every morning, and for similar reasons: I’m mulling over yesterday, and suddenly, without knowing how or why or when my mind shifted, I’m speculating about today, I’m imagining tomorrow; what was, what is, what will be get thoroughly and pleasantly jumbled. Or like sitting down to write a syllabus for the course I’ll teach in the fall, and for similar reasons: an old course but a new syllabus, always a new syllabus, because it’s a new academic year and there are new faces in the classroom; taking stock of what I did last time, I vow—and I honestly believe—that this time I’ll do it better, this time I’ll finally get it right. (A student asks my advice about becoming an academic and I tell him it helps to be Jewish: the academic calendar and the Jewish calendar are in such lovely sync, at least in this part of the world; it seems absolutely right to look back as summer ends, to look ahead as fall begins.)
In August I am in a chapel in Cambridge noted for its stained glass windows. The guide is pointing out the pairing of scenes from what she calls the Old Testament and the New Testament. (No, I want to tell her, my testament, your testament, the testament and the other—later—testament, but I don’t.) And there, where I least expect to find him is, Jonah, as if waiting for me to discover him, to use him, and paired with the most important event in their testament, in fact the central event of Christianity, the death and resurrection of Jesus. I note the source—Matthew 12—and look it up when I return.
Jesus is lecturing the Pharisees: “There is not a thoughtless word that comes from men’s lips but they will have to account for it on the day of judgment; for out of your own mouth you will be acquitted; out of your own mouth you will be condemned.” The Pharisees ask for a sign and Jesus angrily replies,
It is a wicked, godless generation that asks for a sign; and the only sign that will be given it is the sign of the prophet Jonah. Jonah was in the sea monster’s belly for three days and three nights, and in the same way the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the bowels of the earth. At the Judgment, when this generation is on trial, the men of Nineveh will appear against it and will ensure its condemnation, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah and what is here is greater than Jonah.
Something bothers me about those comparisons but I’m not sure what. It isn’t the comparison between the generations—the wicked godlessness of Jesus’ Jerusalem and the wicked injustice of Jonah’s Nineveh; that analogy seems to me apt enough. I don’t begin to see, to hear, what bothers me until I get back to East Lansing and start getting mentally ready for the fall. Physically ready too, maybe physically ready mainly: the summer clothes—the shorts, the short-sleeve shirts—have to be put away, the winter clothes—sweaters, scarves—have to be taken out; the wooden screens have to be taken down, the wooden storms have to be put up, the house made secure against the wind and cold. There is something about the fall, new beginning though it may be, that intimates endings—people and houses become layered, insular; we close in and shut out—it’s that mood of fall, the thought of gray days to come, that focuses my thinking on what Jesus said.
He says he will be in the bowels of the earth three days and three nights in the same way that Jonah was in the sea-monster’s belly three days and three nights. The numbers are right but the analogy is wrong: it is not in the same way at all. Jesus spends three days and three nights in the bowels of the earth after he dies—part divine he may be, but that voice that cries from the cross Eli, eli, lama sabachtani (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”) is not the voice of a demi-god but of a man, a man who is dying. But Jonah spends three days and three nights in the belly of the whale instead of dying. The central event of Jesus’ life is his death, the central event of Jonah’s life is his rescue from death; in fact, the Jonah story is about a number of not-deaths—the sailors do not drown even though their ship is endangered by a tempest; the citizens of Nineveh do not perish even though they are evil and unjust. What is significant is that, although Jonah is cast into the depths, into the very heart of the sea, although the floods engulf him and the breakers and billows sweep over him, although the waters close in over him and the weeds twine around his head, although he sinks to the very base of the mountains and the bars of the earth close upon him, Jonah does not die.
Jonah is the Days of Awe’s concluding parenthesis; the opening parenthesis is the Binding of Isaac for Isaac is also supposed to die and doesn’t. Harold Fisch, a scholar of literary mythology at Bar Ilan University, argues that the difference between the Binding of Isaac and the Ordeal of Jonah, on the one hand, and the Crucifixion of Jesus, on the other, is the crucial difference between Judaism and Christianity, between our testament and theirs: “Judaism’s sign is the Akedah, the Binding,” Fisch writes, “Christianity’s sign is the Crucifixion, the sacrifice carried out”; the Akedah and Jonah’s rescue by the whale enact a myth of salvation despite the threat of death and that triumphs over death, the crucifixion enacts a myth of salvation that depends on death, that demands death. It is the difference between a sensibility—theirs that cannot imagine the significance of life without death and a sensibility—ours—that cannot imagine the significance of death without life.
And yet there is an irony: the man who doesn’t want to die—Eli, eli, lama sabachtani (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”)—does and the man who does want to die—“Heave me overboard,” Jonah instructs the sailors; “I would rather die than live,” Jonah informs God—doesn’t. Jonah’s desire to die in the first instance is understandable and maybe even admirable—he knows that the perilous storm has descended upon the innocent sailors on his account—but his desire to die in the second instance is puzzling. Jonah has left Nineveh and has installed himself in a booth east of the city to await Nineveh’s fate. It is very hot so God provides a plant to shade Jonah’s head and save him from discomfort. Jonah is very happy about the plant, but the next day the plant dies, the sun rises, and Jonah becomes faint. And he begs for death, telling God, “I would rather die than live.” God seems puzzled: “Are you so deeply grieved about the plant?” And Jonah replies, “Yes, so deeply grieved that I want to die.”
Here is a man who has been heaved into a raging sea, who has plunged to the very depths, who has been engulfed by the waves, who has sunk to the very base of the mountains, who has felt the bars of the earth close in over him—who has, in short, come as close to dying as one can imagine—and he is so deeply grieved about the death of a plant—a mere plant—that he wants to die? True, the plant made him very happy—it is the only time Jonah is happy about anything, the only time he is anything but withdrawn or terrified, depressed or displeased—but there must be more to it. Jonah, I think, has discovered his own mortality, his deep grief at the death of the plant is his deep grief at what he now knows to be his own inevitable fate. He is not so deeply grieved about the plant—he is deeply grieved about himself.
But why now? Why didn’t he discover his own mortality when he was down there in the depths of the sea at the base of the mountains, when the waters, the very bars of earth, closed in over him? What more dramatic an intimation of mortality can there be? But that was different, that would have been death for cause—because he had fled God, because he had put the sailors at peril. “Heave me overboard, and the sea will calm down for you for I know that this terrible storm came upon you on my account”—had Jonah died then it would have made sense: he would have died in the same way Jesus dies and for the same reason, so that others might live; he would have been the scapegoat, the sacrificial lamb that dies in place of Isaac, that dies so that Isaac might live, because some sacrifice is necessary. But the death of the plant is causeless; it is not a sacrifice and it is not a punishment, it is not the result of anything or in aid of anything, it accomplishes nothing, it serves no purpose. It is just—what?—inevitable. I think Jonah realizes that he too will die in the same way, not for cause, not for any reason at all.
One of the reasons why we cry at funerals is that, like Jonah watching the plant die, we are witnessing our own inevitable deaths (“Never send to ask for whom the bell tolls,” John Donne wrote; “It tolls for thee.”) Cry we should and cry we must. But grieve as Jonah does, so deeply that one wants to die? Might as well grieve that the bracing, invigorating crispness of fall will turn into a chill and then a killing frost, that the green leaves which will turn gorgeous gold and radiant red will then turn brown and dry and fall from the trees.
Back to that stained glass window in that chapel in Cambridge—Jesus in the bowels of the earth, Jonah in the belly of the whale. For Jesus—for them—death is a mystery, death is salvation, but for Jonah—for us—death is part of life. That we die goes without saying, has gone without saying from the very beginning—Afar ata va-el afar tashoov, God tells Adam in Bereshit: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” And not only is causeless death part and parcel of a normative process that cannot be questioned or argued against, it is as it should be, it is supposed to be: God provides (vayeman) the big fish that saves Jonah from drowning—from death—and God provides (vayeman)—same verb—the plant to shelter Jonah and save him from sunstroke, from another death, but God, the very same God, also provides (vayeman)—the very same verb—the worm that attacks the plant and kills it. The worm is in the plant, part of the plant, inseparable from the plant—each living thing contains the root of its own mortality. There is, then, a cause for causeless death, a reason—it is the human condition which defines our species, the very definition of what it means to live.
October 3, 1987
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