About a month ago, militants of ISIS (or ISIL) destroyed the traditional tomb of Jonah, a prophet from the Hebrew Bible whose character, story, and legacy are important to Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. There are many reasons to doubt that the remains of the actual prophet Jonah were housed in the tomb, but all that is beside the point. What is most striking to me, and what has remained in my thoughts ever since, is just how unfortunately and deeply ironic the tomb’s destruction is when compared to the biblical story.
The Legacy of a Prophet
Despite Jonah’s typical reception in churches and children’s Sunday School curricula, the eponymous prophet is not the ‘good guy’ in the story. He is the protagonist, to be sure, but throughout the story Jonah is always working at odds to the aims of God. When God calls upon Jonah to preach repentance to Nineveh—a city of Israel’s enemies; infidels, perhaps—the prophet runs away. You know the story well: Jonah flees, God cuts off his escape and Jonah, finally and begrudgingly, lands in Nineveh and proclaims a message against them. Shockingly, everyone in Nineveh—even the animals!—fasts, dons sackcloth, and repents (3:5-9). Here readers might expect Jonah to be pleased: preachers are typically happy when their message is well-received.
Not Jonah. The news of Nineveh’s repentance is “displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry” (Jonah 4:1, NRSV). He offers up to God a prayer not of thankfulness but disgust: “Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (4:2). The subtext is clear: Jonah is frustrated because God did not pour out his wrath on Israel’s enemies, the Ninevites. Jonah is enraged that God’s mercy and love could extend beyond the borders of Israel. Jonah believes the love, mercy, and favor of God belong only to his people. He wishes only wrath on Nineveh, and finds God’s mercy for the city utterly incomprehensible.
He never comes around, never admits the error of his ways. Jonah is an ethnocentrist, a xenophobe. An extremist, in other words, who wishes his tribal God would simply destroy the damnable Ninevites, wipe them from the face of the earth and reserve his blessing and mercy for Israel alone.
It is the Ninevites, in the end, who exhibit the behaviors we might expect from a faithful Israelite. They, not Jonah, are the true ‘good guys’ in the story. They, not Jonah, repent.
Although Jonah is the only character from Israel in the narrative, it is still an Israelite’s story. Before Jonah’s story was important to Muslims or Christians, it was an Israelite—and then a Jewish—tale. In the story, Jonah reflects none of the qualities of a good Israelite, but that is how the narrative works: it is an Israelite story for Israelite listeners about how not to be Israelite, a via negativa for faithfulness that insists that the mercy of Israel’s God is not limited to Israel alone.
The story of Jonah ends with the prophet bemoaning God’s mercy, wishing Nineveh had been blotted off the map. Since God will not destroy Nineveh as Jonah wishes he would, Jonah decides it would be better to die rather than live in a world in which the tribal deity becomes universal and the tribe’s enemies become Israel’s brethren (4:1-3, 8, 9-11).
The Destruction of a Tomb
The destruction of Jonah’s tomb is unfortunate and sad for many reasons, but it is also an unfortunately and sadly appropriate summation of the biblical character’s legacy. Jonah and ISIS/L share a particular bent, a way of seeing the world that is not limited to extremists from the Middle East, but lives on wherever people cry out for the destruction of their enemies. Jonah and ISIS/L see the world in black and white, us/them. ‘We’ cannot be ‘them’ and ‘they’ cannot be ‘us.’ ‘We’ are God’s people and ‘they’ are our enemies. ‘They’ must be destroyed and ‘we’ must be blessed.
And so Jonah’s tomb was destroyed because it belonged to ISIS/L’s enemies and was deemed ‘idolatrous.’ ISIS/L continues its march against its ‘enemies’—religious and cultural minorities who do not share their theology and anthropology—and does for themselves what Jonah wished God would have done on his behalf.
Jonah’s tomb is gone, but his legacy lives on. ISIS/L have unwittingly picked up Jonah’s mantle, contributed to his legacy, and perpetuated the violent xenophobia that marked Jonah as unfaithful. The story of Jonah is now historical.
‘And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.’ But he answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.’