The need for prophecy goes unheard. Jonah helps us with his "But"

The need for prophecy goes unheard. Jonah helps us with his "But"

In the belly of the Word/1 - The cry of the poor to God needs amplifiers

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 18/02/2024

“I know that some classical authors, both Latin and Greek, have spoken much about this book, and through all of their questions have less enlightened than obscured the ideas, so that in effect their interpretation needs to be interpreted and with the result that the reader comes away feeling less sure of the meaning than beforehand.” St. Jerome, Commentary on the Book of Jonah

Our generation has lost touch with prophecy. It does not recognize it, it does not respect it and so the place once occupied by the prophets was first left empty then immediately occupied by the leaders and influencers; because when the demand for prophets that rises from the people does not meet true prophecy, false ones enter the scene with their great efficiency and their special effects.

The Bible tells us that God hears the cry of the poor, but it also tells us that the prophets are necessary amplifiers of this cry, so that it can reach heaven. Without prophecy the poor keep crying out and nothing happens. Yesterday, today, perhaps always, even if each generation has the ethical duty to create the conditions for children to grow up in a world in which they can hope that, finally, a prophet or someone will really hear the cry of the poor and answer it.

The Bible is not the only place where you can learn prophecy, but it is certainly a privileged environment for the quality and quantity of the words of its prophets. Of all the prophets, even of those ‘prophetic’ books that were not written by prophets, like that of Daniel. Or like that of Jonah, on which today we are beginning a commentary that will develop over the coming Sundays."Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their wickedness has come up before me.”” (Jonah 1:1-2).

Few of those who have commented on Jonah, were looking for a teaching on prophecy in this book, let alone the elements for a prophetic grammar. The book itself does not call Jonah ‘prophet’, although in the only historical reference that is associated with his name in the Bible he is called prophet: "his servant Jonah, son of Amittài, the prophet who was from Gath Hepher" (2 Kings 14:25). A prophet from the North, at the time of King Jeroboam II, of the eighth century. A nationalist prophet because, the text says, that evil king (2 Kings 14:24) had regained territories from Israel, from Lebanon to Arabia, and had done so "according to the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet who was from Gath Hepher." (2 Kings 14:25). When we read in the Bible that something happened ‘according to the word of the Lord’, we know that those deeds or victories were interpreted as a consequence of a word-will of YHWH. And it is therefore likely that that ancient prophet was an exponent of the nationalist tradition, which was opposed by another prophet, Amos. We cannot exclude the possibility that Amos addressed his criticisms of Israel's military ambitions and dreams precisely to Jonah - there have always been ‘prophets’ who support wars and other prophets who are against them. Perhaps, then, the Jonah of the Second Book of Kings was a not such a marginal prophet and who knows if the Book of Jonah was not written centuries later, to correct the nationalism of that ancient first Jonah?

But historically speaking, the protagonist of the book of Jonah has nothing to do, with that ancient prophet from the North. However, this does not mean that there are no allusions to that ancient prophet Jonah in the Book of Jonah, both theologically and narratively. The meaning of the name Jonah, which is, Dove, was used by Hosea to indicate Israel: "Ephraim is like a dove, easily deceived and senseless" (Hosea 7:11). The prophets of the North, from Elijah and Jeremiah, are essential for understanding the story of Jonah and his mysterious vocation. The city of Nineveh, then, the co-protagonist of the story of Jonah, was the capital of Assyria, the political centre of that enemy empire that in the eighth century conquered Ephraim and deported the tribes of the North to Mesopotamia and they never returned.

We know very little about the Book of Jonah. Nothing by its author, nothing certain about when it was written: the hypotheses go from the eighth to the second century BC. There is also no consensus on the main theological message of the book or on the collateral ones. The complexity and ambivalence of the story of Jonah can already be found in the famous ‘sign of Jonah’, to which Luke (11:29) gives a different interpretation from Matthew (12:39). The Christological and allegorical readings of the Fathers have then enriched and further complicated their understanding. But, as occasionally happens, Jonah's controversial and mysterious messages have made him very generative figure throughout the centuries, especially in art and literature, from Ariosto to Camus, up to Master & Commander (the film by P. Weir).

I decided to resume my biblical comments in Avvenire with Jonah first of all because it is a very beautiful story, a true narrative jewel, short, intense and exquisite. I had in the past postponed the undertaking, conscious that Jonah was a text which required a certain familiarity with the biblical prophets and with the historical books, useful and perhaps necessary to try to accompany Jonah on his journey in the belly of the Word. It is also difficult to understand Jonah without Job (the two stories are intertwined not only in Moby-Dick), and perhaps without Saul. It is the only biblical book that ends with a question, an open ending reminiscent of the parable of the prodigal son - we wonder if the eldest son went to the banquet, and if Jonah, or God? was really converted. But in Jonah there are also improbable and generally unseen biblical presences. The name ‘colomba -dove’ is a female name. In fact, there are traces of the women of the Bible, of their free, dialectical, creative relationship with the word of God, an obedience more similar to that of daughters than of servants. Of the disobedient obedience of Ruth, Esther, the Shunammite, the Syro-Phoenician of the gospel, the midwives of Egypt, Tamar, Michal, and Mary.

Jonah's tale is full of sudden twists. We find the first one immediately. Jonah must leave, he must go to the great Assyrian city of Nineveh, on the banks of the Tigris, a very ancient city - there are traces of it from the sixth millennium BC. He must go there to carry out a mission as an ambassador of God: the prophet is also this, but often he becomes the message he must announce. He must bring a harsh word, reveal to that pagan city that their wickedness is great and has therefore ‘ascended’ to God. A scenario that closely reminds us of Sodom and Gomorrah, whose cry of evil "has reached me" (Gen 18:21).

“But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.”(1:3) The first decisive narrative and spiritual turning point of the book of Jonah is all in that But, and much of the meaning of its story lies in this adverb, which is not an adverb of prophecy. After reading the first sentence and YHWH's command, the whole Bible suggested only one continuation of that first sentence: … and Jonah departed as the Lord had commanded him. No other story of prophets tells us of receiving a divine command and answering it with a But: some have doubts (Moses, Jeremiah), some feel crushed and stunned (Ezekiel), others do not immediately recognize the voice (Samuel)... but no one disobeys. No one, except Jonah, who is the only prophet who responds but. This initial adverb would be enough to exclude him from the list of prophets, but the Bible placed him between Adbia and Micah and no one ever thought to remove him from there. So a first task that awaits us in this commentary on Jonah is to try to understand why Jonah remains a biblical prophet despite a clearly un-prophetic opening, despite a beginning that would classify him as an anti-prophet or even a false prophet. Whereas, we'll see that Jonah remains a prophet, a true prophet. But can an authentic prophet disobey the word that calls him and entrusts a task to him? And what role does disobedience play in the lives of the prophets and of all those - and there are many on earth - who have received some vocation, religious, artistic or secular? Or perhaps the prophecy begins only after the conversion of Jonah and is not already in this first ‘But’?

In none of its versions (Hebrew and Greek) does the text give us a clue as to why Jonah does not obey YHWH. Nor does it explain a second important narrative detail: why, in addition to not obeying Jonah, begins another journey to the mysterious Tarshish? It is a name of city or place that we meet many times in the Bible (25 times), without a shared hypothesis about where it was - the many hypotheses range from Andalusia (which remains the most likely) to Sardinia, from Phoenicia to Asia Minor; the Jewish historian Josephus confuses Tarshish with Tarsus and Jerome even suggests India.

In fact, he could simply not have left, stayed at home and remained there ‘far from the Lord’. But no, he left on another long journey, without a reasonable destination. Perhaps because when we know that there is only one journey that is good and we do not want to go on it, that the right path has only one precise destination that we decide not to take, that the Lord is‘ far away’ from where we are going ..., we almost always delude ourselves that we can replace the right destiny-destination with another chosen by us, that going far away does not mean distancing ourselves from the Lord but only from a first step that we no longer like - and we really think like this and paradoxically, sometimes it is also true.

We know, especially the prophets know for sure, that standing still in front of the call to go on a journey would be total defeat. Because every call is a continuation of the first ‘leave’ addressed to Abraham, a good error that saves and redeems the error of Cain. That is why the prophet leaves; he cannot not leave, because if in response to the Voice that calls him he does not leave, he simply dies.

So Jonah tells us that the common mistake of prophets and prophetic vocations is not to stay at home but to leave in the wrong direction, well aware that it is wrong but deluding oneself that the act of going on a journey can resolve the end.

After God's order, Jonah departed. He didn't go in the right direction, but he left. And that wrong start was better than staying, because it will be along that crooked path that he will find a mysterious salvation.

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