“The Book of Jonah”
Once upon a time, there was a whale. This seems to have been Tolkien’s favorite aspect of his oft-overlooked translation of “The Book of Jonah” for The Jerusalem Bible: as the footnote reads, “on this fish, of which the author is fond.” The great fish makes Jonah’s story memorable, along with the profound piety of the pagan sailors, the imitable repentance of the Ninevites, and the block-headedness of Jonah. These short four chapters are ripe with humor and critique: of all the prophets of the Old Testament, we most often live like Jonah.
For we, like Jonah, often attempt to flee from God. We’d rather seek the ends of the earth than set out upon the path the Lord has laid out for us. Though we know God’s power and his will, we live in denial and run away. In the words of Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven”:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
There is something sincerely silly in all this: that crusty heathens should know better how to follow God’s command than His own children, that Jonah should prefer his own death at sea than to repent from his obstinacy. We laugh and we learn.
For we, like Jonah, often get swallowed by a fish. God provides in ways that we cannot foresee or believe, gifts that we may doubt with our stubborn rationality. Even in our praise and thanksgiving to God we may jumble up our words: we mix together the prayers of our childhood with our own emotions and our shaky intention to adhere to the Lord again. There is something fabulously funny in all this: that Jonah should endure three days in the belly of a whale and be vomited out unscathed, that this of all measures should change Jonah’s mind. We laugh and we learn.
For we, like Jonah, often begrudgingly take up our task. We begin our arduous journey with biases in our hearts: of our own holiness, of the sinfulness of others. However, we are not the first to till the soils of the lands we farm. God has already planted seeds ahead of us, and the marvelous reaction of those to whom we are sent can put our prideful hearts to shame! Yet, we like Jonah can grow angry that the Lord has relented, and care more for small things of delight than for entire peoples. “And am I not to feel sorry for Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, to say nothing of the animals?” There is something amazingly amusing in all this: that the people of Nineveh be so stupid as to stand equivalent to animals and yet be more holy than a disciple of God, that Jonah’s pride could lead him to be angry at the death of a plant than joyful in God’s compassion. We laugh and we learn.
For Tolkien, then, “The Book of Jonah” is a shining example of Old Testament myth: a story of truth and of sub-creation. The sailors, the Ninevites, the great fish: they are a secondary world within our own, a world that allows Jonah to speak to us as he flees from, wrestles with, and pouts over God. As generations have passed we may no longer recognize fully the humor ingrained within the critiques. It may be hard to take seriously this fish, of which the author is fond: but if we can learn from Elves and Dwarves and Ents, how much more can we laugh and learn from a whale?