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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Apathetic Prophet

Jonah 1:4-10

And Yahweh hurled a great wind upon the sea and there was a great storm on the sea and the ship threatened to break apart. And the sailors were intensely afraid and each man cried out to his own god and they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten the ship.

But Jonah had descended to the lowest recesses of the ship, laid down and fallen fast asleep. And the captain approached him and said, "How are you sleeping so soundly!? Get up! Cry out to your god! Perhaps your god will be concerned for us and we will not die."

Then each man said to the other, "Let us cast lots to know which one of us is responsible for this evil that has struck!" And when they cast lots the lot fell to Jonah. So they said to him, "Tell us! Who is responsible for bringing this evil upon us?! What is your occupation? And from where do you come? What is your country? And from what people are you?

So he replied to them, "I am a Hebrew, and I fear Yahweh, God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land."

Then the men were griped with fear and they said to Jonah, "What have you done?!" For now the men knew Jonah was running from the presence of Yahweh, for Jonah had told them.

Guess whos living here
With the great undead
This paint by numbers life is fucking with my head
Once again

Life is good and I feel great
cause mother says I was
A great mistake

Novocaine for the soul
You better give me something
To fill the hole
Before I sputter out

"Novocaine for the soul"
Beautiful Freak

The storm is wicked! The waves and breakers are tossing the ship about as though it were a play toy in the hands of a restless and rambunctious little boy. The superstitious sailors are desperately and passionately pleading to their gods for salvation from the vicious elements. All hope seems lost. But in the midst of the chaos steps a prophet of Yahweh - the god of heaven and dry land, the God of gods. This prophet of the true God is the savior. Like Superman to the rescue...well, not exactly.....

Jonah is not the superhero prophet that he could have been. In fact, he is asleep in the bottom of the boat. How is he in such a deep sleep? Good question. Stuart suggests depression as the cause (457-58). That Jonah would have suffered some state of depression seems entirely consistent with the previous events. He has resigned his post as prophet of Yahweh. He has left his family and friends and possessions and has hoped a ship to who-knows-where; anywhere but Nineveh. He has denied his calling, disobeyed his God, and fled the presence and face of Yahweh. Any surprise that depression would set in?

Maybe this is a depression from self-pity. Or maybe it is just a depression brought on by his isolation. Or perhaps there is a spiritual isolation. Jonah has fled the presence of God, he has cut off his line of fellowship with God. As such he seems to have retreated farther and farther inward. He announces to the sailors that he "fears" the God of heaven, but what does that mean? For the jittery sailors it throws them into even more of a state of terror than they thought possible. There is an irony at work here, I think. The sailors are the ones who seem to be truly afraid of Yahweh. They fear for their lives! But Jonah's declaration strikes me as simply apathetic and routine. He has just been awakened from a deep sleep. Probably a sleep brought on by a depressive state. He has renounced his calling and his God. And yet he announces the superiority of Yahweh and declares his "fear." (See Wolff 111-12, 116)

The contrast between Jonah and the sailors is stark, and it is important. The narrative is contrasting a prophet who should have feared Yahweh, but in reality is fleeing his presence with the heathen sailors who actually do fear Yahweh. These are superstitious sailors who belong to a polytheistic and syncretistic culture. A culture not entirely unlike our own in its relativistic and pluralistic approach to religion and spirituality. On September 11, 2001 we heard a similar call as those made by the sailors: "Everyone cry out to your own god!"

In the time of distress Jonah sleeps. He is apathetic, lonely, depressed, and asleep. The narrative reveals sailors that are desperate, fervent, and feverishly working for their salvation. Wolff puts it this way:

Here Jonah's fear is far removed from the acknowledgment of the sailors in v. 5: there is no trace here of that elemental dread of destruction. He certainly "fears" Yahweh, but without any of the reverence which repents of the attempt at flight, and acknowledges his guilt before his God. He has still turned away from Yahweh's face, in spite of what he knows about God - indeed in spite of his experience of helplessness on his flight. (Wolff 116)

Sasson puts Jonah's situation very simply: "Heathens remind him of his mission, of the land and of the people he left behind in his rush to avoid his duty" (Sasson 126)

God's storm and the frenzy of the heathen sailors jolt Jonah out of his apathy. Or at least it should. We will see in the verses to follow how Jonah responds.

What does it look like when we flee from the presence of God? Are we reduced to a sleep-like, spiritual existence? Do we take on isolation, unconcerned with the world around us? Are we apathetic even to our own survival and welfare?

Do we miss our calling and our impact in the world around us? Do we, like Jonah, find ourselves in the ironic position of bringing the true God to those who do not know him while we, ourselves want nothing to do with him? Affirm him to the world and denying him as a reality in our own soul.


ktismatics said...

"A dreadful storm comes on, the ship is like to break. But now when the boatswain calls all hands to lighten her; when boxes, bales, and jars are tumbling overboard; when the wind is shrieking, and the men are yelling, and every plank thunders with trampling feet right over Jonah's head; in all this raging tumult, Jonah sleeps his hideous sleep. He sees no black sky and raging sea, feels not the reeling timbers, and little hears he or heeds he the far rush of the mighty whale, which even now with open mouth is cleaving the seas after him...

"Fear him, O Jonah? Aye, well mightest thou fear the Lord God

-- more from Father Mapple's sermon in Moby Dick.

Jonathan Erdman said...

"Aye, Ktismatics! Shiver me timbers.....And thanks for the comment, Matey!!"

I failed to mention that another possibility for Jonah's sleep (I suppose there are many) is that God put him under. Maybe God conked him out for awhile. This scenario seems to lack a reason, however - why put Jonah in a deep sleep???

ktismatics said...

More insight from Father Mapple:

"Like one who after a night of drunken revelry hies to his bed, still reeling, but with conscience still pricking him, as the plungings of the Roman racehorse but so much the more strike his steel tags into him; as one who in that miserable plight still turns and turns in giddy anguish, praying God for annihilation until the fit be passed; and at last amid the whirl of woe he feels a deep stupor steal over him, as over the man who bleeds to death, for conscience is the wound, and there's naught to staunch it; so, after sore wrestlings in his berth, Jonah's prodigy of ponderous misery drags him drowning down to sleep.

Aye, that be one sentence, shipmate.

Lindsay said...

What does it look like when we flee from the presence of God? Are we reduced to a sleep-like, spiritual existence? Do we take on isolation, unconcerned with the world around us? Are we apathetic even to our own survival and welfare? Yes, I do believe when we delete God out of our life's picture. We are left only with a cold, lonely world to hang onto, and where many times the best way to survive is to hide in painful isolation. Eventually without God being the forging light within in our lives, apathy and loneliness becomes a new "god."

Jonathan Erdman said...

That's a good thought, Lindsay....

Isolation and apathy certainly do seem to be a survival mechanism. For some of us at some points in our lives it becomes all we have. Then it becomes a way of life - a "god," even......Darkness swallows us and sets in and becomes the only bitter-sweet companion.....

Lindsay said...

Personal experience always gives for interesting thoughts...I guess. Coming out of the isolation and darkness is the most exciting experience.