I curse my studies. Sometimes, anyway. What good is it to be following a Bible reading plan for the faithful when half of what is going on during my reading is (Lord, have mercy!) a critique of the translation, a mental retroversion to the Hebrew and/or Greek involved, mental notes on historical illumination and literary parallels, and all manner of distractions. The wonder is often gone. I hate that.
Just the other day, I read the Book of Jonah. It’s such a short book amongst the Twelve Prophets, it takes only a few minutes to read through. But what a powerful book! It’s a story that has struck people down through the ages, and was a popular artistic subject in early Christianity (Jonah either going into or coming out of a sea monster; or Jonah resting under his vine hut). And it’s the taking of that story at face value that gives it such power, as a real tale of something that happened to a real prophet of a real Israel, having dealt with a real sea and real giant fish, and a real city of Nineveh. Where does my mind go? Oh, to thinking about this period of Assyrian weakness just before the Neo-Assyrian empire expanded its border at the expense of any number of smaller nations; to thinking about the city Nineveh at that time, how it was not the magnificent place that Sennacherib would begin to make it, and how the description and the book’s writing really must therefore date to the seventh century; to thinking this book’s popularity may partly be due to its having the smallest vocabulary of all the LXX books, yet still being a cracking good tale; to thinking of “gourd” and “vine” and Augustine and Jerome. There is too much noise. This is not reading, but something else, and it is certainly not joyful or enlightening. I have to force myself to step back and turn off that running commentary, that mental footnoting, imposing silence. The silence is necessary.
Then the story unfolds, and wonderment with it. The darkening skies and the heaving sea. Threatening waves and a flimsy boat. Kindly sailors who don’t want to throw Jonah in. Sinking, sinking, “Full fathom five Thy prophet lies….” Seaweed wraps a drowning head. Then a salvific gulp. And this wayward prophet’s last act before dying is prayer in the belly of a fish. And that, his death, is important to recall. He did not, as in Disney’s Pinocchio, live inside the fish. He died. He was dead for three days. And then he was alive again. This was “the sign of Jonah” recalled in the Gospels: three days dead, then alive again. Jonah lives again, still in the belly of the fish, and prays again, and then [blah] he’s freed from the fish. His last act and first act were both prayer: a lesson. And oh, oh, oh, look at Jonah’s “righteous” anger, and what lesson do we gain from that, the tale of an anger that thinks it knows better than does God? And what a strange, but entirely merciful ending: “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” Confused or ignorant people deserve pity, not anger, and certainly not destruction, though that would attend Nineveh in time, which is something that seems to be inexplicably hanging in the air throughout the book.
It’s time to take back the wonder. Give the glory to God!