“Come listen to my tale, of Jonah and the whale, way down in the bottom of the ocean;” a children’s song with a catchy tune that has a way of becoming a lifetime companion. Among the earliest Bible stories many children learn is the remarkable story of Jonah and the whale. And since the Bible is God’s word, it must be historical, right? Many modern readers have a difficult time fathoming that Jonah is not a book of history. As if living three days underwater isn’t enough of a stretch, stalwart bibliolaters ignore the tons of archival material from Nineveh itself and claim that the entire city spent a day, or a week, worshiping Yahweh. It stretches the imagination.
While working at Gorgias Press I discovered, in an entirely unexpected way, just how seriously some otherwise rational adults take this tale. I had to postpone an important meeting with an influential client because it had fallen on “the Rogation of the Ninevites.” As a lifelong biblical scholar and student of ancient religions, this was a festival I’d never before encountered. A web search refused to yield too much information for as long as my curiosity lasted, but I did find out that the date is difficult to nail down (apparently sometime a week or two ago), and that it predominates among Orthodox Christians of Iraq and Syria. These believers claim the heritage of the fictionally converted Ninevites. Even if the book of Jonah were intended as history, the conversion would have been to Judaism, not Christianity.
As I tried to find a new date with our lucrative associate, I realized once again just how far faith is willing and able to stretch. The story of Jonah is a cautionary tale, almost a fable, reminding post-exilic Jews of the occasional righteousness of the other. While other interpretations have been ceaselessly floated by serious scholars, I have never discovered anyone outside the putative descendents of the fabricated Ninevites who take this non-historical event to be important enough to jeopardize an essential business deal. Anyone who attempts to introduce logic into such an equation may well find him-or-herself, Geppetto-like, slowly digesting in the enormous gastric cavity of a whale that has a taste for prophets.
2 thoughts on “Wayward Ninevites”