June 4, 2007

Man Overboard

For years uncounted I ruled the depths, unchallenged and unchecked. So when he plunged into my murky world, I swallowed him. What else to do? Just another mere morsel.

Then, for three long days he roiled, trampling around, oblivious to my discomfort. At the greatest depths, with the pressure building to unbearable, his meager voice rang out, vibrating within me. But not the mournful lamentation of one lost to his fate. With hope all but extinguished, the gladsome chorus swelled.

Swallowed, but not destroyed.

Distasteful. So up and out he came, back into the land of men, floundering in the light like a newborn. He won't be back, but there are always others struggling in the deep water.

I was in the house of my father when the voice roaring like the tempest called to me. I had not heard the voice before and believed it to be just the song of whirling wind. Then it called again with the voice of a man yet I was alone. The final call was like birdsong yet I understood.

I fled the house of my father. I made it to the sea and hired passage but my flight was in vain as a raging maelstrom descended upon us. I knew the cause to be my own cowardice. I told them to throw me overboard, to save themselves. Being good men they refused. Then, being men afraid of the watery grave they acquiesced. Into the deep I dropped.

I awoke trapped in a great heaving blackness beyond all description. I drew breath in the putrid darkness and cried out, giving voice to my despair. I admitted my helplessness; I knew I could not save myself. I swore to pay all that I have vowed.

Then, thrown from blackness to blackness with water rushing around I caught a shimmer of dim light growing brighter. I broke the surface and waded ashore, collapsing in the ebb tide.

Here I stand, the voice still whispering, telling me of Nineveh.

He came aboard bedraggled, furtive, scared. A lubber he was. Low born I suspect. Slight of build with an unmemorable face, there was no thing remarkable about him except the story he had to tell. He told us his name and said he had heard a voice calling him as a prophet. Delusions of grandeur I thought. Until the storm. That made believers of us all. But we’ll get to that.

He said it was the voice of the God of Isaac, Abraham and Jacob calling him to cry out against the great city, to turn them from their wicked, wicked ways. As if any man could do that. So being the wise man that he is he set his mind to a course away from the city. His gold was as good as any and he joined us.

Then, the storm. It swallowed us like a serpent on a mouse. Lighten the load. Everything but the ballast went over the side. Whereas we began as honest men seeking a living we were soon reduced to seeking only survival. What matters if we gain the world but lose our souls?

As we died, he slept. I shook him and said, “Awaken and call upon your great God that we may not perish.”

He answered us not. Unsure, we cast lots. He lost. I asked, “What have you done to drop this doom upon us? What must we do to be saved?”

He said he was a Hebrew, that he feared his God but did not obey Him.

“Throw me overboard. Cast me forth as I must be cast down. It is my fear that forges this fury. I must be sacrificed.”

But we said no we would not give up a man to the deep and rowed harder believing still our lives to be in our own hands. The storm abated not, increasing in violence until we too prayed to his God asking not to suffer for his folly or shed his innocent blood.

Finally, and only to save ourselves, we dropped him into the deep. We all saw it. As he struggled something enormous took him and descended. The wind eased, the storm ceased. We were saved but lost.

Unwashed, unshorn and uncouth he infiltrated Nineveh from out of the west. At the Mashki Gate, he cried out in a thin, trembling voice. He said he sailed over the heaving seas, escaped the belly of the beast and made his way across the endless desert all the while carrying the word of his god.

"People of Nineveh, slave and freeborn, king and nobles; in forty days Yahweh will lay your city waste. Your fornications are an abomination in his sight. Like a scorpion underfoot you will die. Repent and give over your gods. Repent and turn from your lusts. Repent and know mercy."

As the king’s counselor I was duty-bound to respond. "Foolish man. You are but the latest in a caravan of impotent prophets, false men serving empty gods. Who is this mighty Yahweh that we should tremble in fear? Who can imagine eternal mighty Nineveh brought low? Go back to your goats."

All reluctance gone he trumpeted, "Heed His word. Yahweh will not be mocked. Cease the violence that is in your hands. Repent and accept His mercy or wallow in your evil and die."

And so he raved, haranguing, merciless, unending. Slowly, like the ceaseless wind shaping soft stone his words eroded the royal resolve. By decree (and against my explicit advice) the whole city was thrown into mourning. A city of revelry reduced to wailing. It fills me with terror to see the people of Nineveh brought so low, prostrating themselves in sackcloth and ashes before an unimaginable foreign god. The city’s finest forgo their finery, degrade themselves until there is no longer any distinction between artisan and prince, between gentlewoman and harlot. An unknown spirit has gripped the city.

I too am reduced to wearing the unsightly garb of woe. Like a commoner I am denied entrance to the king’s chamber. No privilege, no protection and no end in sight. I believe this Yahweh is nothing more than a faceless, formless, figment of this pathetic so-called prophet’s imagination.

And yet just today I watched an infamous judge who has never shown forbearance sit in judgment on a worthless dog convicted of stealing grain. This magistrate who favors the whip, who enjoys exercising the rod of wrath, instead forgave the man, gave him grain and sent him home. How the world is cast into turmoil!

And still this Jonah thunders.

I am the seductress in the desert, my allure untarnished by time. For years uncounted like bees to the blossoms they have come. So when he wandered into my shadowed world, I swallowed him. What else to do? Just another mere mortal.

The moment we embraced his entrancing voice sang out, echoing through me. In my alleyways and thoroughfares he spread his poison, tainting my solace and succor. For forty short days he raged, exhorting the people, exacerbating my discomfort.

I am betrayed. Slave and freeborn, king and nobles they all sup at his vile cup. It shames me to see my children prostrating themselves in sackcloth and ashes. My beauty muted to black and gray. My revelries reduced to wailing.

I am not yet undone. Let them grovel in their repentance; let them bask in their holiness. Soon enough this pathetic prophet will pass from memory and the pilgrims of the flesh will once again wander out into the deep sands.

The city was like an old harlot, brittle but still dancing. At least until I arrived and pointed out that her robe was too revealing. Then she covered herself and became respectable.

Never had I seen a people so undeserving of salvation. Never was there a city more deserving of purging in the refiner’s fire. We warned them of the wrath to come and we went unheeded, our words scattered like chaff from the thresher’s winnow.

Eventually, like cattle catching the scent of water all the people from king to slave turned together and followed. Turned from the desires of their flesh to the desire of their heart, turned from revelry to fasting, turned from silk and linen to sackcloth and ashes, turned from gods to God and Nineveh was transformed.

I was astounded to witness such change firsthand and yet I was sorely disappointed. I was driven from my father’s house, I lost all my possessions, I was thrown overboard, I was swallowed by Leviathan, I was twice nearly drowned and I walked for weeks across the open desert, all to preach salvation to this unworthy heathen horde.

From the beginning I knew He would repent and show mercy. Did I not say at the beginning that these idolaters would be spared? So here I sit with nothing, even the shade has withered. How will I get home? How many precious days have I wasted on this fool’s errand? No fire from on high, no bolt from the blue, no destruction visited upon generation after generation. All for nothing, all for naught.

He says I have no right to be angry. After all I have done for Him. Waves of rage break over me. Withdraw your shade, withhold your sustenance and let me die. Alone I walk to Tarshish, swallowed in the vast expanse.


DebD said...

Have you ever read Buechner? I have three of his books that come to mind when I read your story of Jonah.

November In My Soul said...


I have not read any of his books and had no idea he even existed but his work does look interesting. Thanks for the tip.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. Sorry if that sounds trite, but I can't [at 6:15am] think of anything else at the moment :) : I found these wonderfully challenging to read.