No matter where one falls in the debate over whether the biblical Book of Jonah, like that of Job, is allegorical or factual, the story certainly raises a boatload of deep questions, spanning the historical to the philosophical.
Chanted in synagogues on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, this laconic tale leaves the reader wanting to know more about the reluctant prophet; the latter is the title of Erica Brown’s treatise on Jonah, one of Ilana Harris’s cited sources for her Jonah: House of Fish.
The name Jonah appears only one other time in the canon, in Kings II, as a prophet who brought a message to King Jeroboam II. Since there is so little known about the man, Harris chooses to illuminate his character and life circumstances in a work of historical fiction written for a primarily young adult audience but intended for adults as well.
The Book of Jonah, Harris writes in the preface, “provides much inspiration for our own lives. Lessons range from tolerance, change, appreciating the Divine plan, and social responsibility.”
She draws on classic and contemporary commentaries and midrashim – even archaeological findings to describe the gates of the Assyrian city of Nineveh, where God sent Jonah to “call out against it, for their wickedness has come before me.”
She mentions other biblical references to Tarshish, the faraway land to which Jonah boards a ship to escape his mission, noting in the afterword that Tarshish may have been in Tarsus, Turkey or Spain. It is, in fact, most likely in the region of Gibraltar, which in those days was literally the end of the Earth – a point that could have been made to strengthen the notion of Jonah seeking to get as far as possible from the Holy Land.
When Jonah goes overboard
Harris uses poetic license to imagine details such as Jonah’s physical appearance and his wife’s identity, and to expand upon the sparse biblical account.
For example, when Jonah is thrown overboard, the original verses simply relate: “So they [the sailors] took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging.... And the Lord prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”
In Harris’s retelling, this is what Jonah experienced as he went overboard:
“His body slammed down hard, left shoulder first, onto a wet surface. Immediately, he was enveloped in an acid-like substance that penetrated the outer layer of his skin. The thick, gooey slime covered his clothes and body, making it tingle and sting as if he were aflame.
“Waves of nausea washed over him. Instinctively, he inhaled, greedily sucking in the available oxygen. His breaths triggered a violent coughing fit, and his body struggled to expel the water from his lungs. He lay there coughing and spluttering. His chest ached, and his throat felt raw. Every breath he took was painful, but he welcomed the feeling of being alive.”
Later on, Harris has Jonah sitting under the kikayon bush contemplating the purpose of the successful mission he went to such great lengths to avoid. His thoughts turn to the meaning of his name: dove.
“He wasn’t the first dove who’d been dispatched to deliver a message. Jonah mulled over the similarities between his current situation and that of Noah’s, long ago.
“After the great Flood, Noah had sent out a dove from the ark to check on the water level – not once, but twice. So too, Jonah had been thrown off the boat into the water, and twice commanded to go to Nineveh.
“But that’s where the similarities ended. Noah’s dove had faithfully fulfilled his mission and returned to the ark. Jonah hadn’t been as quick to obey God. It had taken him a while to complete his mission and return to God.”
Harris has added a witness – a sailor from the ill-fated ship to Tarshish – to the repentance of Nineveh and Jonah’s angry retreat from the city. The sailor is, of course, shocked to see the man who’d insisted on being thrown overboard to calm the raging waters.
“They had watched him drown. They had waited for some kind of miracle, for him to rise up and reappear from the waters. After a while, they were forced to admit that he was gone. How could he explain that he was seeing this man again?”
This element seemed improbable and forced to me. But Harris uses the sailor’s presence purposefully, to enable a positive spin on the story’s abrupt ending. Whereas the original finishes with a question mark, leaving the reader to wonder whether Jonah was transformed by his experiences, Harris’s imagined ending is perhaps closer to what we’d all like it to be.
Jonah: House of FishBy Ilana HarrisMosaica Press116 pages; $11.99