Sympathy for Jonah

Sympathy for Jonah

“The grace of God is awful to us, because the proper response to evil is to fear it and desire its destruction not to love it and desire its redemption.”

This is my review of David Benjamin Blower’s book “Sympathy for Jonah: Reflections on Humiliation, Terror and the Politics of Enemy-Love,”  which has a set of sea-shanty style songs to accompany it.  And there’s a radiophonic production in which those songs are woven into the Biblical text, read by Professor N. T. Wright and Professor Alastair McIntosh (as Jonah).

Sympathy For Jonah

If you have been told anything about Jonah, it is probably that he was a naughty boy who ran away and had to be swallowed by a whale before he would, reluctantly, do as he was told.  It’s a story that has inspired countless others, from Pinnochio to Moby Dick.  In his book, Blower explains why he believes we have both missed the real point of the story and have done Jonah himself a gross injustice.

The Biblical book of Jonah is about “going to the terrible ‘other’ in search of the image of God


Blower starts by exploring why the image of the whale has caught the imagination of so many.  “Perhaps we feel we know something of Jonah’s whale because we sense in it some resonance with our own forgotten nightmares, formless thoughts, and the unresolved troubles that glide darkly beneath us.”  It’s an image of “the chaos under the floorboards of [our] own mind[s].”  Jonah is firstly “a book about a man who runs from his issues and ends up confronting them on his knees in the warm, wet hell of the monster’s belly” and warns us that “we too must go down into the belly of the whale and learn what it has to teach us” – a truth symbolised by baptism.

Reflecting on the “inability of pride to comprehend the wisdom of humiliation,” Blower wonders at “the great Hebrew tradition of confessing one’s own stubbornness, jealousy and pride, rather than berating others for confessing theirs.”  Where “the recording of histories has tended to be a means of self-preservation”, “the one people whose histories consistently predict and record their own failure and demise seem to have outlasted most of the others.”


It has often been intimated that Jonah’s attempt to avoid going to the non-Jewish people of Ninevah was a reflection of “generic Jewish racism” which Blower says “sounds to me like generic racism against Jewish people.”  He asks: “Are we supposed to imagine that, having heard God’s call, the prophet sat down and thought to himself, ‘I cannot stand Gentiles! What shall I do?’— and then realized he might well escape this malady by hopping on a boat full of Gentiles to a faraway land where he would live among Gentiles till the day he died and most likely never see another Jewish man or woman again?”

Appreciating that Nineveh stood where the modern city of Mosul is and had much the same reputation which that city has today offers a much more plausible reason for Jonah to flee his call: terror.  Furthermore, 2 Kings 14:25 tells us that Jonah had previously been instrumental in the restoring the protective boundaries between Israel and the terrors beyond.  Now he was being asked to “turn his attention from the boundary that had kept the enemy out, to the image of God in the enemy on the other side of it.”

Perhaps this inversion is suggested in the image of Jonah housed in a fish because “the ancient cuneiform script represented the ‘Nine’ part of Nineveh with a pictograph of a fish in a house.”


Blower describes the act of love towards the terrible enemy that God called Jonah to make as a ‘Jonaic Interruption’: “the interruption of business as usual by presenting oneself —one’s actual physical presence —in vulnerability, to the other.”  Jonah did nothing more (or less) than this, simply declaring: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” (Jonah 3:4) – a “prophetic act of a man who offers his neck to his enemies in the small hope of redeeming them.”

It is an act not just of love but also of “faith that, as they say, another world is possible, or to put the matter with the frankness of the Biblical prophets, that another world is inevitable.”  The Jewish aim is “‘tikkun olam’, which means ‘to repair the world.’ We are called … to the repairing of the world, and so I suppose we are also called against the work of ‘those who destroy the earth,’ to interrupt such work, creating awkward pauses in time in which repentance becomes possible and another world imaginable.”

Blower considers that by ‘the sign of Jonah’ (Matthew 12:29), Jesus – at least in part – was referring to the way in which he “very purposefully deconstructs social boundaries by making himself present to the other” … “because he perceives these invisible boundaries of unspoken enmity to be the constructs of a damaged and oppressive order.”

“It is to continuing works of interruption that Jesus calls his disciples: to radical acts of enemy-love, to radical declarations of grace and forgiveness, to radical transgressions of social boundaries and radical compassion for total monsters. And it was into this purpose that they were called to baptize others.”

“Who is my neighbour? He or she is the one that I transgress social, ethnic, political or cultural boundaries to be with. Neighborliness is not a state of mind or a disposition, but the result of a radical praxis.”  “To see the cross as only an inward process is to enter the belly of the whale without ever going to Nineveh.”

Instead of seeing the ‘other’ as the enemy, Blower concludes that we need rather “engage with the other to do something together about the powers,” who are the true enemy of us all.