The Problem with Herman Melville’s Reading of the Book of Jonah

July 21 2017

Toward the beginning of Moby Dick, the preacher Father Mapple delivers a sermon on the book of Jonah to a congregation of sailors. He poses the following question: in the long prayer offered by the prophet while in the belly of the fish, why does he never express remorse over his act of disobedience, or commitment to obeying God henceforth? And why does God answer this apparently inadequate prayer? Mapple concludes that it is admirable of Jonah “not [to] weep and wail for direct deliverance” but rather to accept that “his dreadful punishment is just.” While accepting the preacher’s question, Shalom Carmy finds his answer at best incomplete:

At no point does the Jonah whom Father Mapple holds up as the model of repentance say, “I am Your servant and wait upon Your command.” He still chafes at his mission [to convey the word of God to the people of Nineveh], and later, when God has accepted Nineveh’s repentance, he resents God’s mercifulness. Such a mentality seems less than ideal.

As the 12th-century Spanish author Abraham bar Ḥiyya put it, the book of Jonah is about people who turn to God. The righteous sailors with whom Jonah tries to escape respond to the storm with a heartfelt desire to do God’s will. The people of Nineveh repent under duress. But one man—the prophet—does not quite find his way to repentance. Jonah’s prayer is that of a man who is thankful that his life has apparently been spared, even if his home in the fish’s abdomen is a temporary prison. He is now willing to bend to God’s demands but not to thank Him for the opportunity. . . .

[Father Mapple is correct that] acceptance of punishment as deserved is an important step toward submission. Given the choice between, on the one hand, brooding or histrionic remorse that does not effect change of conduct and, on the other hand, a willingness to obey that lacks introspection, regret, and consternation, we should no doubt, in the short run, value action over sentiment. This is especially so in a culture like ours that often employs feigned regret and remorse as an appeal to pity and cheap mercifulness.

[However], real regret, real remorse, the heart broken in the painful recognition of what we have done ill in our relationships with other human beings and with God—these are essential to wholesome repentance. Hot tears of contrition and desperate pleas for forgiveness are not the same thing as [what Father Mapple derisively terms] “clamor . . . for pardon.” These themes are prominent throughout the book of Psalms; they are absent from Jonah’s incomplete submission in his prayer. And so, if we take a larger, biblical view of the matter, what Father Mapple holds up as ideal repentance, however productive in its context, is not beyond criticism.

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More about: Hebrew Bible, Herman Melville, Jonah, Literature, Prayer, Religion & Holidays, Repentance

 

The Reasons for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Staying Power

Nov. 20 2018

This week, Benjamin Netanyahu seems to have narrowly avoided the collapse of his governing coalition despite the fact that one party, Yisrael Beiteinu, withdrew and another, the Jewish Home, threatened to follow suit. Moreover, he kept the latter from defecting without conceding its leader’s demand to be appointed minister of defense. Even if the government were to collapse, resulting in early elections, Netanyahu would almost certainly win, writes Elliot Jager:

[Netanyahu’s] detractors think him Machiavellian, duplicitous, and smug—willing to do anything to stay in power. His supporters would not automatically disagree. Over 60 percent of Israelis tell pollsters that they will be voting for a party other than Likud—some supposing their favored party will join a Netanyahu-led coalition while others hoping against the odds that Likud can be ousted.

Opponents would [also] like to think the prime minister’s core voters are by definition illiberal, hawkish, and religiously inclined. However, the 30 percent of voters who plan to vote Likud reflect a broad segment of the population. . . .

Journalists who have observed Netanyahu over the years admire his fitness for office even if they disagree with his actions. A strategic thinker, Netanyahu’s scope of knowledge is both broad and deep. He is a voracious reader and a quick study. . . . Foreign leaders may not like what he says but cannot deny that he speaks with panache and authority. . . .

The prime minister or those around him are under multiple police investigations for possible fraud and moral turpitude. Under Israel’s system, the police investigate and can recommend that the attorney general issue an indictment. . . . Separately, Mrs. Netanyahu is in court for allegedly using public monies to pay for restaurant meals. . . . The veteran Jerusalem Post political reporter Gil Hoffman maintains that Israelis do not mind if Netanyahu appears a tad corrupt because they admire a politician who is nobody’s fool. Better to have a political figure who cannot be taken advantage of than one who is incorruptible but naïve.

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More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel & Zionism, Israeli politics