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.

Read more at First Things

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

On Thanksgiving, Remember the Exodus from Egypt

Nov. 27 2020

When asked to design a Great Seal of the United States, Benjamin Franklin proposed a depiction of Moses at the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, while Thomas Jefferson suggested the children of Israel in the wilderness after departing Egypt. These proposals, writes Ed Simon, tapped into a venerable American tradition:

The Puritans from whom Franklin descended had been comparing their own arrival in the New World with the story of Exodus for more than a century. They were inheritors of a profoundly Judaic vision, melding the stories of the Hebrew scripture with their own narratives and experiences. . . .

For the Puritans, Exodus was arguably a model for understanding their own lives and history in a manner more all-encompassing and totalizing than for any other historical religious group, with the obvious exception of the Jews. . . . American Puritans and pilgrims like John Mather, John Winthrop, John Cotton, . . . and many others placed the Exodus at the center of their vision, seeing their own fleeing from an oppressive England and a Europe wracked by the Thirty Years’ War to an American “Errand Into the Wilderness” as a modern version of the Israelites’ escape into Canaan. . . . [Thus the] Exodus . . . has become indispensable in comprehending the wider American experience. Through the Puritans, the story of Exodus became a motivating script for all manner of American stories. . . .

We read its significance and prophetic power in accounts of slaves who escaped the cruelty of antebellum plantation servitude, and who crossed the Ohio River as if it were the Sea of Reeds. . . . We see it in photographs of the oppressed escaping pogroms and persecution in the Old World, and in the stories of later generations of refugees. Exodus is an indispensably Jewish story, but what more appropriate day than Thanksgiving, this most American and Puritan (and “Jewish”?) of holidays, to consider the role that that particular biblical narrative has had in defining America’s civil religion?

Read more at Tablet

More about: American founding, American Religion, Exodus, History & Ideas, Thanksgiving, Thomas Jefferson