Jonah has long been my favorite book of the Bible, so it is some (not unmixed) pleasure to discover that it is also the favorite of Harold Bloom, Yale’s preeminent literary critic. Bloom’s thoughts on the book, from his new literary appreciation of the King James Bible, appear over at the New York Review blog, and very worth reading they are.
Jonah is the Bible’s own critique of the prophetic personage, delivered with great narrative skill, huge literary panache, and the best evidence the Tanach has to offer that God really does have a sense of humor. Jonah himself is a loathsome character who first tries to evade his divine mission, and then is almightily pissed off when it succeeds. He tells the people of Nineveh to repent, they repent, and yet he’s upset?
Bloom’s explanation: “Either Nineveh will ignore him and be destroyed, making his mission
needless, or, if it takes him to heart, he will prove to be a false
prophet.” I don’t think that’s quite right. Jonah himself declares that he had disobeyed the divine command because he knew all along that God would forgive the Ninevites: “Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a
gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and
repentest thee of the evil.” Nineveh’s repentance might or might not be taken as evidence that he is a false prophet, but its destruction will prove he is a true one. That’s why he’s so distressed when the destruction does not take place.
The Book of Jonah teaches that even true prophets secretly–narcissistically–desire their worst predictions to come true. We do well to keep the lesson in mind as we contemplate the many prophets of doom of our own time–secular as well as spiritual.