I can’t do justice to the fascinating, learned, and provocative e-mails you sent me about Jonah and the whale. Everyone—and I mean everyone—loves that story. Let me touch briefly on the question that interested you (and me) most: How could Jonah have survived three days inside a whale/fish?
Nonbelievers answered: He couldn’t, and of course it never happened.
Some believers said: It didn’t happen, but it’s still a wonderful allegory.
Those who said it did happen made one of these three points:
1) Maybe, just maybe, he could have survived in a sperm whale or whale shark; or
2) It’s a miracle. If God wanted to do it, He could do it. Heck, he could have made a big fish just for the occasion and made it vanish as soon as Jonah was spewed on the beach. He could do anything, because He’s God. For a fascinating version of the miracle position, listen to William Jennings Bryan squaring off with Clarence Darrow during the 1925 Scopes trial; or
3) Jonah didn’t survive his fishy journey. He died, spent three days in the darkness, and then was resurrected—like a certain other holy man popular with Christians. Several Baptist readers told me that they were taught very explicitly that Jonah was a precursor to Christ.
On to the last five of the minor prophets. I’m going to race through them because, well, they’re not very interesting.
The Book of Habakkuk
Chapter 1 and Chapter 2
A bit of a whiner, Habby keeps wondering how long he will have to cry to the Lord for relief. Eventually, he decides to stand in a watchtower until God answers his complaint. This gloomy fellow is evidently not the inspiration for the Coca-Cola slogan, “Habakkuk and a smile.”
Give Habakkuk credit for posing one of the most important theological questions of the Bible: If you’re so good, God, why are you “silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” This is probably the biggest question there is about God, one that still puzzles all of us today. (Since the Holocaust, Jews have been particularly troubled by it.) As far as I can remember—and please correct me if I am wrong—Habakkuk is the first person in the Bible to ask the question directly.
If I am understanding the Lord—the language is a little muddy—He answers by saying that the wicked will eventually be punished and the righteous rewarded. God checks off a list of malfeasants—”the treacherous and arrogant,” “you who build a town by bloodshed,” “you who make your neighbors drink”—and promises that they will pay dearly for their sins. I find God’s response a little unsatisfying, though I don’t know what else He could say. As far as I can tell, the only way, theologically, to justify evil’s success today is the promise of a next world where the wicked will suffer and the good will be rewarded. If there is no future redemption or punishment, then God would be a sadist, allowing the good to suffer with no hope. (Not to belabor a favorite point of mine, but one of the things I have always loved about Judaism is that it doesn’t rely so much on “you’ll get yours in the next world.” Rather, it demands we work for good on earth today.)
The last chapter of Habakkuk is an emphatic prayer to the Lord. I mention it only to note two eye-catching phrases. The prophet describes the Lord “crack[ing] skulls” of villains. And when God arrives to judge and redeem, Habakkuk is so nervous that his “bowels quaked.”
The Book of Zephaniah
Chapter 1 through Chapter 3
They call these 12 the “minor prophets,” but that name doesn’t do justice to the dinkiness, the negligibility, the puniness of Zephaniah. He’s not minor league, he’s rookie league. His three, mercifully short, chapters are third-rate Isaiah, a completely familiar prophetic poem: God’s going to destroy mankind to punish Baal worshippers. He will trash the Israelites, the Moabites, the Ninevites, etc. Then He’ll redeem Zion. Nothing you haven’t heard 47 times, and better, before.
In Zephaniah, as in so many other books, the Lord describes razing a city—often Jerusalem, but Nineveh in this case—and leaving it such a wasteland that everyone who passes by “hisses and gestures with his hand.” I am curious about the hissing and hand gesturing. Why would people hiss at a devastated city? What kind of hand gesture would they make? Are hissing and gesturing customs that persist in the Middle East?
The Book of Haggai
Chapter 1 and Chapter 2
A confusing but lively story. After the Persians reconquer Israel from the Babylonians and allow the Jews to return, the Temple remains in ruins. The Jews say, “The time has not yet come” to rebuild. Haggai, channeling God, rebukes them for their lack of faith. Why are their crops failing? Why do they never have enough warm clothes? Because they’re not serving God, that’s why! God instructs them to rebuild the Temple and promises glory and prosperity if they do. But the book ends ambiguously, with the Temple still in ruins.
The Book of Zechariah
This is the longest book in the minor prophets, and while it’s not a thrill ride, it’s weird and psychedelic.
Chapter 1 through Chapter 3
Chapter 3 brings a landmark moment: the debut of Satan! In a dream, Zechariah sees the high priest of Israel facing off against “the Accuser,” who, as a footnote in my Bible observes, is also known as Satan. It’s clear that this is no horn-bedecked, pitchfork-wielding, perfumed-with-brimstone, red-satin devil. The Accuser appears to be more like God’s opposing counsel—a not very nice, but skilled, corporate defense attorney. The Accuser doesn’t say a word in the chapter. In fact, his only role is to stand there and be chewed out by one of God’s angels. Still, it’s momentous to witness Satan’s first appearance. Question: How does this abashed, impotent Accuser turn into His Satanic Majesty? (Christian readers may wonder why I’ve skipped over the appearance of Satan in the book of Job. As Jews read the Bible, Job comes well after the minor prophets, almost at the end of the book.)
Chapter 4 through Chapter 6
Z. has a weird vision of seven lamps, symbolizing God’s eyes on the world. Then he has weirder visions of a giant flying scroll and a woman in a lead-sheathed tub, who represents wickedness. The prophet also declares that a man called “the Branch”—an ancestor of the Edge, perhaps?—shall rebuild the Temple and rule Zion.
Chapter 7 and Chapter 8
Like most New Yorkers, God can’t bear to be away from His beloved city, even for a day. He is so fixated on Zion that he vows to restore it and move back to Jerusalem, despite its sins. When this joyful day comes, the people of the world will follow the Jews back to Zion. The description of this is hilarious: “In those days, ten men from nations of every tongue will take hold—they will take hold of every Jew by a corner of his cloak and say, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard God is with you.’ ” I love the idea of each Jew being besieged by a 10-pack of gentiles! (I wonder if my kids will get 10 gentiles each, too? Hmmm.)
The new king of Israel shall ride into Jerusalem on a donkey!
The more I read of the prophets, the more it becomes clear that the Christian tradition intentionally borrows from them. (I know, I know—this is a blindingly obvious observation.) Why does Christianity tell stories about Christ riding a donkey, or coming from Bethlehem, or suffering for our sins? Perhaps because those stories are all true. Or perhaps because the early Christian writers wanted to place Christ emphatically in the prophetic tradition. They could do this by matching up his biography to the Jewish prophecies.
Judgment Day will begin on the Mount of Olives. The Lord will step there and rip a gorge in the earth. Good to know for planning your next Israel vacation.
God will smite his enemies with a plague, and “their flesh shall rot away while they stand on their feet; their eyes shall rot away in their sockets; and their tongues shall rot away in their mouths.”
God is sick of our heresy and backsliding, our feeble sacrifices and worthless professions of faith. “You have wearied the Lord with your talk,” Malachi chides. I never sympathize with the Lord so much as when He gets peeved at His people.
The Lord’s going to wipe the floor with adulterers, liars, and mistreaters of the poor. And when the Lord’s redemption comes, the good will finally take their revenge, too: “You shall trample the wicked to a pulp.”
When Elijah was whooshed up to heaven several books ago, many of you disputed my contention that he had died. I guess you were right. In the last verses of Malachi, God promises to send Elijah as an advance man before Judgment. Elijah will show up shortly before the big day and “reconcile parents with children and children with their parents.” This family unification project will moderate God’s anger, and make the final judgment go easier for all of us.
Coming up next time … Psalms!
Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)