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In Defense of Jonah

On December 17, 1972, at the occasion of his receiving the National Book Award, the social critic Lewis Mumford gave a rather odd acceptance speech. It featured many of the expected hallmarks of such an occasion – with thanks being directed to family, friends and supporters – but even as he was being honored Mumford swiftly transitioned to questioning whether or not the award givers knew who it was they were truly awarding. The acceptance speech was taken by Mumford as an opportunity to properly introduce himself; this he sought to do by giving an “account of the man in front of you” at which point Mumford declared “To begin with, his name is Jonah.”[i] And as Mumford went on to make clear he really did mean “that” Jonah – the one who had spent several days in the belly of a giant fish.

Why Jonah? After all, if you want to model yourself after a biblical prophet there are many choices, and many of those choices involve tales that are remembered for features other than fantastical aquatic creatures. Furthermore, “Jonah” has certain negative connotations that go beyond the biblical allusion, for a “Jonah” is also one who brings bad luck. Mumford didn’t leave his listeners guessing as to why he chose to identify with this prophet, noting that he approached the figure of Jonah “not as a character to imitate, but as an admonitory figure, exposing my failings, taking me down when I am too elated by some minor success, jeering at my most acute forecasts.”[ii] Yet, with all due respect to Mumford, a consideration of his voluminous output suggests that in some important ways he really did treat Jonah as a figure to imitate. Which in turn just raises another question: what does it mean to emulate Jonah?

While Jonah has earned a secure place in the canon of monotheistic tales, he also has a place in a more secularized pantheon. For Jonah certainly qualifies as one of the well-known “prophets of doom.” Indeed, Jonah’s tale, is largely about exactly such a prophecy, even if it is primarily remembered for the bit about the giant fish. Thus, Jonah sits at the glum table, in the dark corner, next to Cassandra, the boy who cried wolf, the scientist at the start of every disaster movie, and chicken little—one can imagine that the conversations at that table are not particularly uplifting. And though Jonah’s name is not being directly invoked with heightened frequency at the moment, there is certainly a lot of unhappy attention being directed towards the grim gang of which Jonah is a part. It seems that in the present it is becoming easier and easier to get yourself labeled a “prophet of doom,” even as this proves to be not a particularly good moment to find yourself labeled a “prophet of doom.” Granted, in fairness, there’s really never been a particularly good time to find yourself called a “prophet of doom.” However, it is worth recognizing that not all doomsayers say their doom in exactly the same way, and it is for this reason that Jonah remains a figure worth considering.

For those who have avoided biblical tales, here’s a quick recap: Jonah is minding his own business when God tells him to go proclaim judgment upon the city of Ninevah. But rather than do this, Jonah decides to run away, and so he boards a ship bound for Tarshish. Angered by Jonah’s disobedience, God causes the ship to be caught in a terrible storm, and when the sailors try to figure out who is to blame Jonah eventually confesses that it is his fault (see, he brings bad luck). To save the ship, Jonah insists that the crew to throw him overboard, and once Jonah is heaved over the side the seas calm, and he is promptly swallowed up by a giant fish. After three days and three nights inside the fish, Jonah is spat out on dry land at which point God tells Jonah to go to Ninevah and proclaim judgement upon it. Not needing to be told a third time, Jonah heads to that great city and begins preaching that it has been judged by God and will be destroyed. But then a funny thing happens, the people heed Jonah’s words: the citizens don sackcloth, the king declares a fast, and the people turn from their wicked ways. Satisfied by the show of piety God decides not to destroy the city. The tale ends with Jonah retreating to a hillside, in a foul mood, to see if the city will still be destroyed – angry that he had to go through such an ordeal when he had always known that God would forgive the people of Ninevah. To protect Jonah’s hillside brooding from the sun, God has a plant grow up to shade Jonah – but promptly sends a worm to destroy that plant. And when Jonah laments the death of the plant he is reprimanded for caring so for the plant while thinking that God should not care for the people of Ninevah.

Admittedly, this was a highly abridged retelling of Jonah’s tale, and there are certainly many who will look askance at any story in which a deity appears. But the point here is not to present the tale literally, nor is it to make a case about religion and divine forgiveness, rather the point is to consider what this story can tell us about doom saying. As was suggested previously, if all of the doomsayers are lumped together one loses a sense of the particularities of their stories. And if one frames all doom saying as automatically a bad thing, one loses sight of the ways in which premonitions of doom can genuinely (and have genuinely) been useful. Though it may be easy to ridicule such gloomy prognostications, it is overly simplistic to suggest that all tales of doomsayers are the same. And Jonah’s tale is different in a significant way.

For Jonah’s tale is one of the very rare occasions when the doomsayer is heeded. There are plenty of biblical stories filled with floods, plagues, falls, famines, as well as fire and brimstone – yet in Jonah’s tale the catastrophe is averted. Or, to step away from biblical tales: the boy who cries wolf gets eaten, Cassandra is ignored, chicken little turns out to be a fool, and so forth.

Lest there be any doubt about it, Jonah is not the most pleasant fellow. Not because he flees from God at the start of the story, and not even because he’s asleep on the ship when the storm comes (he does take responsibility and insist that he be thrown to the sea), but because at the end of the story Jonah retreats to a hillside to grouse and grumble that Ninevah isn’t actually going to be destroyed. The most sympathetic figure, Jonah is not, though (in fairness) who can really say what kinds of lingering psychological effects one has to deal with after being trapped in the belly of a giant fish for three days. Nevertheless, when considering models of “prophets of doom,” Jonah troubles the stereotypical image of such a purveyor of doom: he’s initially reluctant to deliver the prophecy, ultimately delivers it with such fervor that it is heeded, and he ends the tale sitting unhappily on the hillside.

When “prophets of doom” are denounced, as is a common practice these days (and in pretty much all days), they’re generally seen as being like Jonah at the end of his tale: grumbling grouches who seem to actually want to see their cataclysmic prophecies fulfilled. Doubtless, there are some who prophesy bleak occurrences who truly have been bitten by the bug of apocalyptic romanticism, and who genuinely do want to sit on the hill watching the cities burn while quietly muttering “I told you so.” Yet to caricature all doomsayers as such is to fail to fully appreciate Jonah’s tale, and is therefore to overlook one of the key functions of doom saying. Yes, Jonah’s story involves a giant fish, and it also ends with Jonah being reprimanded for an apocalyptic eagerness; but Jonah’s story also ends with the city of Ninevah still standing.

The book of Jonah is ultimately extremely hopeful. For one way in which to interpret this story is that if you tell people that they need to change their ways in order to avert a catastrophe…they will. Jonah descends upon Ninevah and walks through the city alerting the people there that they have to change their ways or face the consequences of their actions, and the people actually listen to him.

Those who issue glum prophecies are often framed as purveyors of despair, as those who have lost all hope, as those who have embraced nihilism, and as those who have embraced the old adage “misery loves company.” But the tale of Jonah provides a retort to such dismissiveness. For Jonah suggests that beneath the dour demeanor of (at least some) doomsayers is a profound hope: the hope that people still can change. And moreover, that people’s fates aren’t irrevocably sealed. After all, if the people of Ninevah could be persuaded, why can’t others? Those who insist on amplifying bad news often find themselves attacked, but viewed through the lens of Jonah, one might suggest that raising this frightening specter may be part of an effort to persuade people to change. Jonah’s tale ends on the hill, but one should not forget the work he does trying to change people’s ways before he winds up on the hillside.  Yes, the remorseful actions of Ninevah may seem extreme by today’s standards (donning sackcloth, fasting), but some version of Jonah’s tale is at the core of most premonitions of doom: the idea that if people only knew how much danger they were in, and the extent to which they are responsible for exacerbating that danger, that they would do something about it.

Unfortunately, “do something about it” often manifests itself in the form of turning on the bringer of the bad news. As Simone Weil observed many decades ago: “we hate the people who make us form the connections we do not want to form.”[iii] And it was out of this sense that one can more fully appreciate Mumford’s identification with Jonah. Reflecting late in his life on the variety of dangerous trends about which he had felt compelled to speak out, Mumford stated that “to finch now from facing these realities and evaluating them is to me an act of intellectual cowardice,” and yet he recognized that “because I have dared to face and evaluate them I have often been dismissed as a ‘prophet of doom.”[iv] Yet Mumford was quick to push back against being labeled such a prophet. After all, if one truly believed that all hope was lost, then why bother trying to even raise the alarm?

As Mumford described it, he was not compelled, despite what his opponents may have claimed, by any sort of personal nihilism but rather by the “suicidal nihilism of our civilization.”[v] As he explained, “I believe that only those who are sufficiently awake to the forces that menace us and who have taken the full measure of their probably consequences will be able to overcome them.”[vi] To sound this alarm was for Mumford not an act of despair but one of love, “it is not as a prophet of doom but as an exponent of the Renewal of Life that I have faced the future,”[vii] to devote time and energy to warning the people of Ninevah is to believe that they will act once they have been alerted.

Capturing the nature of Jonah, Mumford explained that “Jonah is that terrible fellow who keeps on uttering the very words you don’t want to hear, reporting the bad news and warning you that it will get even worse unless you yourself change your mind and alter your behavior.”[viii]  Thus, it’s understandable that Jonahs are disliked. After all, people don’t like to be told what to do, people don’t like to be told that their behaviors have disastrous implications, and people don’t like being told that they have to change—especially if they perceive such changes as involving some sort of sacrifice. Jonahs bring bad luck, because Jonahs bring to light the sorts of information that most people would rather ignore. Or to put it another way, Jonahs have a tendency of revealing the shaky grand upon which our current good luck is actually built. And, perhaps as a result of being stuck in a leviathan’s belly, there’s often a somewhat fishy odor about Jonahs that allows people to question whether or not they really need to be heeded. After all, if a Jonah succeeds, then people may eventually look back and wonder whether or not their actions were really necessary – perhaps the whole prophecy was a farce and they donned sackcloth and fasted for nothing? But sometimes it is better to be safe in sackcloth, then to be fleeing in terror while wearing less scratchy clothing. We all know, of course, that nobody should scream “fire!” in a crowded theater when no fire is present—but it is quite different to scream “fire!” on a burning planet.

It’s tempting to dismiss of Jonah’s ilk. Indeed, given our cultural emphasis on prioritizing the good news over the bad, one can even expect to be rewarded for lambasting the latter day Jonahs. But before we throw Jonah overboard it’s worth remembering that today’s Ninevahs are still under threat. And when Jonah tells people they must act it is done out of the belief that people still can. Sometimes people need to be woken up, sometimes it is a dire warning that can achieve this, and that is exactly what Jonah did.

One doesn’t have to like Jonah, one doesn’t have to agree with Jonah’s tactics, but we shouldn’t mistake the bringer of bad news for the bad news itself.

Our fate isn’t sealed, and sometimes – as Jonah makes clear – it is the prophet of doom who reminds us of that.


Related Content

Be afraid! But not that afraid? on climate doom

Towards a Productive Pessimism

A review of “The Uninhabitable Earth”

The “Good Life” or the “Goods Life” – on Lewis Mumford

The Apocalyptic Turn



[i] Mumford, Lewis. “Call me Jonah!” in My Works and Days: A Personal Chronicle. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1979. pg. 528.

[ii] Mumford. “Call me Jonah!” 528.

[iii] Weil, Simone. Gravity and Grace. London: Routledge Classics, 2002. Pg. 139.

[iv] Mumford, Lewis. “Prologue to Our Time” in Findings and Keepings. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1975. Pg. 381.

[v] Ibid, 382.

[vi] Ibid, 382.

[vii] Ibid, 382.

[viii] Mumford, “Call me Jonah!” 528.


About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

13 comments on “In Defense of Jonah

  1. Sadie-Kay
    October 9, 2019

    “Unfortunately, “do something about it” often manifests itself in the form of turning on the bringer of the bad news.”
    This explains why trolls appear when expositors are “on target” :/

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