Ear­li­er this week, Joshua Max Feld­man wrote about who would be on his Jew­ish Mount Rush­more. His debut nov­el, The Book of Jon­ah, will be pub­lished on Feb­ru­ary 4th by Hen­ry Holt and Co. He will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

When you write a nov­el called The Book of Jon­ah, when you base that book on the Bib­li­cal Book of Jon­ah, one thing is for sure: Peo­ple are going to ask you why you wrote a nov­el based on the Bib­li­cal Book of Jon­ah. Why not, say, Job? Or Daniel? Aren’t there some juicy parts of Kings? (Yes, there are.) 

For the record, I think there are many sto­ries in the Bible that could form the basis of a suc­cess­ful nov­el, or play, or poem, or what have you. To me, the Hebrew Bible is a near­ly match­less com­pendi­um of human dra­ma, por­tray­ing our myth­ic fore­bears with far more rec­og­niz­able fal­li­bil­i­ty than we typ­i­cal­ly acknowledge. 

But ever since I first encoun­tered the Book of Jon­ah — prob­a­bly as a third grad­er in Hebrew School—I’ve been espe­cial­ly intrigued by it, and the more I’ve returned to it, the more intrigued I’ve become. There is qual­i­ty to text that defies easy inter­pre­ta­tion — and I believe it is just this qual­i­ty that makes it par­tic­u­lar­ly well suit­ed to our own times. 

While the Book of Jon­ah is grouped among the Prophets, the text in fact con­tains only five words of prophe­cy. The bulk of the sto­ry chron­i­cles a sort of on-going feud between Jon­ah, a most reluc­tant Bib­li­cal pro­tag­o­nist, and God: When God orders Jon­ah to preach against” the dis­tant city of Nin­eveh, he prompt­ly flees in the oppo­site direc­tion; when Jon­ah final­ly does acqui­esce to God’s instruc­tions, he does noth­ing but com­plain about the out­come. The sto­ry fol­lows Jon­ah from one end of the ancient world to the oth­er, with a sojourn in the bel­ly of a great fish” (not, in the orig­i­nal Hebrew, a whale) in between, and fea­tures char­ac­ters as var­ied as kings and cat­tle, sailors, and worms. The sto­ry is rife with humor, satire, ironies, and ambiguities.

Telling­ly, the book is also rife with ques­tions: Every speak­er in the book pos­es at least one, and often sev­er­al. And just as most of these lit­er­al ques­tions go unan­swered, the Book of Jon­ah by impli­ca­tion rais­es far more ques­tions than it answers. Why does Jon­ah flee from God’s com­mands? Why do the Ninevites repent so dra­mat­i­cal­ly when Jon­ah final­ly deliv­ers his prophe­cy? What are we meant to make of the strange anal­o­gy with which the book ends, in which God com­pares a dead bush and a city? 

While the Bible is gen­er­al­ly thought of as a font of cer­tain­ties, the Book of Jon­ah stands out as tan­ta­liz­ing­ly equivocal. 

Pre­dictably, schol­ars and sages of many reli­gious stripes have done their best over the cen­turies to fill in the book’s per­ceived blanks. Jon­ah has been char­ac­ter­ized as hero­ical­ly self-sac­ri­fic­ing or hyp­o­crit­i­cal and cru­el; the sto­ry has been read in the con­text of ancient Juda­ic polit­i­cal con­cerns or as a pre­fig­u­ra­tion of the nar­ra­tive of Jesus. More recent thinkers have argued the book should be treat­ed as fable, or alle­go­ry, or par­o­dy, or parable. 

To me, the rea­son these inter­pre­ta­tions ulti­mate­ly fail in their attempts to dis­pel the book’s cen­tral ques­tions is the same rea­son the Book of Jon­ah has remained so com­pelling over the two-thou­sand-plus years since its com­po­si­tion: The Book of Jon­ah’s ambi­gu­i­ties, its gaps, its ques­tions, are nei­ther inci­den­tal nor resolv­able. Rather, they are inte­gral fea­tures of the work as a whole. Like unre­solved chords in a sym­pho­ny, the omis­sions are what give the book its pow­er. This is a tale that embraces uncer­tain­ty, that acknowl­edges the unanswerable. 

And this is pre­cise­ly why I think the Book of Jon­ah is so rel­e­vant in our time. Like Jon­ah, we can’t escape a con­fronta­tion with the com­plex­i­ties of our world — be they moral, polit­i­cal, sci­en­tif­ic, or spir­i­tu­al. We are bom­bard­ed every day through a myr­i­ad of tech­nolo­gies with exam­ples of injus­tice across the globe: sin going unpun­ished, virtue unre­ward­ed. That many, Jew and Gen­tile alike, are unsat­is­fied with attempts to account for all this with­in a the­o­log­i­cal frame­work can be seen in the dwin­dling par­tic­i­pa­tion in reli­gion generally. 

The Book of Jon­ah offers the reas­sur­ance that per­plex­i­ty at the world around us is not new, nor is it irre­li­gious. It is, rather, a some­times inevitable part of engage­ment with the world. Fur­ther, in Jon­ah’s trou­bled rela­tion­ship with God, the sto­ry sug­gests that our rela­tion­ship with the divine will always be char­ac­ter­ized by some degree of incom­pre­hen­sion. The Book of Jon­ah does not present lessons to dis­patch spir­i­tu­al dilem­mas. Rather, it affirms their essen­tial mystery. 

These are the qual­i­ties that drew me to this par­tic­u­lar Bib­li­cal sto­ry — and these are the qual­i­ties I tried to bring out in reimag­in­ing it in our own, so fre­quent­ly con­found­ing age. 

Joshua Max Feld­man is a writer of fic­tion and plays. Born and raised in Amherst, Mass­a­chu­setts, he grad­u­at­ed from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, and has lived in Eng­land, Switzer­land, and New York City. The Book of Jon­ah is his first nov­el. Read more about him here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:
Shani Boian­jiu on The Book of Jonah

Joshua Max Feld­man is a writer of fic­tion and plays. Born and raised in Amherst, Mass­a­chu­setts, he grad­u­at­ed from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, and has lived in Eng­land, Switzer­land, and New York City. This is his first novel.