Print from Maftir Yonah (The Book of Jonah) by Mordechai Beck

Mordechai Beck

Print from Maftir Yonah (The Book of Jonah), 1992, Etching and aquatint on hand made paper, called Abacus, produced for the edition by Izhar Neumann at the Tut-Neyar Paper Mill, Zichron Ya'akov, 215 x 185 mm- size of etching on page, David Moss (calligrapher) [California: Bet Alpha Editions, 1992], Mordechai Beck, David Moss © Bet Alpha Editions

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Suppose Jonah Is Speaking…

Read by Ben Quash

Many psalms are associated with the royal house of David, and ancient tradition connects some with particular moments in that king’s life (e.g. Psalm 51). However, the first-person speech and vivid language of these prayers is capacious enough to make room for other lives and stories. Suppose, then, as an imaginative experiment we hear the prophet Jonah as the speaker here:

Where can I go from your spirit [ruach]?
Or where can I flee from your presence? (Psalm 139:7)

The Hebrew word ruach denotes ‘spirit’ and ‘wind’, and Mordechai Beck’s etching suggests both. When God’s speaking spirit overshadows Jonah, it is a stormwind. Swirling darkness spies him out in flight and threatens to suck him in. He raises a tiny arm in a futile attempt to ward off God’s overwhelming presence:

You hem me in, behind and before. (v.5)

This psalm is honest enough to admit that at least in its early stages, intimacy with God is often too close for comfort. Yet the speaker also relies on that inescapable nearness and ultimately claims it as a source of hope: ‘Lead me in the way everlasting’ (v.24).

In its praise of God’s wonderful works (v.14), this psalm goes beyond any words the book of Jonah records for that disgruntled prophet. Nonetheless, it is intriguing to think that in the latter verses of the psalm we might catch another echo of Jonah, sitting dissatisfied outside the walls of the Assyrian capital, Nineveh (see Jonah 3–4). Angry that God has spared the empire that destroyed ten tribes of Israel, he is still trying to win God over to his way of seeing things:  

Do not I hate those who hate you, O Lord?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? (v.21) 

The book of Jonah itself is an open-ended conversation. How will God respond to that provocation: with the vengeance Jonah seeks, or mercy on all God’s works?

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