Waiting for Sodom to Burn: Abraham, Jonah and Apocalyptic Resentment

A tale of two hills and of two watchers on hills.

I

Let us begin at the end. At dawn.

The sun had just come out over the earth… And the Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord from the heavens. And He overthrew all those cities and all the plain and all the inhabitants of the cities and what grew in the soil. … And Abraham hastened early in the morning to the place where he had stood in the presence of the Lord. And he looked out over Sodom and Gomorrah and over all the land of the plain, and he saw and, look, smoke was rising like the smoke from a kiln (Genesis 19:23, 24-28, Robert Alter).

Abraham stands silent over the destruction, the annihilation, the bringing-to-nothing, of the plain. In this moment he stands profoundly denied. He who the text identifies as God had here stood with Abraham such a little while ago, patiently accepting the old man’s hope-speech:

“Will you really wipe out the innocent with the guilty? Perhaps there may be fifty innocent within the city. Will You really really wipe out the place and not spare it for the sake of the fifty innocent within it? Far be it from You! Will not the Judge of all the earth do justice?” (18:23-25)

And again,

“Perhaps the fifty innocent will lack five. Would you destroy the whole city for the five?”

and again,

“Perhaps there will be found forty,”

and again,

“Perhaps there will be found thirty,”

and again,

“Perhaps there will be found twenty,”

and again,

“Perhaps there will be found ten.”

Abraham has lived in Canaan for many years, his house a tent, nomadic, company with but not constituent of the city-states. Much earlier, Sodom and Gomorrah having been ransacked by an alliance of four kings, Abraham had won favor with Sodom through incidental military alliance. In rescuing his brother Lot (a dweller in Sodom) from the hands of the four kings, Abraham had vindicated Sodom, and in a very real sense, had saved the city as well (the text reports that “the four kings took all the substance of Sodom and Gomorrah and all their food”).

Sodom and Gomorrah are Abraham’s neighbors.

In the guise of a man with two others as company, God comes to Abraham’s tent bearing life and humor: Sarah, Abraham’s barren wife, will have a son. (She laughs to herself, overhearing behind the tent wall. “Why is it that Sarah laughed,” the God-man says. “I did not laugh,” Sarah says (presumably from behind the tent wall). “Yes, you did laugh!”)

But he bears death as well:

“The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah, how great! Their offense is very grave” (18:20).

Robert Alter notes that the Hebrew verb from which “outcry” is derived, tsa’aq/za’aq, “is often associated in the Prophets and Psalms with the shrieks of torment of the oppressed,” as in Proverbs 21:13:

Whoso stoppeth his ears at the cry [za’aqat] of the poor, he also shall cry himself, but shall not be heard (KJV),

or in Nehemiah’s prayer, which uses the verb to refer to Israel’s terror in Egypt:

“You are the Lord, who … saw the affliction of our fathers in Egypt and heard their cry [za’aqat] at the Red Sea” (Nehemiah 9:7, 9, ESV).

Knowing of Sodom’s offense only that its response to two entering foreigners is to threaten a mob lynching (even including Lot, an “integrated” foreigner himself: “This person [Lot] came as a sojourner and he sets himself up to judge? Now we’ll do more harm to you than to them”), we can guess as to the reasons of the outcry.

Surely Abraham, as a neighbor of these cities, acquainted with them socially, politically and economically, would know. Yet he pleads.

And notably, we are drawn to the God-man’s response:

“Should I find in Sodom fifty innocent within the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake” (Genesis 18:26).

He affirms the same for each of Abraham’s subsequent pleas.

Knowing Sodom, knowing God, Abraham speaks from a place of hope. He does not say, cynically, “Far be it from Sodom to house ten innocents, these days!” Rather, he says, “if”—if—there are ten innocents in the city, far be it from You, the Judge of all the earth, to destroy them along with the wicked.

II

Let us begin at the end. At evening.

And Jonah went out of the city and sat down to the east of the city and made himself a shelter there and sat under it in the shade till he might see what would happen in the city. And the Lord God set out a qiqayon plant, and it rose up over Jonah to be a shade over his head to save him from his evil plight. And Jonah rejoiced greatly over the qiqayon. And God set out a worm as dawn came up on the morrow, and it struck the qiqayon and it withered. And it happened, as the sun rose, that God set out a slashing east wind, and the sun struck Jonah’s head, and he grew faint and wanted to die, and he said, “Better my death than my life.” And God said to Jonah, “Are you good and angry over the qiqayon?” And he said, “I am good and angry, to the point of death.” And the Lord said, “You—you had pity over the qiqayon, for which you did not toil and which you did not grow, which overnight came and overnight was gone. And I, shall I not have pity for Nineveh the great city, in which there are many more than 120,000 human beings who do not know between their right hand and their left, and many beasts?” (Jonah 4:5-11, Rober Alter).

Jonah, in an inversion of Abraham, sits fuming against the city which has repented, a city which represents not a neighbor but a sworn tribal enemy, an enemy whose destruction, unlike Sodom’s, has been averted.

From the very beginning of Jonah’s story, he is diametrically set against God’s capacity for mercy. Jonah understands, as he understands the prophetic project, that to be sent to a place to prophesy implies contingency and conditionality, a call for change and the possibility of salvation (cf. Jeremiah 18:5-10). Thus, when God calls Jonah, he flees in the opposite direction of Assyria and Nineveh.

And the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh the great city, and call out against it, for their evil has risen before Me.” And Jonah got up to flee to Tarshish from before the Lord (1:1-3).

This sets up a conflict between Jonah’s relatively frequent prophetic conversation with and trust in God for his own salvation, and his resentment toward God and with the object(s) of his grace for that same salvation: an intriguing and absurd dynamic which gives the book not only poignancy and incisiveness but also its comedy: Jonah is a farce as well as a cutting satire, no less so for its performance and elucidation of God’s mercy to those we would perceive as “outside” God’s mercy.

The opening verses set up a recurring play on the word “evil,” the Hebrew word ra’/ra’ah, which is variously rendered “disaster” or “calamity,” depending on the context, bearing an embodied rather than strictly moral connotative thrust.

Thus, in answer to Jonah’s refusal to prophesy to the hated foreigner, God presents the prophet and his couriers with a calamity of their own. Knowing that he is the cause of the supernatural tempest, Jonah asks to be pitched overboard, where God “sets out” (manah) a fish to swallow him (and carry him back to shore to do what he was told). While in the fish, Jonah prays the psalmic prayer of the pious, invoking the hyperbolic contours of his plight (“From the belly of Sheol I cried out… / Water lapped about me to the neck / the deep came round me, / weed was bound round my head. / To the roots of the mountains I went down— / the underworld’s bolts against me forever”), culminating with an antithesis of “those who look to vaporous lies” in contrast to his own steadfastness:

“What I vowed I will pay.

Rescue is the Lord’s.” (2:9b)

But Jonah’s view of God’s rescue is exclusive. He prophesies to the city of Nineveh as he’s been told (whose offense, like Sodom’s, is never named, though the king’s decree to “let everyone turn from his evil (ra’) way and from the violence [or, outrage (cf. Alter)] that is in his hands” gives a similar indication), and the city repents. (This adds to the satirical ironies of the story: the Israelite prophet who begrudges prophecy and the pagan city who repents before the one God; Jesus will later use this irony to great effect in criticizing the Jewish religious establishment (cf. Luke 11:29, 30, 32).

So it would seem that the mission is complete:

And God saw their acts, that they had turned back from their evil (ra’) way, and God relented from the evil (ra’ah) that He said to do to them, and he did not do it (3:10).

But, without skipping a beat,

[T]he thing was very evil (ra’) for Jonah, and he was incensed (4:1).

Jonah resents both God for his mercy and Nineveh for repenting, chastising God in prayer because he knew going in “that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in kindness and relenting from evil (ra’ah).” He beseeches God to kill him. God simply says, as Alter renders it, “Are you good and angry?”

We come to the end where we began. Fuming, Jonah builds a shelter on the hill by the city, and waits “till he might see what would happen in the city.” The prophetic urge to the city gave the people forty days. Yes, they’d dusted themselves and the animals in sackcloth now, but there is still time. They, after all, are Assyrians. Enemies of Israel. Heathen.

In what appears to me to be an inset comedy, God pantomimes what Jonah seethingly wishes for the city.

God “sets out” (manah, the same word used for the fish) a qiqayon plant “to save him [Jonah] from his evil/calamity (ra’ah)” (one cannot avoid hearing the sarcasm in the use of ra’ah for Jonah’s situation). As with Nineveh, Jonah is rescued in miniature. Then, as Jonah clearly wishes for Nineveh, this salvation is suddenly removed. The oppressively hot east wind, the ḥamsin, combines with the sun to bake Jonah on the hillside in a farce of fire and brimstone. Again, Jonah asks to die. Seeing through Jonah’s attitude, God again provokes him: “Are you good and angry?”

“I am good and angry, to the point of death!” Jonah says.

God’s rebuke is surprisingly gentle in tone, if sober in its significance. Jonah’s prejudiced view of God’s mercy has caused him to love a plant more than these many thousands of human beings and animals.

III

We are not given Jonah’s answer to God’s rebuke:

“You—you had pity over the qiqayon, for which you did not toil and which you did not grow, which overnight came and overnight was gone. And I, shall I not have pity for Nineveh the great city?”

God’s description of Jonah’s relation to the qiqayon is also a description of his relation to the human other. Like the plant, Jonah was not involved in the lives of any of the foreign Assyrians in Nineveh, who, for all practical purposes, arose overnight and overnight were gone, that is, unknown and unencountered. For Jonah, the Assyrians could only ever be “imagined,” to use Benedict Anderson’s terms. And yet this is enough, in God’s view, to work compassionately toward their rescue. It is in something beyond their lived relation to Jonah that imbues these human beings with moral worth.

Human worth is asserted by God’s pity in spite of its ephemerality, which is yet another meaning implied by the comparison, for we can also find meaning in God’s relation to the qiqayon. For God, are not the teeming masses of Nineveh alike to this comparatively insignificant plant, which requires no effort on his part, which barely last a day? As the psalmist says,

Lord, what is a human creature that You should know him,

the son of man, that You pay him mind?

The human is like unto breath,

his days like a passing shadow (Psalm 144:3-4).

And yet the city has worth as long as it has life within it. God insists on Jonah’s prophesying to it.

IV

We could call Jonah’s attitude indicative of apocalyptic resentment. I use “apocalyptic” in its modern connotation of ultimate destruction and cataclysm. In Jonah we have a farcical yet I think emotionally accurate sketch of one who “preaches the gospel” and still hates the Other.

As I’ve written before, this hate stems from fear and anxiety:

[Fear] is certainly present in the idea of ressentiment, which employs a constellation of methods to sublimate self-loathing and, shall we say, fear, through various socially acceptable forms of causing or wishing pain on others. One thinks immediately of such cases as the scapegoating of foreigners and refugees. … Of course, one also thinks of those who believe in an eternal damnation in hell, for whom this belief always threatens to become a vessel of ressentiment (see Friedrich Nietzche’s critique of Tertullian in the first essay of On the Genealogy of Morals, or simply consider Westboro Baptist Church‘s grotesque picketers).

Of course one may not believe in an eternal torment in hell to still wish pain and punishment upon other people. And what is the idea of hell but the idea of a personal apocalypse?

While Jonah is about a prophet, it is not a book of prophecy, and might belong just as well among the Wisdom writings of the OT. Whereas Job and Qoheleth, for example, observe the unfairness of suffering in the world—that the innocent suffer while evil actions go unpunished—and resolve to rearrange their moral model to account for it, apocalyptic resentment sees the same world and resolves to double down on its desire that those perceived as wicked receive destruction. This dynamic lies at the core of Job as a poetic drama, and it also lies at the core of the book of Jonah.

Upon closer inspection, Abraham’s intercession is likewise still tied to innocence and guilt. However, we find the same grace in the confirmation that God will, for the sake of 10 innocent, spare the entire city. Apocalyptic resentment would not be able to stand for such an outcome; Jonah certainly does not. But Abraham beseeches God repeatedly, insistently, even tenaciously, to save Sodom, of all cities, whose masses certainly cannot be expected to know their right hand from their left any more than those of Nineveh. On the other hand, Jonah’s request is not for life for the innocent but, ironically, death for himself.

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