Harold Behr

Following in the Footsteps of Jonah

Acting on a whim, I decided not long ago to slip on my sandals and follow the route taken by Jonah on his journey to Nineveh, whither he travelled as God’s messenger of doom.

Before setting out, I sensibly discarded my Orthodox Jewish apparel, including my precious broad-brimmed hat, a size too big for my brachycephalic cranium but more importantly, a definite giveaway in Mosul, Northern Iraq, said to have embraced in its bosom the ancient town of Nineveh with its miscreant population.

A similar thought impelled me fasten my peyes into unobtrusive plaits behind my ears and adorn my body, once draped in a shiny black kittel, with flowing white robes and keffiyeh reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia and millions of Arab men. As a further touch of authenticity, I shaved off my tache while leaving a luxuriant growth of beard in place to proclaim me as a card-carrying member of the Islamic faith.

Nineveh is known, not only as the city once consigned to oblivion by Yahveh (aka God) but as a world centre for quinquireme rowing, so I was hoping to combine my archaeological explorations with a spot of leisurely maritime sport. However, this was not to happen.

The man who believed that he had been chosen to do the job of warning the Ninevehnians of their probable fate was one Jonah, the son of Amittai, who woke up one morning in a state of palpable anxiety, having dreamt that he was to be the bearer of God’s message. Notwithstanding that he had a morbid fear of getting out of his depth in water and was prone, moreover, to sea-sickness, he felt obliged to stow away on a packed packet headed, he hoped, for Nineveh. As it turned out, he had boarded the wrong vessel. This one was bound, not for Nineveh, but for Tarshish, a place whose exact location was known to no one, not even the sailors.

For a while, all went well. The sun shone brightly and the sea was glassy. But then sullen clouds gathered overhead and the boat began rocking this way and that. Soon it was yawing and pitching on waters choppier than a plateful of gehakte leber, while Jonah, who suffered not only from pathological indecisiveness but vestibular canal hypersensitivity, pleaded nauseously with his fellow travelers to please turn the boat around and disembark him on his home shores.

This the sailors declined to do, as the shoreline had already receded out of sight and they too were not feeling very well by this time. So the ship ploughed on, rising up in synchrony with Jonah’s gorge, then plunging done the next minute into a seemingly bottomless trough of oceanic water.

Jonah’s mother had always drummed it into him that he was responsible for all of the family’s tsoress. So naturally, whenever things went wrong later in his life, Jonah automatically pinned the blame on himself. Now, in the midst of a Force 10 gale, Jonah pointed out to the crew that he, and he alone, was responsible for the storm. He felt so wretched that he pleaded for the sailors to help him die, at which point he emitted a loud technicolor yawn and pitched forward, head first, into the lap of the first mate. No further exhortation was needed. Without further ado, the sailors hoisted Jonah aloft, bore him to the edge of the boat and rolled him into the frothing, churning water. Amazingly, the storm abruptly ceased, leaving the sailors to continue merrily on their way to what they supposed was Tarshish.

Meanwhile, Jonah, instead of drowning as you would expect, was immediately ingested by a gigantic sea creature, who kept him alive in its maw for three whole days (at least that’s how it felt to Jonah, but given his proneness to panic and over-dramatization, it was probably no more than three seconds) before belching him back into the now becalmed sea, where he was rescued by a fishing boat which just happened to be passing.

Controversy has subsequently raged about it the taxonomical denomination of the engulfing creature. Early texts refer to it simply as “a big fish” but ichthyologists and cetologists alike have now agreed that it must have been a blue whale, which, as any educated person will know, is not a fish but a mammal without the dentition to masticate flesh, which would have put an end to Jonah there and then.

Jonah, meanwhile, returned to his former life, prepared, like the Ancient Mariner, to detain passers-by with the story of his strange adventure. But being of a restless disposition, and still tormented by his obsession to warn the Ninevehnians of their fate, he once again set off for Nineveh, this time traveling overland to his destination.

Without pulling any punches, he socked it to the dissolute townsfolk that they had precisely forty days to mend their ways. He was so persuasive that the ‘oy veys’ of the populace could be heard far and wide. The sale of food produce dropped sharply due to the ensuing fast and the market price for sackcloth and ashes went through the roof. The good news is that in the end, nothing bad happened to the Ninevehnians. Jonah, who had waited hopefully outside the city walls to see whether his prophesy would come true, was bitterly disappointed.

At this point, Jonah faced yet another environmental hazard. In the blazing desert heat, he soon became a candidate for sunstroke. Fortunately, a rapidly growing member of the cucumber family happened to sprout right next to him, affording him life-saving shade. The fact that the fruit of this plant, known as a gourd, was shortly thereafter destroyed by an unidentified vermiform pest, left Jonah with the sobering thought that, if life could so easily come into being and then as easily be extinguished, maybe he had been a bit hasty in his condemnation of the citizens of Nineveh who, after all, had been around for quite a while and who seemed genuinely determined to turn over a new leaf.

As for my own perilous journey in the footsteps of Jonah, the reader will be relieved to learn that, having been shown around a pile of rubble advertised as Nineveh by a couple of eight year old guides lent to me by the Mosul Department of Tourism and Information for a fistful of dollars, I took a ride on the back of a truck which had stopped momentarily to allow a suicidal goat to wander across its path and whose driver agreed to convey me (for a few dollars more) along a dusty highway to the Syrian border. From there, I trudged for forty days and forty nights to the Golan Heights, where I handed myself over to an Israeli advanced post, whose soldiers only took another three days and nights to clear my papers before allowing me to return to my home town of Chelm-by-the Sea.

About the Author
I was born in South Africa in 1940 and emigrated to the U.K. in 1970 after qualifying in medicine. I held a post as Consultant Psychiatrist in London until my retirement in 2013. I am the author of two books: one on group analytic psychotherapy, one on the psychology of the French Revolution. I have written many articles on group psychology published in peer-reviewed journals. From 1979 to 1985 I was editor of the journal ‘Group Analysis’; I have contributed short pieces to psychology newsletters over the years.
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