When I was in college, in my “Russian Studies” class, I was introduced to perhaps the most memorable piece of literature of my whole life.
It’s was written in 1835 by famed Russian author Nikolai Gogol, a short short story entitled “The Nose.” And guess what it’s about?
It’s about a Russian Major who wakes up one morning to discover his nose is missing; his face is now flat. Not only that, but his nose is pretending to be a human being, walking about town wearing a uniform of a high-ranking offical and being acknowledged in a status superior to his own! Oh, the horror!!
Gogol’s imaginative, bizzarro story had a purpose. (Beyond almost swaying me to change my major to Russian Studies....)
The story intended to satirize (and, hence, critique) the pathetic state of Russian government at the time; things had gotten so bad that it no longer took much at all to move swiftly and smoothly up the ladder of influence. Even a nose could do it!
You could easily argue the situation in Russia remains the same. That’s perhaps why a century later Shostokovich wrote an opera based on Gogol’s story. Which inspired perhaps the greatest dance routine EVER!
Could anything this weird (and weirdly wonderful!) ever show up in our Bible? COULD IT???
Well, there is the delightful section in 1 Corinthians 12 where Paul suggests body parts fighting over as to which is most important is completely ridiculous because of course all are needed; that's one good guess.
Or the story of Balaam’s talking ass. (Numbers 22:21-38) There’s LOTS to be said about this. Don’t know how it intersects with this video of a guy trying to do wheelies on his bike, tho….
What I want to bring into focus with our comic lenses today is the portion of the Book of Jonah (Jonah 3) where animals are said to be running around in sackcloth and ashes, mourning their sins!
Now before our imaginations spin to a crisp trying to figure out why in the world dogs, cows, mules, chickens and the like would be thus compelled to dress and drone in this manner (I’m sure many a theologian has chalked it up - pun sort of intended - to the blanket sinfulness - again intended pun - to the fact that all creation is born into heinous sin because of Adam and Eve; clearly, such reportage is made without a spec of comic eyewear in sight!), let me say that chances are spectacularly good that this scenario in Jonah 3 is intended to be as outrageously goofy - and as stingingly political - as Gogol’s epaulette-laden nose receiving invitation after invitation to Russian royal banquets and balls.
Jonah 3 is SUPPOSED to be weird! Very VERY weird! Deserving of a tap chorus and then some! Oh, Busby Berkley where are you when the Bible needs you!!
What makes these images in Jonah especially remarkable - and ironic - is that the outrageously faithfully repenting creatures are from Ninevah, Israel’s most hated enemy. Contrast this to the many volumes of Israel’s densely profound and poetic prophetic literature, i.e. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah etc etc etc where endless protestations to God’s Chosen People to turn around and mend their ways or else fall onto ears that are deaf in each and every way. According to our scriptures, the prophet Jonah went to horrible Ninevah (which he didn’t want to do; who in their right mind wants to go to Ninevah), and the moment he opens his mouth, everyone…and every sentient thing…starts groveling.
This is clearly a satiric parody of Israel’s esteemed prophetic tradition. The Book of Jonah was written to show how out of control, close-minded and false Israel’s prophetic witness had become. Jonah was written centuries after Isaiah, Jeremiah and the rest. Its images and ideas (including a Psalm of praise offered in the belly of a whale by a "prophet" who foolishly thinks he's been delivered into the Temple) are so over-the-top in their messaging they both astonish and amuse and change our perceptions and opinions of the perverted status quo in ways straight-on browbeating never can.
Sort of like this.
By the way, the Lectionary schedule shows that the Old Testament reading for this weekend, as it always is in Year B Epiphany Week 3, is Jonah 3. What a coincidence!
Or maybe it’s a crazy ash God thing! By even more than a nose!!