At the outset of Moby Dick, Father Mapple preaches to a congregation of whalers. His text is the Book of Jonah, and it stands out as one of the most enjoyable fictional sermons of all time. After God has assigned him the task of preaching repentance to the city of Nineveh, Jonah flees “with slouched hat and guilty eye, skulking from his God; prowling among the shipping like a vile burglar hastening to cross the seas . . . no baggage, not a hat-box, valise, or carpet-bag,—no friends accompany him to the wharf with their adieux.” Melville’s elaborate, melodramatic, and humorous descriptions engage the imagination, but they can distract from the interesting theology of the sermon.
Father Mapple deliberately leaves out the substance of Jonah’s mission, to bring a word of warning to Nineveh: “Never mind now what that command was, or how conveyed,” he tells the seamen. The only question is obedience or disobedience. This focus may be acceptable Calvinist theology. It follows the commentary Calvin wrote on Jonah. It also sets the stage for Auden’s quirky Kierkegaardian interpretation of Moby Dick in The Enchafèd Flood. But turning the Book of Jonah into an illustration of the choice between obedience or disobedience brackets the questions that emerge directly from a reading of the text. How will Nineveh react? How will God respond? And what will the prophet make of all this?
But let us accept the preacher’s narrowing agenda, for it sheds light on a matter of theological importance. In the first chapter, Jonah is disobedient and boards a ship that he imagines will take him far from God’s commanding authority. But it is not to be so. Jonah’s willfulness stirs up trouble. His shipmates come to see that he has brought upon them a storm of divine wrath. They must throw him overboard, but his reluctant confession inspires their penitence before God.
It is at this point that Jonah is famously swallowed by a whale, which ensures his survival, though in rather uncertain circumstances. When he prays in his extremity, says Father Mapple, he becomes obedient. Jonah thus is held up as a model of repentance.
If we look to the second chapter of Jonah, however, we cannot help but ask: Where are the ordinary marks of repentance in his prayer? There is no expression of remorse and no confession of sin. We hear of no resolve to heed God’s commands. The overall mood of the prayer is one of thanksgiving rather than penitence. In fact, when the first-century Jewish historian Josephus paraphrased the story in his Jewish Antiquities, he moved the prayer to a later moment, after Jonah is restored to dry land, probably because the stress on thanksgiving made better sense that way. Not a few modern scholars dismiss Jonah’s prayer as a generic psalm of deliverance interpolated without regard for the logic of the narrative. If Jonah is repentant, and if the prayer expresses his state of mind in extremis, why don’t we hear of his penitence and resolve to go to Nineveh?
Father Mapple acknowledges that Jonah does not display remorse, even “when he drops seething into the yawning jaws awaiting him; and the whale shoots-to all his ivory teeth, like so many white bolts, upon his prison.” Precisely that is the lesson:
Jonah does not weep and wail for direct deliverance. He feels that his dreadful punishment is just. He leaves all his deliverance to God, contenting himself with this, that spite of all his pains and pangs, he will still look towards His holy temple. And here, shipmates, is true and faithful repentance; not clamorous for pardon, but grateful for punishment. And how pleasing to God was this conduct in Jonah, is shown in the eventual deliverance of him from the sea and the whale. Shipmates, I do not place Jonah before you to be copied for his sin but I do place him before you as a model for repentance. Sin not; but if you do, take heed to repent of it like Jonah.
Reading Jonah in its entirety, it seems to me that this is not the lesson. To be sure, in the belly of the whale Jonah does not complain about his punishment; he hopes to gaze upon the holy temple. Moreover, once he is on dry land and God commands him a second time to prophesy to Nineveh, he no longer flees, which is a step in the right direction. But compliance is not the same thing as obedience.
At no point does the Jonah whom Father Mapple holds up as the model of repentance say, “I am your servant and wait upon your command.” He still chafes at his mission, and later, when God has accepted Nineveh’s repentance, he resents God’s mercifulness. Such a mentality seems less than ideal.
As the twelfth-century Spanish author Abraham bar Hiyya put it, the Book of Jonah is about people who turn to God. The righteous sailors with whom Jonah tries to escape respond to the storm with a heartfelt desire to do God’s will. The people of Nineveh repent under duress. But one man—the prophet—does not quite find his way to repentance. Jonah’s prayer is that of a man who is thankful that his life has apparently been spared, even if his home in the fish’s abdomen is a temporary prison. He is now willing to bend to God’s demands but not to thank him for the opportunity.
As a sermon, Father Mapple’s words are admirably tailored to the sensibility of his audience. A community of whalers would likely feel that “weeping and wailing” over one’s sins and dire situation is unmanly and that clamor for pardon is servile and undignified. Acceptance of punishment as deserved is an important step toward submission. Given the choice between, on the one hand, brooding or histrionic remorse that does not effect change of conduct and, on the other, willingness to obey that lacks introspection, regret, and consternation, we should no doubt, in the short run, value action over sentiment. This is especially so in a culture like ours that often employs feigned regret and remorse as an appeal to pity and cheap mercifulness.
Real regret, real remorse, the heart broken in the painful recognition of what we have done ill in our relationships with other human beings and with God—these are essential to wholesome repentance. Hot tears of contrition and desperate pleas for forgiveness are not the same thing as Father Mapple’s “clamor . . . for pardon.” These themes are prominent throughout the Book of Psalms; they are absent from Jonah’s incomplete submission in his prayer. And so, if we take a larger, biblical view of the matter, what Father Mapple holds up as ideal repentance, however productive in its context, is not beyond criticism.
Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva University and is editor emeritus of Tradition.