This is the first chapter in the yet to be published, “Jonah: A Story of Mercy.” It is based on the biblical story of Jonah with additions intended to show the Old Testament prophet as a real man who faced real struggles. The additions are not intended to replace what is written in Scripture; they invite us instead into think more deeply about the prophet Jonah and his response to the call of God.
Thank you for taking the time to read it…
Chapter One: The Prophet
Jonah sat close to the fire on an unusually cool night. “I had another dream last night,” he said swallowing a mouthful of fish.
“Like the others?” replied Abidan. He did not like to hear these stories. They were all the same – fear, blood, death. But he had to hear them. He had committed himself to the Lord and to this prophet and one day hoped to inherit the mantle of Jonah – hoped and feared.
Jonah squeezed his eyes shut and swallowed hard, “Yes – like the others.” He paused and then began, his eyes wide open but staring at nothing.
“I heard the sound first – a rumbling, deep, constant, ominous. The sound grew deafening, and then I felt it. The ground quivering beneath my feet as grains of sand danced to some strange, unearthly drumming.
It was hot, stifling to be so early. I squinted toward the rising sun. There… I could almost make it out. Something dark. Something coming. I began to quiver like the sand at my feet for I knew, I knew what it was.
I turned to run, but the sand beneath my feet became soft, yielding to my steps, slowing my desperate retreat. ‘No. This cannot be! Lord, no! More time, please, more time.’
The sand pulled at my feet and I fell. I threw my staff aside and reached to catch myself. My hands did not plunge into coarse, scorching sand. The ground was a sticky crimson. I stared astonished at my hands. Blood. The ground around me was covered with the same hot, red stickiness.
The rumbling was deafening … then it stopped. All was silent save for my heart pounding in my chest. It was quiet and then went dark. The blinding sun was enveloped in darkness. Was it over? I turned slowly dreading what horror awaited my gaze. I should never have looked. My blood turned cold.
There it was before me, standing among an army that stretched north to south across the horizon. It was massive, imposing, the height of three of Solomon’s temples. It had the body of a strong, sturdy bull, the wings of an eagle spread wide hiding the rising sun, and the head of a man, the face twisted in anger. Its rage erupted into a vicious roar. Blood stained its teeth and ran down the long, black beard. Scattered about it were bodies, lifeless and torn to shreds. Its hooves ground human bones into the bloodstained sand.
The eyes of the monster that towered above me caught sight of me and narrowed. Its head came closer. I could not run. I could not move held fast in the blackening pool of blood around me and by my own fear. The breath of the beast carried the stench of death. ‘Oh, God of my fathers, unworthy as I am, have mercy on me.’
Its teeth were sharp as spears. Its putrid breath sickening as its gaping jaws opened to consume me. Darkness overwhelmed me. I screamed … then I woke drenched with my own sweat, heart racing.
I don’t know, Abidan. Was it just a dream? A nightmare? A vision? I can’t get it out of my mind. That cursed beast haunts me.”
Abidan reached his hand to grasp Jonah’s shoulder. He could feel Jonah trembling. “God must be speaking to you. It’s just the same. It’s always the same.” Jonah gazed at the fire. “Nineveh,” he spoke softly and then pulled his robe tightly about him and lay down to sleep. “Lord, God of my fathers, not tonight.”
Again Jonah dreamed but not of blood and monsters. He dreamed of a day that seemed so long ago, the day when he met Yael. It was awkward, almost comical. A prophet of God who could stand before a king or quiet an angry mob but who could not muster the courage to ask Merari for permission to marry his daughter.
As he threw back the purple flap and entered the Merari’s tent, his mouth went dry. He sat when invited and tried desperately to remember the speech he had so carefully prepared. Jonah knew Yael was standing just outside the tent. She was always so curious, so bold.
“Merari, you are a noble merchant and much respected here. You fear God but fear no man. I am a humble servant of the Most High. When He calls me to speak, I speak. What He calls me to say, I say. I do not come here as a prophet but as a man.” The rest of the words were a hazy. Jonah talked but did not feel he controlled his words. Would Merari think him a fool?
When Jonah was done, Merari stood. Jonah stood, as well. The merchant stepped toward the tent flap. All was lost. Jonah’s heart sank. The flap was thrown open and Jonah turned to leave. As he neared the exit Merari’s stone cold expression transformed. He grinned and took Jonah by the shoulders. He embraced him and kissed him. “In seven days, my son, we will celebrate your wedding. You can wait that long, can you?” Merari laughed. It was loud, almost shockingly so, but genuine. Jonah laughed, too. Was he laughing out of joy or relief? He did not know. It did not matter. They laughed and embraced.
“Are you well, master?” The voice was familiar, but Jonah kept laughing. “You are dreaming. Wake up!” Merari disappeared. The tent disappeared. The laughing stopped. Jonah opened his eyes to see Abidan. “Ah, it’s you. Abidan, there are some dreams I wish would never end.” Jonah breathed in deeply, and the bliss of the dream began to fade overwhelmed by the heaviness of the appointment they had to keep.
“It’s time,” said Abidan. His look was serious, almost sad. “We must go.”
Slowly Jonah rolled over and got to his feet. “The donkey is packed. We have water and food and wine. You may want to eat a little bread before we travel” Abidan encouraged.
Jonah’s mind began to clear. No more laughter, not today. They would be back in Gath-Hepher a few hours before dark. Merari would be there as would his whole clan. Jonah had no one to bring now, except Abidan, but at least he had Abidan.
He turned to look at him, his son with dark curly hair and light brown eyes. He looked like his mother. He looked so much like Yael. There would indeed be no laughter. Jonah wiped a tear from his eye. “I cannot eat, son, let’s go to your mother’s grave.”
And now Jonah stood in front of the same tent that had been so real in his dream the night before. The once intense purple had faded, but he could never forget this tent. It was the place of laughter and the place of tears. He remembered the first time he entered. He remembered the last. Seven years ago this day, Jonah sat with Merari. Then he was still prosperous. The Assyrian raiding parties had only begun to attack his caravans. The faded purple was a sure indication that the raids had taken an awful toll.
“Come in, my son,” came a familiar voice from inside. Jonah’s face showed a brief smile that faded quickly. “They call me a prophet, but you seem quite adept at knowing who is standing outside your tent,” he replied. “It is good to see you father Merari.” The older man did not stand, so Jonah went over, stooped down and embraced him, kissing both his cheeks and tasting the salt of recent tears on his graying beard.
As Jonah went back to take his seat among the pillows and blankets, he noticed that little had changed in his father-in-law’s tent, yet it seemed far smaller and less grand. Merari, too, appeared less grand. He tried to make up for the depletion of his wealth by stacking more pillows beneath himself as he sat, but the attempt made him almost pitiable.
“You look well, Merari.” It was only partly true, and they both knew it. From atop his fringed pile Merari morbidly quipped, “I am an empty ostrich shell, my son. I am glad you have come. You, only you, can share this crushing burden. I can still hear her laugh,” he paused and looked down, “but I also hear her scream.”
Jonah was silent, as Merari’s thoughts drifted backward through time. It had been a dry day and very windy. The caravans arrived without being harassed, and there was great joy as donkeys carrying spices, silks, purple cloth, and gold came lumbering into the camp. “No sign of raiders?” Merari asked Jethuel, his oldest son. A broad grin stretched across Jethuel’s face and he thumped his chest in feigned pride. “Not with Jethuel son of Merari on guard.” They both laughed. It was good to laugh.
He slid down off his horse and embraced his father. “I think the tide is turning.” Jethuel spoke with a hint of confidence. “I hear rumors that Egypt wants to break the back of the Assyrians. Perhaps they are holed up in Nineveh worried about pharaoh’s chariots and archers.”
“Perhaps they are worried about Jethuel the braggart,” replied his father. “Unload the animals. I will tell the women to prepare a feast. Go take your nephew whatever trinket you brought back this time and ask Yael when Jonah is to return. He left only days after you did andI worry that he said something to anger King Jeroboam. God gives him words, but I wish the Lord had also given him better sense.” Merari turned back toward his tent.
It seemed only to be a few moments before the screaming started. Chaos broke out in the camp and the servants came to whisk the old patriarch away to safety. Merari insisted they let him stand and fight, but they were unyielding, “No, Lord, Master Jethuel gave us strict orders in these cases. He will muster the fighting men. We must go. Hurry!” And so the last sounds he heard were shouts and screams and steel against steel as he was rushed into the city walls.
Merari remembered too clearly. The wailing of women struck down. The blood that stained the ground when he returned to camp. The smell of smoke and of death. He remembered Jethuel’s bitter tears and his lament that he could not save his sister as young Abidan ran to hide in the hills. He remembered Abidan’s return, walking into the camp like a lost soul. He remembered the emptiness in the boy’s eyes, eyes that suddenly came to life with tears at the sight of his grandfather. He remembered how tightly his grandson held to him. He remembered the boy’s unbridled sobs and he remembered his own.
The vividness of that day receded into that sad and dark place in the old man’s mind mind. “I’m sorry, Jonah. I often get lost in the memories,” Merari finally spoke again. “Is the boy with you?” “Yes,” Jonah answered, “he went to see his uncle. I asked him to help Jethuel walk to the grave. We should go before dark.”
The winds were calm and the temperatures were beginning to cool by the time they reached the mouth of the cave. Every year since Yael died they had come to remember. What they wanted to remember was her life, her vitality, her smile and her eyes, but they could not escape the memories of the raid nor could they forget the empty stare of her once vibrant eyes.
Merari tried to speak. He always tried to honor his precious daughter by telling stories of her life. He never finished even one before being overcome by grief and uncontrollable sobbing. So they stood there quietly lost in memories, telling stories only to themselves, the silence broken here and there with the sounds of sniffling and crying.
Abidan stood between his grandfather and his uncle, helping to hold Jethuel steady. This grave was not the only reminder Jethuel had of that day. There was his nearly useless right leg, an unwanted momento from the unexpected raid. The Assyrian marauders had not attacked the caravan on the road because they wanted even more. They followed Jethuel weaving their way through the wadis concealed in the dry channels that flowed with water during the rainy season.
Jethuel remembered the day with crystal clarity. The servants were unloading the donkeys after returning from their successful trading venture. Jethuel reached into the bag on his horse and pulled out an intricately carved animal. The wood was dark and rich. The weight of it was surprisingly heavy for something he could hold in his palm. The trader told him the carving was of an elephant, a massive creature with fierce tusks. The trader had purchased it in Ethiopia and kept talking about how rare it was. Jethuel knew he paid too much, but the expression on Abidan’s face would be worth it at twice the price.
With the little African treasure in hand, Jethuel made his way across the camp. As he neared Jonah’s tent, he heard what sounded like the thunder of hooves. He turned into the wind but could see only dust above the tents. Was it only the wind and sand? Then he heard the shouts followed by screams.
The spear came from nowhere but found its mark in the back of Jethuel’s thigh. He went down hard. All he could think was that he didn’t want to drop the elephant. He then wondered why he would think such a thing given the circumstances. The pain jolted him back to reality. He felt the warmth of blood saturating his robes, but the thoughts of his family dying at the hands of Assyrian dogs held the pain at bay.
He reached around and yanked the spear out. He tried to stand. His right leg would not respond. He grabbed the spear so that he would not be completely defenseless, then he saw him – Abidan, his beloved nephew and the only male grandchild of Merari. Abidan, the son of a prophet with the face of an angel.
“Run, Abidan!” Jethuel shouted. “Get your mother and run! Go for the hills, boy! Don’t stare at me! Go! Go!” But Abidan didn’t run. He stood there eyes fixed on his uncle, oblivious to the noise and chaos around him. He stared with unblinking eyes at Jethuel’s agonized face. Abidan’s eyes followed a trickle of blood running from a gash on his uncle’s forehead and down his cheek. His blank eyes drifted downward toward Jethuel’s left hand and a brief puzzled look registered as he noticed something there – black, carved – and Jethuel screamed again,“Abidan, please! Get your mother! Run!”
As if awakened from a trance, Abidan’s expression changed from wonder to fear. He disappeared behind the tent flap and emerged in a moment with his mother’s hand fastened tightly in his own. Immediately, Yael saw her brother in the bloodstained dirt. She jerked free of Abidan and ran to Jethuel. “No! The thieves followed us here. You must go now,” shouted her brother. She hesitated mid stride and turned to do as her brother beckoned. She never took another step.
From her left bounded of one of the Assyrian raiders, his blade drawn, a twisted smile on his face. He ran swiftly and swung his sword. Yael did not see him as the blade buried deeply into her back. She reached toward Abidan but her legs would not carry her to him. She fell hard. Jethuel watched her grasping at the dirt. Her lips moved. He could not hear her words above the clamor, but he knew the words she formed on her lips. He had seen them utter the words many times. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one.” Did she smile? Was it his imagination? Then all movement stopped.
Fear overcame him, and Abidan ran. The Assyrian paid no attention to him but turned his attention to the man struggling to regain his feet. Jethuel saw his sister’s murderer striding toward him. As the raider raised his sword for the kill, Jethuel closed his eyes and began to pray. But the sword did not fall. Instead, he felt a tugging at his hand. He opened his eyes to see the murderer taking the little wooden elephant from his hand. He thought it strange that the savage would hesitate for a toy. He fully expected that the Assyrian dog’s sword would mingle his sister’s blood with his own. And as he prepared to join his sister in the grave, he heard shouts and to his surprise saw the raider turn and run. The loss of blood overcame him, and the lifeless body of Yael was the last sight Jetful saw before drifting into unconsciousness. Now, seven years later, he was still lost in the pain of that awful day.
They had all come brimming with memories, but as they stood before the stone covering the cave where Yael’s body was placed, each was silent. Of course, it always went this way. No one could find the words, and those who had the words could not speak them. It always came back to the man of God doing what men of God do, so Jonah prayed. Night fell and they solely made their way back to the tents.