Who doesn’t know the story of Jonah?
This Old Testament narrative is an ironic one. For starters, the antihero bears a name that means “dove” in Hebrew (Yonah), yet he acts in a most hawkish way.
He receives the “word of YHWH,” the formula for a prophetic call, yet rejects this vocation. By his own admission, the rogue prophet knows that YHWH “made the sea and dry land” (Jonah 1:9), a merism for “everyplace.” Despite this knowledge, he seeks to hide in a place where YHWH can’t find him.
So he goes down to Joppa, down into the ship’s hold, down to sleep, and, before his brief Mediterranean cruise is over, down into the depths of the sea. Down, down, down, DOWN!
Naturally, YHWH watches this odd descent the whole time. And at the moment when Jonah can sink no further, the Creator orchestrates a great rescue by means of a most improbable vehicle. A large fish (dagh gadol) inhales the antihero like a writhing worm. Jonah is saved from the deep. (Yes, he is saved by the fish. Erase the tape of Pinocchio’s Monstro, folks. This fish is one of the good guys.) Jonah is carried to the shore and given a restart. Chapter 3 begins just like chapter 1, apart from a distinctly fishy odor. Jonah does his job this time around, albeit a little heavy on the mustard.
Such maritime adventures roll like breakers in my head as I make my way from Sepphoris to Mashhad. However, unlike Jonah’s downward spiral, this trail goes up, up, UP! I watch for the Jesus Trail blazes and skirt a small wood. I look back and get one last look to Sepphoris and a spectacular view to the Sahel al-Batuf (Beit Netopha Valley). I count a million olive trees.
The trail enters the wood and continues to climb. Fist-sized rocks are the only danger. All around are pines of recent vintage. Eruptions of litter spoil the otherwise pleasant landscape. Irresponsible picnickers are a plague in Israel-Palestine.
The text of Jonah makes no mention of the prophet’s place of origin. It only says he is the “son of Amittai” (1:1). If, however, one scans the biblical text outside the little book by his name, another mention is found. 2 Kings 14:25 describes a prophecy (that has a distinctively hawkish feel) delivered by a “prophet” (navi) likewise named “Jonah, son of Amittai.” Here, he is from the village of Gat Hahepher. Assuming these two characters are one and the same, it is difficult to assign the reluctant deep-sea diver to the realm of fairy tale or parable.
A long string of tradition connects Gat Hahepher with the site at the top of the hill. In the 14th century, Ishak Chelo aligned Gath Hahepher, the place of Jonah’s birth, with Mashhad of his own day. British mapmakers, Kitchener and Condor, visited this same Mashhad centuries later and discovered Jonah’s grave. They point out how a small village surrounds two “white washed domes” marking the burial place of the prophet. These sources, among others, connect Mashhad to the birth and burial place of the “Dove-man.”
Excavation probes conducted in the village (1992, 1995, 2007) by the Antiquities Authority confirm that the site was occupied throughout the Old Testament period (Early Bronze through Persian periods).
I enter the village from the west and am welcomed by barking dogs. I grab gravel. We pass without incident.
The village has grown considerably since Kitchener and Condor’s day. It is a labyrinth of asphalt and stone. I watch for the blaze marks that eventually lead me to the center of town. Here, perched on hill, is a mosque. I can only assume that somewhere under this structure are the bones of the antihero. According to tradition, the man who was once buried at sea is, in the end, buried far from water on this dry Galilean hillside.
Matthew 12:38-45 reports Jesus’s mention of the “sign of Jonah.” If that sign was hung on a post, you could almost see it from Nazareth!