Rabbi Harrison was born in Liverpool, England, in 1866, and studied in the public schools of New York, graduating into City College as first honor man, ranking the entire city. He was also in the Honor Class of Columbia University, after which he studied in Emanuel Theological Seminary, and was ordained to the service of the Synagogue in 1886. At the age of twenty-one he delivered an oration at the funeral services of Henry Ward Beecher, in behalf of the Jewish community.
For thirty-five years, since 1891, Dr. Harrison has been Rabbi of Temple Israel in St. Louis, which has grown under his inspiration to be one of the great Synagogues of the nation, with many benign activities in the service of the sick, the needy, and the young. Refusing many offers to leave St. Louis, he has given his life to his city, where he has a position of unique influence and honor, admired alike by Jew and Gentile as its most brilliant orator, if not its foremost citizen.
As an orator Rabbi Harrison has every gift, including a most perfect mastery of the rich tone-qualities of English words—which makes one wish that his voice might be heard in every Seminary in the land. For twenty years his sermons have been issued in pamphlet form, and it is a pity that no collection of them has been made. In the sermon on the book of Jonah he shows how prosaic literalists, by boggling about a big fish, have obscured a slender, shining spire of spiritual prophecy, uplifted long ago, revealing at once the superstition of escape and the incredible pity of God.
But Jonah rose up to flee into Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. Jonah 1:3.
My purpose is to discuss the book of the Prophet Jonah. I will show you it is neither a stumbling block to the believer nor a triumph to the incredulous. It is frivolous only to the frivolous. It is wise to the wise. It is a great book, wonderful in its generation, and for all ages an expression of religion’s loftiest thought and deepest faith.
It is a noble parable to those who consider it a parable. Many still behold in the narrative the climax of the supernatural, a severe but salutary test of holy credulity. Others treasure the spirit, but ruthlessly disregard the painful literalness of outgrown orthodoxy. They suffer sometimes for this a mild survival of persecution. And though in the synagogue no such letter worship has ever been exacted, still to remove confusion of ideas, it seems well to apply to this venerable record the accepted principles of criticism, to measure its value, and extract its essential truths.
Now, this little book is to be viewed precisely from the same standpoint as other biblical books. The Bible is history, teaching by example. Or it is poetry, inspiring to ideals through the emotions. Or, at times, it contains a parable, charged with the deepest meanings, fraught with the weightiest spiritual messages. The actors there are human, their methods are natural; their aspirations are not dead today. The Prophets, above all, were mighty reformers, aglow with a passion for right and justice. And Jonah, the faint-hearted, did not, like Cassandra, speak ever to deaf ears, but turned a heathen multitude back to penitence and safety.
The historical prophet Jonah, mentioned in the Book of Kings, flourished about 850 b.c., in the Northern Kingdom, in the reign of Jeroboam II. We are told that Homer was then a child, and the Spartan Lycurgus a man. He was a century older than Romulus, four centuries older than Herodotus. But the Book of Jonah was probably written in the fifth century b.c., as a protest against the vigorous national measures of Ezra and Nehemiah, as a parable against national exclusiveness. The story of Ruth, the Moabitess, marrying an Israelite, so faithful, so loving, the worthy ancestress of King David, is also attributed to this period, with the same purpose of protest against the policy of Ezra in separating inexorably his little band of returned exiles from surrounding heathen. The Book of Jonah thus teaches the gospel of unrestricted humanity, proclaims, as we shall see, a God, not for a chosen people, but for all people, and offers to all, native and foreign, faithful or heathen, the open door of pardon, through change of life and sincere repentance.
This is the lesson. But how is it taught? Is the book history? Is the narrative a true biography? Must we accept as cold, authentic prose a story harder to swallow than was the Prophet by the notorious fish? Must we cease to be thrilled by the tragic passion of Hamlet, though the Danish prince live only in the poet’s brain? Must Homer be unsung though Helen had never sinned nor Troy fallen? The Book of Jonah was not dictated by God to an earthly amanuensis. It is not the record of an eyewitness. It is an ancient story refashioned to teach a great truth. It is a “romance with a moral.” The Phœnician coast line near the Prophet’s port of departure, Joppa, was haunted by many similar legends. Thence came the story of Andromeda, devoted to the serpent, and her rescue by Perseus. There Hesione, doomed to the sea-monster, was saved by Hercules leaping down his throat, and there, in three days’ struggle, triumphing. There Aia was saved from the dragon by the gallant St. George, patron saint of England, and according to Babylonian tradition, a fish-god or a fish-man, Oannes (probably from Jonah), was divinely sent to teach morals and science to the region of the Tigris and Euphrates. He came from the sea, taught in the day, and returned at night to the sea. The sculptures of him always represent a man in a fish. In the Mohammedan Koran, Jonah is called Dhulnun, or the dweller in the fish. We see thus how widespread was the fame of the Prophet. He is cited three times in Matthew and Luke. Jesus clearly asserted the truth of the story of Jonah.
You know the subject in dispute. Jonah, the Prophet of a northern kingdom, was ordered to warn Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, the bitter foe of Israel. He shrank from trying to save a hostile city. He was certain, too, that Jehovah was too merciful to punish them. He, the Prophet, was ordered east. He fled west towards Tartessus, in Spain. During a fearful storm, Jonah slept while the crew prayed. They followed the ancient custom of casting the lot for a human scapegoat to the god of the storm. Jonah was the victim. They prayed to Jehovah to acquit them of guilt, and cast him into the sea. God appointed a great fish to swallow him, and incarcerated in the fish three days, he sang a noble hymn of deliverance. He was cast on the shore, and obeyed the second call to go to Nineveh. “In forty days Nineveh shall be destroyed.” And the great city repented. Even the king on his throne came down to mourning and ashes; and God pitied and spared the city. Now the Prophet was angry. He didn’t hesitate to tell Jehovah so. God was too merciful. He knew it all the time. He had lost his credit as a prophet. Everything went against him. His reputation was gone. The narrative is very artless. The Prophet wanted to die. “Art thou so very angry?” asks Jehovah. There is a certain grim humor in the question. He sat waiting outside the city. A plant grew over his head with welcome shade from the burning sun. But as soon as it withered, Jonah again longs to die. God asks “Art thou so very angry? Thou wast sorry for the perishable plant, and shall I not be sorry for this great city, with its hundred and twenty thousand men, knowing not the right hand from the left, and also much cattle?”
The breadth of view, and the deep insight of the narrative are unique and extraordinary. The marine legend whose variations we have mentioned, is here informed with the peculiar genius of Israel, with a solemn ethical sense, with a great spiritual lesson. It has rightly been adopted from of old to be read in the synagogue of the great Jewish Fast, the Day of Atonement. More so than perhaps any of the Prophets, save in scattered verses, this little book conveys an eternal message from a universal God to an individual humanity.
1. It teaches primarily that no man can successfully flee from his true mission. Whosoever runs from his duty will get into deep water. Storms will strike him. His career will be shipwrecked. It needs no miracle to prove that simple truth. Many a man, called to Nineveh, has shipped for Tarshish. How many have arrived? How many have escaped disaster? A man following the call of his true vocation cannot be thwarted. Is there anything more mighty and majestic than an engine on the track? Is there anything more miserably helpless and ineffectual than an engine off the track?
2. And there was the prophet—off the track. At last he followed his call, and how sublime was the mission! Among a people intensely national, whose religion then was national, whose sympathies were tribal, narrow and self-centered, like all the nations then, each one with his own national religion, then and there our hero was called to go outside his race, to go to the enemies’ country, to preach repentance, to offer to foreign men of a hated tribe the mercy of God. What a noble prophecy of a future order, the first clear gleam of a happier day. Have we reached that higher level?
When England and Germany clashed arms, the national Church of England prayed to the English God for victory, and the Church of Germany to the German God. Each prayed to the national God to favor them in the great arbitrament of battle. Our creeds are universal, but our worship is local. We have not yet reached the plane of Jonah.
Nations have not. Have the churches? Do they preach salvation beyond their own narrow limits? Are not unbelievers doomed? Do they accept the larger mission to Nineveh? Do they teach the gospel of a universal church, a universal love, a universal hope? With few scattered exceptions, the only spokesmen of such a faith are the survivors of the race whence Jonah sprang. For them the gates of eternal hope are open, as the Talmud taught, to the righteous of all nations. For them the test is deed, not creed. For them there is no outsider, no heretics. Would to God that this noble teaching might spread to every race and faith, that all might learn this highest lesson taught by man.
3. We are to adopt not alone the goal, but the method. The prophet did not demand offerings, ceremonies, creeds. He did not exact conversion, or formal change of religion. He laid no stress on these mechanical details, on the external things. He asked and effected simply repentance. But God had no regard in his dealings with them to aught but one thing. Twenty-five centuries ago, how immense the significance of such words in an age of tribalism, ceremonialism, of sacrificial atonement. “Then God saw their doings, how they had turned from their evil ways, so God had pity on the evil which he had spoken to do unto them, and did it not.”
These sublime teachings herald the coming of a Golden Age not yet manifest. They were born of the spirit of protest, the demand for a larger outlook, for a closer bond between the people, who, however blindly and gropingly, sought for the higher life, and turned toward the one great God.
We may interpret as we will the tale that is the vehicle of the truth; the truth abides. The Churches, nay, their Prophet, may accept the type of the three-day interment and the resurrection. But the Jew, with historic truth, remembering the return from Babylonian captivity, will behold in Jonah the type of Israel, who, faithless to his high calling, was swallowed up as a nation in exile, and restored again to preach repentance and salvation to all people that they might not meet their doom. And the ancient story was filled with the glory and beauty of the divine compassion that asks but for a change of heart and righteousness, and has no respect for persons, but is merciful to all.
The word Jonah means a dove. It is the token and message of peace, the peace that would brood over us all in gentle benediction, if our bitter discords might pass and fade into charity and unison and brotherly love. Then would the Temple of Humanity at last arise, whose foundations are laid in everlasting Law, whose walls are rectitude, and over which no roof shall spread save that which spans the universe, the firmament, in which shall gleam a single radiant light, a morning star, to usher in a brighter day for a holier, happier, nobler world.