“Go, present yourself to Ahab”
Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is one of those classic novels which I’ve picked up to read several times in former years — only to put it back on the shelf. My enthusiasm has died several deaths on the rack of 19th-century prose. But when I started reading it again last week, I was finally hooked.
What I didn’t realize before was that Moby Dick is a retelling (or at least it seems this way to me through page 80) of the biblical book of Jonah. That book is one of the pithiest in the Bible. In the span of four chapters, Jonah tries to escape from an errand God has earmarked for him but is finally persuaded to return and complete it after spending three days repenting in the stomach of a whale.
Melville spells out the analogy to the Jonah story by having his narrator — Ishmael — listen to a sermon about the book of Jonah early in Moby Dick. The sermon is delivered by an old sea captain turned pastor in a church which resembles as much the inside of a whaling ship as it does a place of worship. But this captain-pastor adds many details out of his imagination to the story of Jonah. Much like Melville in the entirety of Moby Dick.
Ishmael represents Jonah, escaping from unpleasant realities on land by running away to sea. If Ishmael is Jonah, his cannibal friend Queequeg may represent the Gentile shipmates with whom Jonah sailed. Captain Ahab may represent the wicked Ninevites in the book of Jonah. But Ahab is also an idolatrous Israeli king talked about in several other books of the Hebrew Bible. Captain Ahab’s obsession with the white whale seems to be like the idol-worship that is condemned in many books of the Hebrew Bible.
I’m just a fraction of the way into the book, but I like how Melville has taken a well-worn short story from the Bible and created an elaborate modern version out of it. Moby Dick, published in 1851, may seem like a far-removed story to 21st-century American readers, but if you keep in mind that it’s retelling a story that’s actually over 2,000 years old, Herman Melville’s novel comes off as remarkably contemporary.