Several months ago, an incredible story was reported in the news. A lobster fisherman off the coast of Massachusetts was suddenly swallowed up by something huge. He found himself in total darkness, being jostled about. Thinking at first that he'd been swallowed by a shark and was about to die, he felt around and there were no teeth. Then he realized he must be in the mouth of a whale. This whale did expel him and he survived.
Hard to believe, but apparently true! Does this throw new light on the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale, the story that has been my inspiration and my running metaphor in both of my novels -- as anyone can see from the titles, Escaping the Whale and The Whale Surfaces?
Let's examine the Biblical story. To recap, Jonah, an Israelite, is ordered by God to travel to the city of Ninevah and warn the people there that if they do not repent of their sinful ways, God will destroy them. Jonah does not want to go there. He decides to flee from God and boards a ship going in the opposite direction of Ninevah - it is headed to Tarshish. A huge storm (sent by God, we are told) arrives and the ship is rocked violently on the waves. The pagan sailors all fear that they will die and begin hauling water and belongings and praying to their gods.
Jonah, meanwhile, goes down into the hold of the ship and falls asleep. (This leads to the interpretation that poor Jonah suffers from depression, since, in times of trouble, depressed people often escape into sleep). At any rate, the captain of the ship finds him and demands to know how he can sleep at a time like that. The captain asks him to pray to his God, just as everyone on board is praying to his own gods.
When the storm does not abate, the sailors decide to draw lots to see who is responsible for the storm. The lot falls to Jonah, and the sailors ask who he is. Jonah tells them immediately that he is an Israelite who worships God who created everything and the storm is his fault because he is fleeing from God. He tells them to throw him overboard so that the storm will cease. The sailors are hesitant to do that, knowing that it is wrong to kill, and they try praying more and throwing more cargo overboard. When Jonah insists that he must be thrown overboard, they finally comply. They pray to God for forgiveness for taking a life. Once Jonah is overboard, the storm subsides, and the sailors pray to and sacrifice to the Hebrew God.
In the water, Jonah is certain he will die. A giant fish, we are told, swallows him and he survives in the fish's belly for three days and three nights. While there, he prays to God for his life. He realizes that God has saved him from a drowning death and he hopes he will get to give thanks at God's temple. God gets the fish to vomit Jonah onto the shore. Jonah then proceeds to Ninevah to issue God's warning.
The citizens of Ninevah take Jonah's warning seriously and they begin a period of mourning. The king orders them all to repent and fast. They do, and God spares them.
Jonah is pissed. He complains to God that this is why he fled -- he knew that God is compassionate and might forgive Ninevah. We know, although the Book of Jonah does not mention it, that Ninevah was the capital of the powerful Assyrian Empire, who were enemies of the Israelites. We can assume Jonah does not want the enemy of his people spared, when the Assyrian goal has been to crush the Israelites. Jonah is so upset that Ninevah is being spared that he tells God that he now wants to die.
When Jonah leaves Ninevah, he finds a shady spot beneath a plant to sit and cool off. God, who made the plant, gets a worm to eat the plant and it is destroyed. Jonah is left suffering in the heat. He is so uncomfortable that he begs God for death.
God uses this opportunity to try to teach Jonah a thing or two. You feel mercy for the plant, which you did not create, God points out. Shouldn't I have mercy for the thousands of residents of Ninevah?
It is with this question that the Book of Jonah ends. An unusual, open-ended conclusion, to be sure.
Of course, interpretations abound. The influence of the pagan cultures surrounding the Israelites can be seen in the importance of a giant sea creature. Sea monsters proliferate in many myths of many different cultures. The ancients were aware that the mysterious ocean is full of danger and surprises. Water is also a means of transportation, emphasized in many different myths, and Jonah tries to use that. The Jewish view of the Jonah story generally focuses on Jonah realizing that God is everywhere and it is not possible to escape to a different locale to get away from Him. The lesson is often stated as: God is not just the God of the Israelites; He is the God of the whole world, of everyone. At a period in time when local gods were associated with a particular place or a particular people, this view was probably revolutionary.
There is also the symbolism of being in the belly of this sea creature. It has been compared to a return to the womb, where one is alone in the darkness. Jonah being regurgitated onto land would be akin to birth. Perhaps this is a story of a man being reborn after realizing his purpose, his desire to live, and his need for his God.
Christianity also places great importance on the Jonah story, viewing it as a foreshadowing of the Jesus story. By entering the whale's belly, Jonah experiences a type of three-day death, from which he is resurrected. Jesus refers to Jonah's plight by predicting that he - Jesus - will be in the earth for three days after his crucifixion.
Some Christian commentators have claimed that the Jonah story shows the superiority of Christianity over Judaism. Jonah cares only for himself and his people; hence, he can be viewed as an example of the self-centered Jew. Clearly, the pagan sailors were better, more compassionate people than Jonah. Jonah is therefore a contrast with Jesus, who represents love for everyone.
The response to this view is that Jonah is not meant to be a role model. He is a human being, and therefore flawed. In fact, he is extremely flawed, as he never expresses contrition for attempting to flee from his mission, and he never empathizes with the Assyrians of Ninevah. He also seems depressed and possibly suicidal. He is a real person. Does God understand him? He seems not to.
God is a different character here than He is in earlier books of the Bible. He is not vengeful here. He stands for giving everyone a second chance, recognizing the goodness in all humans, and having mercy on all. The pagan sailors are well-intentioned, caring people and the Assyrians of Ninevah are ready to repent. These non-Israelites are good people. This story shows us the importance of an open-minded attitude toward our fellow humans. It also emphasizes the importance of second chances. God gives both Jonah and the Ninevites a second chance. God is in dialogue with Jonah throughout, perhaps trying to figure out this strange, unhappy man. Just as man must follow God's wishes, perhaps God needs to understand the problems of men.
In Islam, Jonah is a prophet and a hero. The Quran tells the story a little differently. Despite the minor changes, it still involves Jonah being swallowed by a giant fish and then coughed up. The lesson Islam extracts from the story is that God helps and saves those who believe in Him.
The city that was Ninevah is located today in Iraq, where a shrine to Jonah stands. Jonah is called Yunus there, and the shrine is called Tell Nebi Yunus. The people, mostly Asssyrian Christians today, celebrate Jonah and Ninevah's redemption with a three-day fast once a year, the Fast of Ninevah.
So the story lives on! Why this fascination with it? Is it the mysteriousness of the sea, which can be calm and beautiful, as well as violent and dangerous? According to Carl Jung, the sea represents the unconscious. Is this why we are so drawn to this story? The mysterious animals that dwell in the ocean's depths are also a source of fascination. Their power, danger, and strangeness are compelling, and we see this evident today, with marine biologists popularizing their findings on various television productions.
Many of the "miracles" described in the Bible are assumed to be myths made up to enhance a story or teach a lesson. I compare this to the medical dramas on television, which feature strange and unusual diseases that no one has heard of and list doctors as their consultants. I often wondered how that could be. It turns out these shows are writing stories of diseases that are possible but extremely rare. Could that be the case here? Perhaps the fisherman in Massachusetts would have something to say about that!
There are so many layers to the Jonah story. It is a compelling tale of Man against Nature, Man against his Fate, Man against God, and Man against Himself. As long as we struggle with these conflicts, the story of Jonah will retain its universal appeal.
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