Or, The Whale

Day 3 of my series on Our Bible App on the Book of Jonah.

Read Jonah 1:17 – 2:10


When we move beyond shoehorning Jonah into “history” and approach it fundamentally as a story with a point, its strange events find new and deeper meanings. We move beyond one man who disobeyed and was swallowed by a fish, to a pointed question for the audience: Who is your Other, the ones you believe outside God’s love? Considered within the context of Jewish history and the larger prophetic tradition, we are confronted in this tale by the constant calls to remember and turn.

Remember that you were once slaves, once aliens and outsiders. Rejected, cast out, mistrusted.

And turn back to your call as the People of the God: the God of the whole world, to whom all nations would one day stream (Isa. 2:1-4). If we cannot see the Divine in the Other, where can we see it? As theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar says, “God, who is . . .Wholly-Other, appears only in the place of the other, in the “sacrament of our brother.”

Once we mine the depths of this story for its spiritual meanings, even the most fantastic elements acquire newfound significance, leaping off the pages of children’s books and into the flesh and blood, dust and sweat-struggle of real life. This is seen perhaps most in the account of the whale. More accurately, “the great fish,” a small moment in a much larger story, yet the most memorable. What are we to do with it? Throughout the modern era, it’s become a battleground: conservatives fighting for “miracles” versus liberals wanting a naturalistic interpretation. In so doing, we have all lost the thread. For example, let’s turn to another famous fish story.

In 1851, Herman Melville published the epic Moby-Dick. Featuring the larger-than-life Captain Ahab and his maniacal quest to hunt and destroy the elusive white whale, Melville’s narrator, “Ishmael” slowly unravels insights into the nature of humanity and of God, of good and evil – and of whale taxonomy. He even dips his toe in biblical criticism. Chapter 83, titled “Jonah Historically Regarded,” contains an interview with an old whaler, called “old Sag-Harbor.” In the short discussion, good ol’ S.H. provides many modern, scientific reasons why the story of Jonah must be factually inaccurate: from the size of whale stomachs and their gastric juices, to impossibilities of geography. Ishmael’s responses are classic conservative: the impossibilities make the miracle all the greater! Old S.H. is just lacking faith.

But again: what if it’s just a story? What if its creators had no more interest in proving the existence of man-swallowing fish than Moby-Dick does in proving the real-life existence of Captain Ahab? The story is about something else entirely. Like Melville’s Ishmael, modern readers have wasted much energy either arguing for or against Jonah’s whale – with science and textual criticism on the side of the naysayers, and God’s sovereign, miracle-working power for the affirming crowd. Meanwhile, the very heart of the story and the thing that makes this book fit firmly within the Jewish prophetic tradition, continues to go unnoticed. When it comes to Jonah, we have indeed missed the boat.

Yet thankfully, wiser and older teachers have not.

In the Jewish mystical text Zohar we see an intensely spiritual interpretation of Jonah’s story where the events of chapter 2 are allegorized as the prophet’s death and resurrection. Being swallowed by the fish is a death; the three-days and Jonah’s psalm of repentance are the soul’s journey through the lands of the dead; and his vomit-induced rescue upon the shore is a return to life – not just the same old life, but a resurrected, heightened life. To a good Jew, this would be no surprise. Water has always been the prerequisite to new life: the waters of chaos in Genesis, out of which the world was created. The crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus, out of bondage into freedom. The crossing of the Jordan into the Promised Land. Or as Melville put it, in water we see ourselves as we need and wish to be: “The ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”

So when Jesus was asked for a sign to validate his authority, he followed a similar tack to later rabbinic texts like the Zohar: “ ‘An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!’ ” (Matt. 12:39-41 NRSV).

The authority of Jesus and the sign of His Kingdom dwelling within – the sign of Jonah! – is seen in someone who has “died” and risen again to an entirely new kind of life: eternal life, which is not so much life after death as Life before death. As though drawn out of a grave, they have begun anew and are transformed. Those who know what it is to be “in the belly of Sheol” and “driven from God’s sight,” and yet have “remembered the Lord” (vv2, 4, 7).
It is no coincidence Jonah’s psalm ends with the cry: yeshuva Yehova! Deliverance is from the Lord! Centuries later, God would bring new life in the place of death by another Yehowshuwa speaking of the “sign of Jonah.” This man, whose name literally means, “Deliverance is from the Lord,” came not to simply stave off death, but to bring new life by submitting all of humanity to a watery grave in order to rise with Eternal, Resurrection Life – to be the people who learn to die in order that they may live.

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