A whale of a story that comes with a profound message

By 
  • November 21, 2012

Even the most biblically illiterate person knows — or thinks they know! — the story of Jonah and the whale. Unfortunately, what they know is likely dredged up from school memories and is likely to be either trivial or wrong.

In my own upbringing, the story of Jonah and the whale was a kind of litmus test of the authenticity of your faith. If you swallowed Jonah, as it were, you were a true believer; if not, well, we will continue to pray for you.

The Book of Jonah begins starkly: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah: Go to the great city of Ninevah, go now and denounce it for its wickedness…”(v. 1).

Ninevah was an enemy of Israel and it was about the last place on Earth that Jonah wanted to go. Jewish belief at that time was exclusivist. God loved Israel but no others. Jews were the chosen people of God. Ninevah was full of wicked gentiles, infidels; why should Yahweh concern Himself with them?

When the word of the Lord came to many patriarchs, they tried to play deaf: Moses, Amos, Jeremiah. But Jonah’s hearing was acute. So he boarded the first available ship sailing in the exact opposite direction to Ninevah. “It was going to Tarshish.” Tarshish was the land beyond land, the furthest extremity of the universe, the place beyond the reach of God. Jonah made off, we are told, “…to escape from the Lord” (v. 3).

In open seas, the ship was battered by a hurricane. The crew was terrified and began to jettison cargo. Jonah was asleep in the hold, until the captain found him and demanded of Jonah: “Call on your God, perhaps He can save us” (v. 6).

But Jonah could not pray. Perhaps he imagined that his disobedience had rendered prayer impossible. Perhaps he was too stubborn or terrified. Then the sailors cast lots to determine who was to blame for their predicament, and Jonah pulled the short straw. He confessed that he was on board to escape from God, and then Jonah offered himself as a sacrifice for the others, prefiguring a later and greater biblical figure who would offer Himself as a sacrifice for all.

“Take me, throw me overboard,” Jonah said, “and the sea will go down.” The sailors readily agreed. Jonah was pitched overboard, and then swallowed by “a great fish” (v. 17).

In the maw of the great fish Jonah suddenly discovered that prayer came, if not easily, then eloquently.

The great fish then spewed bedraggled Jonah up onto dry land. As American theologian Frederick Buechner wryly observed, Jonah’s relief at being out of the whale was probably exceeded by the whale’s relief at being relieved of the troublesome Jonah.

Now the word of God came to Jonah a second time: unfortunately, same instruction. Go to Ninevah. This time Jonah went. Who wouldn’t?

A miracle occurred. Not a great fish, but a great revival. The Ninevites listened. They repented. And Jonah was furious. God was saving Israel’s enemies. Jonah wanted fire and brimstone to rain down on the heads of the Ninevites. Instead there was nothing but grace, forgiveness and reconciliation.

What a marvelous story! Whimsical, perceptive, funny — full of grace and truth. It tells us that there is no Tarshish, no sanctuary safe from God. It tells us that even cowards sometimes sacrifice themselves for others. It tells us that nothing we do, nothing we are, can put us beyond the reach of God’s salvation.

If Jonah can be heard from the belly of the great fish, our forlorn prayer, whether it originates from a psychiatric ward or a prison cell, can likewise be heard. Best of all, it tells us that God’s boundless love extends to all, even to Ninevites like us.

How sad that some Christians miss the point of the story of Jonah. It is not history; it is something more important — truth.

To reduce the wonderful story of Jonah to the know-nothing question of “do you believe that the whale swallowed Jonah and that he survived three days?” is to stunt human imagination and understanding. It is to make reason a stumbling block, rather than an aid, to faith.

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