Jonah and the Whale

(subject:  scriptural exegesis)                                                 Main Line Unitarian Church
Devon, Pennsylvania
14 April 2013
Sermon Series (Part 1):
Everyday Scriptural Stories”

Reading: The Book of Jonah, Chapters 1 and 2

Now the word of God came to Jonah saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of God. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of God.

But God hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. The captain came and said to him, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.”

The sailors said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” “I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of God, because he had told them so.

Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.” Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them. Then they cried out, “Please, God, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you have done as it pleased you.” So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared God even more, and they offered a sacrifice and made vows.

And God appointed a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

Then Jonah prayed to God from the belly of the fish . . . Then God spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.


Reading 2: The Book of Jonah, Chapters 3 and 4

The word of God came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of God. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to God and said, “God! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, God, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And God said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.

God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then God said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?


Sermon:   Jonah and the Whale

A lot of liberal, educated people I know roll their eyes and check their watches whenever the Bible is mentioned, even in church. Most haven’t ever read the book, at least not with some knowledgeable person to help them make sense of it, but the shrill cries of religious fundamentalists extolling it as the inerrant “Word of God” have soured many people on the Bible. I understand that, but it’s a shame. The Bible is filled with interesting stories about humanity, morality, mythology, and – occasionally – a little history. There is a lot of God-talk in there, but mostly the Bible is a story about people – real or imagined – who lived thousands of years ago.

It seems like everyone has heard about Jonah being swallowed by a whale, whether they know the rest of the story or not. One anonymous wit quipped, “It required effort once for the whale to swallow Jonah, now it requires effort to swallow the story.”  It only requires effort if you try to take it literally as history; however, if you approach it as a myth or literature, it’s really quite digestible.

From a literary perspective, this story served an important purpose in Jewish scripture. It’s likely that the story of Jonah started as an ancient legend passed down through oral tradition for hundreds of years. The actual prophet Jonah was probably an advisor to King Jeroboam II (2 Kings 14:25) and lived several hundred years before this story was finally written down some 2,400 years ago. So, think of it as a Paul Bunyan story, only older and religious in focus.

The story demonstrates the evolving understanding of God among the ancient Jews. You see, the character of God in the Bible changes over time. God starts out as the tribal god of his chosen people the Israelites, all-powerful, walking and talking with people, handing down laws on clay tablets, getting angry, destroying cities and armies, and generally scaring the hell out of everyone, including his chosen people. When you read the Jewish scripture in the order that it was written, over hundreds of years, you find that – over time – the character of God evolves to become the God of all people, not just the Jews, softening in nature and becoming more distant, until in The Book of Ecclesiastes, God all but disappears from the text.

The importance of The Book of Jonah is that it presents God as the all-powerful, but merciful and forgiving, divinity that oversees and cares about all people and creatures. Consider this . . . in the story, God commissions Jonah to go to Nineveh and command the people to repent of their sins. Why do that? Nineveh was not a Jewish city. It was one of the principal cities in the Assyrian Empire, some 600 miles away from Galilee, where Jonah is supposed to have lived. Its ruins lie in northern Iraq today. The Assyrians were polytheistic pagans, not Jews, and they had about 20 principal gods and thousands of lesser ones. Their older gods were holdovers from Sumerian religion, their astral gods embodied the sun, moon, and stars, and their lesser gods had dominion over storms, war, and geographic locations. Asshur was the supreme god of their universe and Ishtar, Queen of Heaven and goddess of the morning and evening star was the patron deity of the city of Nineveh.

Such polytheism was pretty common among the cultures of the ancient Near East at that time. In the story of Jonah, when the storm breaks over the ship on which Jonah is traveling, the sailors “each cried to his god,” but Jonah sleeps soundly in the hold, because he knows that their prayers are to no avail. There is only one God for all people, in all lands. Jonah is a radical monotheist; you might even say, a primitive Unitarian.

When Jonah arrives in Nineveh and delivers his prophecy of doom, the people – and their king, who was both secular ruler and chief religious figure – repent of their sinful polytheistic ways and honor the one true God. At which point, God is merciful and compassionate, rather than angry and destructive, and spares the city of Nineveh. So we need to understand this story as a religious tract advocating for monotheism – the oneness of God – and Jonah is a missionary sent to convert the people of a distant land. Unlike earlier stories in the Bible, one need not be Jewish to enjoy God’s blessing. Whether Hebrew (Jewish), Assyrian, Amorite, or Moabite, one need only be faithful to enjoy God’s favor. This marks an important evolution in the history of western religion.

Viewed from the perspective of mythology, Jonah’s story reflects a timeless theme, namely the hero’s journey into the realm of death and his emergence with a special, life giving gift to share with the larger community.

In his groundbreaking 1949 book The Hero With a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell gathered mythological stories from religious traditions around the world and examined their similarities as a way of understanding the human experience. In every culture – from India and China to Europe and North America – the hero is a common man or woman called forth to make an epic journey in which s/he faces challenges, triumphs over death, experiences personal transformation, and gains deep wisdom which s/he then shares to the benefit of the larger community. If you’ve ever watched the original Star Wars movies, then you’ve seen this same epic journey cast as a futuristic myth, with Luke Skywalker as the hero.

Jonah is what Campbell termed a “reluctant hero.” He wants no part of the ordeal and tries to flee God’s commission. The storm, being tossed into the sea, and then being swallowed by a fish are the trial. Jonah’s three days in the belly of the fish mythologically symbolize death. The fish’s belly represents a tomb, a womb in which he is reborn, or a temple where spiritual transformation occurs. Joseph Campbell wrote, “The idea that the passage of the magical threshold is a transit into a sphere of rebirth is symbolized in the worldwide womb image of the belly of the whale. The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown, and would appear to have died.” (The Hero With a Thousand Faces, p. 74)

When the fish vomits Jonah onto the shore, he is a changed man. He accepts God’s charge, sets off for Nineveh, and delivers wisdom that saves the city and the lives of its people.

And if you think that being swallowed by a fish is just some fantastic lie that an ancient Jew wrote, consider this . . . the Eskimo of the Bearing Straight have a legend about their trickster-god Raven who flies down the gullet of a whale cow and stays there for four days before escaping. (ibid, p. 179)

The Native American Blackfeet tribe of Montana has a legend about the “monster-slayer” Kut-o-yis, or “Blood Clot Boy.” At one point in his story, “As he was going along, a great windstorm struck him and at last carried him into the mouth of a great fish . . . when he got into the stomach of the fish, he saw a great many people.” (ibid, p. 290)

The Zulus of South Africa have a story of a woman and her two children that are swallowed by an elephant and discover an entire landscape and human community within the creature. (ibid, p. 74)

We have to understand these stories as the culturally instructive myths that they are, rather than dismiss them as tall tales. The human potential and capacity for life enhancing transformation that benefits the whole society has been recognized and celebrated in religions since time immemorial.

In the Sumerian mythology of the ancient Middle East, the goddess Inanna spent three days and nights in the hell region of her sister Ereshkigal, the Queen of Death, before returning to the realm of the living. (ibid, p. 184) Small wonder that Christianity’s Easter story tells us that Jesus lay dead three days in the tomb, before being resurrected to life . . . just like Inanna; just like Jonah.

So now you’re thinking, “Okay, that’s interesting, but what does it have to do with my life?” If we set aside both theology and mythology, and consider the human aspects of the various characters, then we can catch a glimpse of our own humanity in them.

Consider the reaction of the sailors in the story. They panic amid the storm and are frightened, throwing the valuable cargo over the side to try and save the ship and themselves. When that doesn’t work, they cast lots to figure out who is responsible for their misfortune. “Somebody must be to blame!” they think. But when Jonah admits that he’s to blame, they initially baulk at throwing him overboard, because – their fear not withstanding – they don’t want to have “innocent blood” on their hands. But they do it anyway and then offer sacrifices and vows to God, hoping they won’t be held accountable for their actions. We all do strange and sometimes regrettable things when we are anxious and afraid. It can be hard to stay calm, have courage, and think clearly when the storms in life seem to threaten our well-being. It’s a very human reaction.

And then there is Jonah . . . a reluctant, recalcitrant, resentful prophet would succeeds in his mission, in spite of himself, and isn’t happy about it. Have you ever faced a challenge or a task that seemed so daunting, so frightening, that left you so hopeless of success that you would go to any length to avoid it? Have you ever been faced with a responsibility so great, so heavy, so overwhelming that you wanted to run away rather than shoulder it? Very often we think, “I don’t want to do that!” or “I can’t do that.” or “I’m afraid to do that.” or “This will never work.” and we try to flee, go to any length to escape the reality that is confronting us. That is what Jonah tried to do when God said, “Arise, go to Nineveh.” Jonah’s response was to run away. I suspect that, at one time or another, we’ve all tried to avoid a responsibility or escape from reality. We are called to do something and we baulk at the challenge. It’s human.

Jonah boarded a ship for Tarshish, a city which was, we believe, in what is now modern day southern Spain. It was the furthest port from Israel on the Mediterranean Sea. 2,400 years ago, Tarshish was literally at the other end of the known world. So Jonah tried to get as far away from God’s call as he possibly could. I can relate to that. There have been times when I’ve done all that I could to escape a call. I remember that, when I was 23 years old, the mother of a friend of mine told me that I should become a minister. I literally laughed in her face. Then I joined the US Army. Talk about going to the other end of the earth to avoid what we don’t want to face or are not ready to accept. Jonah wasn’t ready to accept God’s call, so he fled. I can see a part of myself in Jonah.

When the fish finally vomits Jonah onto the beach, God says, ‘Hey, Jonah, how do you feel about going to Nineveh now?’ So Jonah goes. Yeah, he’s grateful to be alive, but he’s not happy. I can imagine him muttering his way off the beach soaking wet. By the time he got to Nineveh, you know he was mad . . . after walking 600 miles, stinking like fish. Small wonder he put the fear of God into the Assyrians when he finally arrived.

When confronted about their behavior, the people of Nineveh repent and God, merciful and forgiving, spares the city. Which “displeased Jonah exceedingly,” we are told, “and he was angry.” He complains to God, ‘See? I knew that you wouldn’t follow through on your commitment! I knew that you’d forgive these sinners, that’s why I didn’t want to come here in the first place.’ You see, Jonah walked all that way expecting to watch the Holy weapons of mass destruction turn Nineveh into a massive fireworks display . . . and it didn’t happened.

Do you do well to be angry?” God asks him. But Jonah doesn’t reply, he just sets up camp outside the city and sulks; sits there fuming at God. So God teases him with a little shade plant, which grows in a day – to Jonah’s delight – and then dies the next, which just infuriates Jonah further. “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” God asks him.

Yes, angry enough to die.” Jonah snaps back. At which point, God gently points out to Jonah that he’s being selfish and self-absorbed, happy about a plant that served his personal needs and mad when it died, but devoid of compassion for the 120,000 people in Nineveh whose lives have been spared because of Jonah’s mission and by God’s mercy.

Sometimes we do everything we think we’re supposed to do, and things don’t turn out the way we had planned or expected. What do we do with our disappointment? Do we get angry? Do we sulk or get depressed? Yeah, sometimes. How do we deal with the feeling that things are out of our control? Do we get anxious and reactive? Yeah, sometimes. Do we get so focused on our own needs and desires that we lack compassion and empathy for others? Do we sometimes get so caught up on our own little world that we lose sight of the big picture? Sure we do, at times. It’s a human tendency, but it need not be our personal reality.

The character of Jonah isn’t terribly attractive, but he’s fully human. He tries to evade responsibility, grudgingly does what he’s supposed to do, and gets mad when things don’t go his way. But his story reminds us that we are not in control and if we can still surrender ourselves to the will of God, as we understand that, then good things can happen for a great many people, including ourselves, in spite of ourselves.

The characters of the king and people of Nineveh are instructive too. When confronted about their transgressions, they don’t argue and complain; they accept the judgment, repent of their wrong doings, and change their behavior. As a consequence, they avoid a really unhappy experience. That’s a very healthy human response to the challenges in our lives.

Then there is the character of God, who just wants people to do the right thing and, when they finally do, responds by being merciful, forgiving, and compassionate. That response to life and other people is well within our reach too.

So, that’s why I like the story of Jonah. And one last thing. No modern translation of The Book of Jonah has him being swallowed by a whale; he was swallowed by a great fish. Being swallowed by a whale – which is a mammal – seems within the realm of possibility and that has created confusion about this story for years. The idea of being swallowed by a fish is so preposterous, that we know better than to think that this story is anything other than a wonderful and instructive myth.

Next week, I’ll talk about the parable of The Prodigal Son, which is – in my opinion – one of the finest stories in Christian scripture. Through its characters, we can catch a glimpse of ourselves on our best and worst behavior. I hope to see you then.