Jonah and the whale. Or big fish. Whatever. You know the story, right? A guy gets swallowed by some enormous sea creature and survives inside for three days. The lesson of the parable? Who the heck knows; something about God taking care of you even when things are at their darkest and most hopeless, I suppose.
For most people-including most churchgoers-the familiarity with the story of Jonah and the whale is about that all-encompassing. We’re vaguely familiar with it through its retellings and allusions in other works of art. Many kids of a certain age tie the story of Jonah and the whale to a Veggie Tales cartoon. In addition to animated asparaguses and tomatoes, the story also makes a cameo appearance in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
What is so odd is that though the story of Jonah and the whale is one of the most well known and beloved and oft-told stories from the Bible, it is also one of the least well-understood. It should come as no surprise that the part of this story that is most well-known is also the least important section. Actually, the fact that Jonah got swallowed by a whale or a fish or whatever really has almost nothing to do with the actual point of the story.
And it is a story. It is clearly meant to be a parable. In other words, fiction. (Just like The DaVinci Code, though where that novel is clearly defined as a work of fiction, the story of Jonah has been passed down from generation to generation as actual fact.) And it’s not just a case of it having to be fiction because the possibility of someone surviving inside the belly of a water beast is, well, impossible. (Although it’s downright amazing, not mention highly comical, how many web sites are devoted to proving that not only is it possible for a man to be swallowed by a fish or whale and then spit out, but actually give historical accounts. Interestingly, none of them provide any actual evidence to back up these historical accounts. Ah well, Opus Dei Priory Sion E Pluribus Unum.) There are also indications that this work isn’t meant to be taken seriously as history because of some rather anachronistic elements to it.
Perhaps the key evidence that Jonah and the whale is meant to teach a lesson rather than record history is the kicking off point for the whole tale. God orders Jonah to make way for Nineveh and cry out against the wickedness taking place there. Why Nineveh? Because Nineveh is big, bustling city, the Tokyo of its day. There is a problem with this, however. We do know there was a real prophet named Jonah; that’s not open to dispute. But during the time in which that Jonah lived, Nineveh was a city in decline. It was hardly what could be called a great city.
Another problem with Jonah and the whale being taken as literal fact stems from its placement in the canon. Jonah is tossed in there among all those other prophetic books. What’s the big deal? Well, the fact is that there is precious little prophecy in the Book of Jonah. Certainly not enough for it to be stuck in there with Daniel and Isaiah, where it sticks out like a sore thumb. Of course, the biggest indication that the story is a parable is the swallowing section itself. It is such a fanciful idea, and it has such little significance to the actual point of the story, that its very inclusion cries out for it to be looked at as an episode meant to keep the attention of distracted listeners such as children or those whose beliefs were at odds with the Jewish religion. But more on that later.
And now the rest of the story: Jonah does not wish to go to Nineveh and preach against all the wickedness going on there. Instead, he books passage on a steamer to Tarshish. Apparently, he thinks Tarshish is a place where an all-seeing God won’t be able to see him. Needless to say, Jonah soon discovers the futility of this plan. A Katrina-level storm comes up and the sailors attempt to save their skins by tossing everything not tied down overboard in an attempt to lighten the ship. The next job they face is finding out what exactly brought all this wrath of the sea so they draw lots to uncover the dirty rotten scoundrel who angered the gods and brought about the storm. Needless to say, out man Jonah comes up unlucky and he is immediately thrown overboard.
At this point, the story becomes immortal. God, in one of his forgiving moods (foreshadow alert!), dispatches a great fish to swallow Jonah so that he won’t drown. Yes, there is the argument to be made that God isn’t in a forgiving mood at all, but that He is merely toying with Jonah until Jonah works up the nerve to do God’s bidding, but that decision is best left to individual reader. Some might also argue that if God really was intent on saving Jonah, why have him spend three days inside a fish. Surely, God had the power to save him in a much quicker way. Regardless of all these points, however, the story maintains that Jonah spent three days and three nights inside a fish. A really, really big fish; the kind of big fish never mentioned previously in the Bible nor ever seen since anywhere in the waters adjacent to the Holy Land.
We don’t really get a whole lot of information on what happened inside the fish, other than that Jonah prayed. But, of course, that is the whole point of the whale episode. That Jonah prayed and God listened and the whale spat him out. Once this takes place, Jonah is ordered by God again to take off for Nineveh. This time around, Jonah actually goes and does God’s will, apparently learning the valuable lesson that there is no escaping God’s eye. Jonah roams around Nineveh, making dire warnings that the great city will be destroyed in forty days. In an occurrence almost as unbelievable as the possibility that a man could survive inside a fish for three days, mass repentance occurs throughout Nineveh and God-remember that foreshadowing?-takes mercy on them and refrains from wrath destruction.
At which point good old Jonah does something that may stand as one of the most curiously bizarre events in the entire Bible. Jonah gets ticked off with God! He actually gets frothing mad with God for sending him off to Nineveh to warn these people that God was going to destroy them only to reverse direction and not destroy the city after all. Then he makes his way out of the city and, sits on a hill, and waits to see what the future holds for the great city. But it gets even stranger. God sends a plant to grow alongside Jonah in order to provide him with shade, but then causes the plant to die the very next day. Once again Jonah gets angry with God for giving him the shade and then taking I away. At long last-well after the incident with the fish or the whale or whatever-the true point of the parable arrives.
God explains things to Jonah, through the use of parable. Isn’t it amazing how Biblical literalists seem to miss how much of the moral lessons that come our way from this book come through the use of parable by the characters? Just about every lesson Jesus ever teaches is through parable; he almost never invokes historical facts or events. And yet so many millions of people steadfastly refuse to admit that even if a Biblical story isn’t true it can still be viable. Go figure. At any rate, God’s parable at the end of the Book of Jonah compares Jonah’s miraculous plant to the city of Nineveh. God draws a parallel between the pity Jonah feels for the dead plant with His own pity for the citizens of Nineveh.
Okay, remember when I mentioned that the whale story seems to be analogous to sticking a big action sequence into a chick flick? You know, the kind of movie that most guys won’t be seeing on their way, but will go to see with their girlfriends? In between the scenes of intelligent dialogue and deep characterizations, there will be a scene of twenty cars crashing into each other. That scene is there solely to keep the attention of the boyfriends, and in some cases the girlfriends. The whale section works the same way. The whole point of Jonah isn’t about praying and praying and praying in the darkest chasms of life for God’s help. The story of Jonah is about divine mercy for everyone, regardless of nationalisms or belief. Many of those to whom this story was intended were not believers in the God of Abraham. They needed reassurance that God cared about everyone, not just the Jews. But in order to keep them listening to a sermon-much like today-a little bit of “Hollywood” had to be tossed in.
Anyone whose knowledge of the Book of Jonah begins and ends with his being swallowed by a great fish doesn’t really know anything about it.