Each time I cast my dry fly on a stream, I hope that a fish will swallow my feathered hook. But what if it were the other way around, and a massive fish could swallow an entire human being? One sorry man got swallowed by a whale and had to live in its belly for three days and three nights, and that man was Jonah.
God speaks to Jonah and commands him to go to Ninevah, a great city, and tell them of their wrongdoings. Jonah disobeys God and flees. He boards a ship at Jaffa, near modern day Tel-Aviv, and sets sail away from God. Jonah mistakenly believes that God does not have dominion over the ocean. Like a child covering his ears to avoid hearing something that he knows is true, Jonah attempts to flee to the sea to avoid God.
God brings a mighty storm upon the sea and the ship is in danger of sinking. The non-Jewish sailors all pray to their gods, but Jonah goes down into the hold of the ship and goes to sleep! I get seasick in even the most calm ocean waves. Yet Jonah finds a way to sleep in a roaring storm. Is Jonah depressed? Is he rebelling? Does he know that the storm is coming for him? It is hard to know exactly what to make of this strange prophet.
The sailors wake him. Jonah admits that he is the cause of the storm since he fled from God. The sailors ask Jonah what to do and he tells them to throw him overboard, and that will calm the seas. Jonah must know that to enter the raging sea is suicide, yet he tells the sailors to heave him anyway. Perhaps this is a heroic act. Or maybe Jonah has simply given up. The righteous sailors pray that God will not hold them guilty for what they are about to do. Then they toss Jonah into the sea and the waters calm.
God commands a giant fish to swallow Jonah. Since there is no word in Hebrew for whale, the story tells us that it was a large fish. Jonah lives in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. Then Jonah offered a prayer to God.
Having filleted trout for dinner many times, a fish’s belly does not seem like a very fun place to dwell. It would be a dark and slimy place, nothing short of torturous for three days and nights. Yet the rabbis disagreed. They wrote stories saying that the belly of the fish was like a synagogue. There were sparkling pearls hanging in the fish’s belly, creating light for Jonah.
The eyes of the fish were like windows, so that Jonah could look out into the ocean and the depths of the earth. In one story from the rabbis, the fish even took Jonah on an underwater tour, showing him the great river that feeds all the oceans and the path that the Israelites took through the Red Sea. Finally the fish took Jonah to the Foundation Stone of the world, underneath the Temple, and there Jonah began to pray.
When God heard Jonah’s prayer, God commanded the fish to spit him out on dry land. God then calls Jonah once again to go to Nineveh. This time, Jonah listens. After getting thrown into a storming sea and eaten by fish, you would hope Jonah would have learned his lesson! Jonah goes to the great city and proclaims: “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The people of Nineveh, including the King, see the error of their ways, and they repent. They fast and put on sackcloth. When God saw their genuine repentance, God forgave them.
It is hard to know exactly what to make of Jonah. He seems at times rebellious, depressed or even suicidal. If Jonah is a tortured soul, it is the non-Jews, especially the people of Nineveh, who are the heroes of the story. While Jonah flees from God and needs to be taught a lesson, the Ninevites immediately realize their wrongdoings and repent.
Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish year. We read the book of Jonah on Yom Kippur because just as the Ninevites fasted, Jews fast on this holy day. However, the greatest lesson of the book of Jonah is the possibility of change. When we face our wrongdoings and ask forgiveness on Yom Kippur, we discover that like the Ninevites and even like Jonah, we can all change direction in our lives.
To read another blog post about lessons we can learn from the book of Jonah: CLICK HERE