Jonah – A Good-Fun Read (iii)

We lost sight of Jonah when, on our hero’s uncompromising insistence, the good-hearted sailors very reluctantly tossed him into the sea. At once the inestimable power of Jonah’s God was demonstrated, in the immediate and complete calming of what had been an overwhelmingly tempestuous sea. No great surprise then, that in the New Testament, Jesus is said to demonstrate divine power in a similar manner. But what about Jonah? His prospects weren’t shining too brightly, as he disappeared into the greedily awaiting waves, but all was not lost. 

His God hadn’t yet given up on him. Providentially, a “big fish” was in the right place, at the right time, and was immediately “appointed” by God to swallow Jonah. That sounds a bit like ‘from bad to worse’, but no! The belly of the fish was adequately commodious, and apparently stocked with supplies of breathable air, drinking water and palatable food, for at least “three days and three nights”. What adds, in my view, to the amusement generated by this book of Jonah, is the earnest efforts on the part of literalists, to identify which particular ‘off-the-shelf’ fish God chose. Surely it’s obvious that it was ‘custom-built’ (by the author’s imagination)!

But just as, for some people, God’s calming of the ocean pre-figures Jesus’ calming of the Sea of Galilee, so the “three days and three nights” spent by Jonah in the belly of the fish, prefigure Jesus’ death and resurrection. His earliest followers were Jews, who were desperate to find ‘proofs’ that he was the promised Messiah. The only ‘bible’ they had was the Hebrew Bible (or its Greek equivalent) and so they trawled that for ‘proof texts’ that were (in their view) plausible. It’s incredible what can be ‘found’, if it can be made to fit, and ‘support’, already existing beliefs.

Far from being discomfited or otherwise deterred by his fishy entombment, Jonah waxes poetic, and outbursts into a psalm. Perhaps there was a whale-oil lamp, and pen and papyrus to write it down with. Except that he didn’t. The author has concocted a pastiche culled from a number of the Psalms in the Hebrew Bible. The Jewish Study Bible (2nd edition) p.1190 lists the borrowings. The rustled up ‘psalm’ says nothing at all about fish swallowing, but repeats the standard Hebrew poetic metaphors for depicting, and responding to, overwhelming danger and distress.

As the late Joseph Campbell so copiously and ably demonstrated, we find the same fundamental archetypal images in all mythologies and religions. One of these is the “dark night of the soul”. Heroes (and comic anti-heroes) have to descend into the dark places of the collective unconscious, in order to learn lessons and gain insights with which, on their return (or resurrection), they can benefit their fellow beings. 

And so we have the Egyptian Sun God’s night journey below the earth; the Greek hero Heracles’ journey down into the underworld; Jesus’ descent into Hell; and Jonah’s plunge into the innards of the fish. In the Hebrew story the author has Jonah go down to Joppa, down onto the ship, down below decks, down inside the big fish and, in the ‘psalm’, “down to the bottom of the sea … sunk below the underwater mountains”. He has to ‘hit rock bottom’ before he can ‘come to himself’ and be ready to ascend, back into the everyday world, with a new ‘Weltanschauung’ – a fresh understanding of what’s what, and how he fits in.

Christian mystics have much of great value to say about the importance, and potential spiritual productiveness and enlightenment, of “the dark night of the soul” but this, being a comic tale, sees Jonah’s triumphant ‘return’ transformed into the laughable ignominy of being vomited by the big fish, at the command of his God, back onto the shore. But never mind, in later years, he’ll be able to dine out on that one!

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