As I’ve continued with my project of reading the Bible in one year, the program I’m using doesn’t necessarily go through the Old Testament in order. Occasionally it breaks the sequence to skip to a later book, before returning to the traditional list.
After many, many books about the kings of Israel and their misdeeds and punishments, it was quite refreshing to take a break and read the book of Jonah, an odd sort of prophet who didn’t really do much except be very grumpy and get swallowed by a fish.
The book is very short — a few pages long, easy to gulp down in a single sitting. I was surprised at its brevity, as well as by the fact that after being hounded by God across land and sea to prophesy to Nineveh, when Jonah finally does so, his message is only a single sentence (“Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”). However, this is successful in getting Nineveh to instantly repent. I suppose it should be a lesson to all of us that if you have the right words, you don’t need to use a lot of them.
Of course, just because the book is short doesn’t mean it’s not extremely profound. Jonah is one of the few prophets mentioned by name in the Gospels (when Jesus refers to the “sign of Jonah”). Jonah is an image of the entry into death, into the depths of the earth, and of the power of resurrection. He represents the path of initiation that all humanity must take, or be overwhelmed by darkness. His prayer from the belly of the fish is one that many of us could turn to at times of crisis, such as the present:
The waters closed in over me to take my life;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
at the roots of the mountains.
In this extremity Jonah comes to a place of surrender, of dissolving and re-integration. Instead of being utterly annihilated he remembers the Lord; he finds the light of praise and thanksgiving even in the depths of the pit. And he is renewed and reborn, to carry his message into the world.
Yet even after this transformative experience, Jonah is still upset because he doesn’t actually want Nineveh to repent and be saved. He obeys God’s command but then he gets grumpy again and goes off to sulk under the shade of a plant, which withers. Again, it’s an odd and even comical ending, but it makes me think about how true it is that we need other people to criticize and complain about — or even to teach and care for, in order to feel our own superiority. If they were to improve and learn and no longer be subject to our judgment, what would we do with ourselves? A successful prophet puts himself out of a job, after all.
But what growing forces are we withering with this obstinate attitude? The book of Jonah ends with the image of a dead vine, but doesn’t really give a clue as to what needs to be done to revive it. The answer comes only with the Gospels, with the “sign of Jonah” and the true vine. There, the new impulse is given through which repentance truly becomes rebirth.
As I was thinking over this story I was reminded of a little poem I wrote some time ago. With all the monsters in the world ravening to consume us, can we turn the story around? How can we meet them in a new way, a way that leads to growth instead of withering? As I journey with my inner tendency to be like Jonah, I wonder.
Try not to be afraid of your life.
Whatever may come knocking,
Let it in.
Dear friends may look like monsters at first,
But you hold the secret
To transforming them.
As their jaws gape to devour you, say
I’ve waited so long for your arrival.
Come share the meal with me.”
And if they still consume you,
Prepare the table there, in darkness,
Someday that creature will get hungry for conversation,
And want to let you out again.
Then you say, “No, my friend,
But come inside to me,
And bring a candle with you.”
What then come shyly stepping
By flickering, uncertain light?
Your long-lost twin, your double,
Your other self whose absence
You somehow failed to notice.
Only then can the feast