Jonah, historically, was a prophet of the northern kingdom of Israel in about the 8th century BCE. His name is given to the Book of Jonah representing the Judaic teaching of teshuva, the ability to repent and be forgiven by God.
The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus left them and went away. Matthew 16: 1-4
There’s only one sign I’m going to give you: the sign of the prophet Jonah.
Briefly, the Biblical story of Jonah tells about a man of faith who was instructed by his God to journey to the city of Nineveh to warn the residents to repent of their sins or face divine wrath. Jonah instead flees in the opposite direction and gains passage on a ship to Tarshish. The voyage encounters tumultuous seas threatening ship and crew with destruction. Jonah, realizing he is the cause of this raging storm at sea, orders the crew to throw him overboard. He is swallowed by a whale, survives inside the whale’s belly for three days, is then vomited ashore. Jonah completes God’s mission, the people of Nineveh repent, the disobedient man of faith is forgiven.
I enjoy reading this story about Jonah. It is a rich example of the Judaic society of that time drawing upon the writings of the Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans expressing a faith system in greater powers than themselves. It is a fascinating mythology. But, in contrast to the neighboring cultures, the Hebrews developed a monotheism worshipping one God to whom they attributed power greater than any of the other gods of the time.
Our powerlessness is acutely apparent when we are in the “belly of the beast”. Those times when I know what is right and sustaining, but choose instead to follow what is convenient and comfortable are days in the belly of the beast. The times when I know what the Lord of my life commands, but follow instead what pleases my ego are even more days in the belly of the beast. I relate to Jonah when what I choose to do is in opposition to what God desires for me. The seven deadly sins (character defects) of greed, anger, envy, sloth, lust, gluttony, and pride will in a heartbeat put me in the belly of the beast.
It’s a place I can’t fix, control, explain, or understand. Sooner or later, life is going to lead us there, you and I. Graciously, that’s where transformation most easily happens—because only there are we in the hands of God—and not self-managing. It’s transformation that leads recovering addicts out of the beast of addiction. Like Jonah, that whale vomits us back up onto the shores of sanity and submission. I am rebellious by nature, slow to learn lessons, and have spent many days and nights suffering in the belly of my personal giant beasts.
Thankfully, the Hebrews taught me about teshuva. The story of Jonah affirms the teaching of their wisdom. Repentance and forgiveness, repentance and forgiveness – the cycle continues into eternity.