“17 Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”
1 From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. 2 He said:
“In my distress I called to the Lord,
and he answered me.
From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help,
and you listened to my cry…
9 But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’”
10 And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.”
Jonah 2:1-2, 1:9-10
Here it is. Finally. The fish arrives.
If you have been following along, you will notice that it has taken me a few weeks to write this next instalment and cover this well-known part of the book. (If you haven’t read the earlier posts about Jonah, take a few mins to do it now, it will help this make far more sense – Intro to Jonah: The most grown-up Children’s story you will ever read.).
So here’s the reason it’s taken so long… I’m scared to write about this part of the book.
Because unfortunately, out of the thousands of stories in the scriptures, this one (along with the Creation story and/or Noah’s Ark) has become a litmus test of faith. A way of deciding who is in our camp and who is in opposition?
Here’s what I mean; There are those who come to this story and look for a way to skip or deny the swallowed by a fish bit. In doing so, they can actually draw more attention to the weirdness of the story. They may say things like, “It is physically impossible to survive in a fish for 3 days. We have to move past these ancient fairytales, they have no bearing on us in this modern world.”
Others would suggest that to deny that this actually happened would be to deny God as well. They may deny certain scientific aspects and find other evidence that this can happen from obscure sources (someone once told me that a human can survive in the belly of a Python for over a week – I’m still waiting for the evidence). You will hear them say things like, “The Bible says it happened, so it happened. If you can’t believe in this miracle then you have no faith in God.”
This is the part that I’m scared of, but here goes…
What side do I fall on?
Well, I actually don’t think it matters whether you believe the story is literal or a parable (I would make a good politician, right?).
However, I would say that to hold so strongly, to fortify ourselves in our camp, can actually become dangerous for our faith. It is possible to say that this story is impossible or unnecessary, and in doing so, become so adamant of its irrelevance that we can actually doubt the possibility of God’s miraculous movements in our world. It is also possible to defend the literalness of the miracle so strongly that you miss the bigger themes at play, focus only on the miraculous and are blinded to what this story says about human nature.
One Commentator says it like this, “You can argue endlessly about fish, thinking you’re defending the truth or pointing out the ridiculous outmoded nature of the man-in-fish-miracle, only to discover that everybody in the discussion has conveniently found a way to avoid the very real, personal, convicting questions that story raises about what really lurks deep in our hearts.”
There’s an old expression that I use way too often but it seems fitting more often than not; “Can’t see the forest for (through) the trees.”
The trees are there, they’re a major part of the forest, but one individual tree is not the whole forest, it is simply part of the surroundings. You can spend your whole time focusing on it and completely miss the beauty of the forest around it.
You can see why, despite my overuse of this saying, it seems fitting here. The fish is part of the story, but it’s only a small part, two or three verses out of forty-six to be exact. Both sides can focus on the fish in their own way and entirely miss the greater themes of the book (mentioned in Intro to Jonah: The most grown-up Children’s story you will ever read.)
So, why the fish at all then?
Here’s a theory; Salvation.
From the Old Testament to the New, God’s salvation is present for those who are following him, and for those who are not. But salvation rarely comes the way we expect it. Think of the salvation of the Jewish people in Exodus; via plagues and parting seas. The salvation of the Israelites from the Philistines; via a young shepherd with a sling and a stone. The salvation of Moses; via a basket. The salvation of the World; via a crucified Messiah.
Salvation through unexpected means is a running theme in the Scriptures. We even see it for the city of Ninevah in Chapter 4 of Jonah (spoiler alert); via this rebellious, ungodly, self-absorbed Prophet. But here, a few chapters earlier, it comes in the form of a huge fish. Unexpected. Whether you take the story literally or not.
Many Preachers have used to fish to signify a form of punishment for Jonah. But it’s Jonah himself that see’s the fish as God’s form of salvation, not punishment. His words from inside the fish are a brilliant tapestry of Psalms (Psalm 18, 30, 42, 118 to name a few) woven together to become his own personal hymn of thanksgiving¹. Thankful because of salvation.
“To the roots of the mountains I sank down;
the earth beneath barred me in forever.
But you, Lord my God,
brought my life up from the pit.”
Side note: This mirrors the story of Israel as well (a common theme of the entire book), who are set apart by God, tasked to be the light to the world, deny God, find themselves in strife, call upon God, find salvation, are set apart again, tasked to be the light to the world, then deny God… You get the idea.
It’s as though Jonah knows that he has to go through these three days to be saved and to be born again. See any New Testament parallels? (wink, wink)
So what does this strange unexpected form of salvation have anything to do with me today?
We expect salvation to come from power, money, governments, armies, knights or superheroes… But it comes in the form of a servant King on a young donkey, preaching of salvation through meekness, humility, peace and sacrifice. Unexpected indeed!
This salvation still comes today, in all the forms that the creator has chosen. Just be careful not to hold onto one thing so tightly (defending or denying it) that you miss the unexpected salvation that is available for you, for me and the whole world each and every day.
Grace & Peace,
¹ Bernhard W. Anderson analyses the literary form, showing five key elements of a ‘Thanksgiving Psalm’, in Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today.