The Book of Jonah (referred to in the Daily of yesterday) is one of the shortest in the Old Testament - just four chapters. It tells the tale of a man who is given a job to do by his god but does not want to do it. It is therefore about avoiding one’s destiny. This, therefore, has a connection with the teaching on Love & Destiny: The story of Ashvaghosa.
The job that Jonah's god has given him is to go to Ninevah and preach to the people there to stop sinning and repent. To avoid his duty, however, Jonah goes travelling. He takes ship for faraway Tarshish.
While on the journey a great storm blows up. The crew assume that a god has stirred up the sea and each prays to his god. At this point Jonah is sleeping. They wake him up and chide him for not praying. They then cast lots to find out whose god has caused the storm and the divination indicates Jonah, who then confesses that he is in flight and disobedience. The crew ask what they should do and Jonah says that they should throw him overboard. At first they are reluctant, but in the end can see no other recourse, Jonah is thrown into the sea and the storm stops.
In and Out of the Whale
However Jonah’s god has arranged a whale to swallow him and he spends some time in the dark of the belly of the whale repenting and praying until eventually, after three days, the whale throws him out again onto the shore.
Now Jonah’s god appears again and repeats his instruction that Jonah go to preach to Ninevah, which he now does, predicting that the city will be destroyed after forty days because of its sins. However, the people of Ninevah heed the preaching and the king orders days of fasting and repentance. Seeing this, the god repents of his intention to destroy the city. Meanwhile, Jonah retires to a hut from which to watch the destruction and is highly annoyed when it does not happen.
Under the Wonder Tree
While Jonah is sitting in the sun, a plant grows up in a day and gives him shade. Jonah is happy to receive this gift from his god. However, the next day worms come and eat up the tree. Now Jonah is again angry. Jonah remonstrates with his god, but the god replies, “Here are you wanting to preserve the tree that is no more than a one day wonder, and criticising me for preserving a city of many thousand people.”
The Moral of the Tale
This story contains several morals. The main threads are
1. the folly of trying to avoid one’s destiny and how this brings misfortune not only upon oneself but also upon others.
2. the folly of becoming arrogant when one has taken on one’s destiny, thinking that then God should act in such a way as to vindicate one.
3. the necessity of a descent into “the belly of the whale” in order to repent in order to get oneself back onto the right track.
There is an interesting parallel between Jonah asleep in the belly of the ship and Jonah repenting and praying in the belly of the whale. In the first instance, he is thinking that he is succeeding in his flight from God and so is unconscious of his own danger and of the trouble that he has brought to everybody else. In the second instance he has realised his folly and is tortured by contrition.
Of course there is also interesting parallelism in symbology between Jonah’s three days and nights in the whale and Jesus’ resurrection story and also between the forty days grace for Ninevah and Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. These are the traditional periods that it may take for a person to achieve a genuine change of heart. Three days is about how long one can survive without water and forty days is about how long one can survive without food, so these are periods of physical and spiritual renewal.
The Will of the Gods
It is also interesting that the whole frame of this story is polytheistic and pre-modern. The crew all pray to their individual gods and want to know which one has raised the storm. As with the ancient Chinese, there is not much distinction between gods and ancestors, and it is important to know what they want or what has made them displeased. In order to find out some form of divination is required and it is this that indicates that it is Jonah and his god that are the source of the trouble. There is no hint of monotheism here. Jonah does not then stand up and say, “Your gods are all false. There is no god except mine.” No. He says, “Fair cop, you’re right,” and is filled with remorse realising his part in things.
Two stages of Enlightenment
I find it particularly interesting that even after his period in the belly of the whale and his taking on the destiny that his god has arranged for him, he is still vulnerable to human folly in the form of pride, self-indulgence and resentment, such that his god has to teach him another lesson by giving him the one-day wonder tree and then taking it away again. This is the point where the story ends, so we can take it that this is intended to be a major theme and lesson of the tale.
This, therefore, offers a two stage model of enlightenment. In the first stage the person is woken up from complete refusal to look (avidya) by being made to face the evidence of the trouble they are causing. However, there is more. Having got onto the path, the person is still vulnerable to pride and conceit. Now that he believes that he is doing God’s will, there is a serious risk of ego inflation and self-righteousness. The stakes are now higher. In the first stage of the story, Jonah unwittingly puts the whole crew at risk by his head-in-the-sand approach to life. In the second half he is quite willing to see a whole city destroyed in order to vindicate his own high opinion of himself; nor can he bear to tolerate the least inconvenience to himself. A second and more searching contrition is required to shift him from a self-power to an other-power attitude.
The story also shows how complex and self-referential our motives are. The task that Jonah believes he has to carry out is to go to Ninevah and tell the people there to repent - something that, as it transpires, they are willing to do - but the story reveals that it is Jonah himself who needs to repent - something that he has a marked resistance to doing. This is like the person who becomes a therapist because of an unconscious drive to sort out their own problems. In modern psychological terms we might talk about projection. In this earlier framework it is couched as the intervention of the gods. Of course, the fear of god is likely to have a bigger impact than psycho-speak so it may well be that the older way of thinking actually had more therapeutic effect.
The Jonah story is about the consequences of an inflated sense of self-importance manifesting firstly as spiritual blindness and then as arrogance. There is much in this story that we can all learn from. In the end we must assume that Jonah does come to accept that God is GOD and that human's cannot manipulate the divine for worldly advantage or personal convenience.