Wednesday, March 16, 2011


Gustave Dore's wood engraving of Jonah being "beached"
To repent is to make a "U-turn" - to go back, to change direction.  A U shape implies falling, then returning to the right way.  Repentance is a gift, since most of us don't know when we are on the wrong path.  

The first book I ever read in the Bible was Jonah.  It is a reason I remember well: it was short.  Four chapters, readable and juicy as ripe peach.  

I was drawn in by the story: A man who hears God, ignores Him.  He then buys a ticket for an ocean voyage, gets in a boat and hides.  After a few hours, the sea and the sky toss up a storm so violent that it looks like they're all going to die, and the sailors cast lots (throw dice) to see whose fault this is (even heathens have their ways of supernatural experiences).  They find Jonah and tell him they know it's his fault (the lot said so), who admits he's running from God, who they tell him to pray to.  Jonah has another idea: "Throw me into the sea!" 

They do. 

The storm settles and everyone prays to Jonah's God, the all-powerful, who calmed the sea and the storm.  Jonah, in the mean time is swallowed by (my Bible said) a fish.  He makes it to the fish's belly and spends (wait for it....) THREE DAYS there.   He vascilates from feeling sorry for himself and then praying to God for forgiveness.  As the Spirit of God breaks through, Jonah's heart is changed, and he's vomited up on shore.   

The thing God asked Jonah to do was something he was good at: preaching.  God asked him to go to a city called Nineveh and tell them to change the way they were living, or else He wouldn't be their God.  Jonah didn't want to do it for one reason: he knew they would hear and change and God would forgive them.  Since Jonah hated Nineveh (they were easy to hate, apparently), he wanted to see them burn in hell...or earlier.  

Nevertheless, as a servant of God, Jonah makes the hike from the shore where he is vomited and into the big city of Nineveh, where he preaches.  The Bible makes no mention of him being shunned for smelling like fish...but rather, wherever he went people listened.  The "mayor" of the city actually declares a time to go without food and pray as a city to God, who they have forgotten.  Jonah tells them - "Do this or else you'll all burn!!" 

After delivering the message, Jonah heads for high ground and waits for the fire of God to fall and wipe out those terrible, awful Ninevites.  As he waits, he gets hot (there is no shade) but a vine grows quickly and shades him.  Then it withers from fire for for Nineveh, no vine to shade him...and Jonah is mad at God again. God asks him why he's upset about a little vine that died....when he's not even concerned that Nineveh will now live.  Which is more important?? God asks...all of Nineveh, women and children included, or a little shade plant??  Jonah doesn't answer...the book ends with God's question.

I didn't question the story as a young eleven year old.  I just read it.  I thought it was cool that I could read the book in one night.  After all, reading the Bible was about the third most boring thing you could do as an eleven year old, right?  

Now, at 48 and here in South Africa, our pastor is preaching this on Sundays.  It is years after I have been in the place of a Ninevite (a jerk not worthy of saving, who had forgotten about God); and not so long in the place of Jonah (being asked by God to do something I didn't want to do...and then not doing it).  I listen from the front row, seated next to Mario. 

Even today, the story of Jonah has grown.  It has become a personal story to me... one that makes me sure that I do not know the limits of God's mercy...and love.  

I can't imagine the literal reaches of the story.  Written in Hebrew, the book of Jonah says God PREPARED a great fish (Dag Gadol) to swallow him.  Some historians say the words 
Dag Gadol  is one that was used because at the time there was no Hebrew word for "whale".  I find this hard to believe, since the Hebrew language, so high and technical, would be lacking in anything.  

A whale is a mammal and must resurface for air.  With very few exceptions, most whales eat small things, and wouldn't be tempted to swallow a human being thrown over a boat.  Futhermore, most whales don't visit the Mediterranean Sea because of its deep and shallow so close together, but sharks are prevalent.  

If you know sharks, and people are like sharks, they constantly are hungry.  They swallow things they later realize they shouldn't have.  Bodies of whole men have been found in their bellies, but never alive.  

Most sharks are cold-blooded, and live in different waters than most whales.  To maintain their body temperature, they must burn fuel (food) like a furnace.  This process is called "endothermy", and is ...ahem, "costly" to those who are swimming near them.  A few sharks are warm blooded, and surprisingly have to eat even more than their cold blooded cousins.   

Most seas can't support the high-energy carnivores of the sea.  They literally can't produce enough fish to support one shark.   So....sharks are known for eating anything floating (or on its way down).  The Great White Shark (seen in Jaws), undeniably one of the sea's greatest predators, can (and does) feed on virtually anything that swims.   

The food is then moved to its U-shaped stomach (full of very strong acids and enzymes) and begins to dissolve most of what is eaten. The stomach then converts everything in it to an easily absorbed, soupy mush. Indigestible things, (like very large bones) are vomited. 

In a sense, a shark swallowing Jonah is less hard to believe than Jonah being kept alive in its belly for three days.  Even if you get into the complicated (and mathematical) argument of Hebrew days not being 24 hour days (Esther 4:16 ; 5:1), a shark usually likes or dislikes its food within a 24 hour process.  Jonah, by all accounts,  was in there longer.  

The thought of Jonah actually repenting in an acid-filled stomach where not much oxygen is... is not palatable, shall we say?  I would rather see him, like Gipetto and Pinocchio, in a vast cave inside of a whale. BUT...this is reality.

It makes me laugh...a belly- laugh.  If it were not so familiar, I'd say it was impossible: someone so recently "repentant" turning quickly into a person demanding the hell-fire and brimstone to wipe out the people who were running from God.   Jonah forgets, as I do, that he was just as guilty not so long ago.   It is a sin, or condition, of people who walk closely with God...and it warns me to be careful. 

Our Father,who is capable of more mercy than we could ever dream, has a way of redeeming everything.  He got Jonah's attention while he was burned by acids inside of a belly, and then had the fish vomit him up.  He sent a smelly prophet to a big city, who preached nothing but damnation, and the whole city changed.  

It is easy to repent when you realize you are lost without Him stepping in and making things right.  

It is true...and I believe it.