Notes from the Whale’s Belly

by Sam Buntz

On July 24, 2014 in Mosul, Iraq, militants from ISIS destroyed the tomb of the Prophet Jonah (or, Yunus in Arabic). Of course, it may not have literally been the resting place of so mythical a figure as Jonah… But in a broader cultural sense, sure—it was Jonah’s tomb. In a world constantly convulsed, it is uniquely appropriate that the destroyers and corrupters of Islamic Civilization—and of Near Eastern Culture, more generally—should’ve demolished a memorial to this specific prophet. It’s a symbolic point for those who advocate Wrath over Mercy.

Like his spiritual descendant, Pinocchio, a whale (or, technically, a “large fish”) swallows Jonah. This is the sum of what most people know about him. In the Bible, his book is short, yet it still manages to contain a few more incidents besides the great fish’s lunch. Here’s the plot: God orders Jonah to preach against the Assyrians—in the eyes of the Israelites, a people who represent lawless degeneracy at its most extreme. Naturally, reluctant to journey to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh and criticize people with such a reputation for casual overreaction, Jonah attempts to flee from God by boarding a ship headed into the Mediterranean. This provokes God to send a storm against the ship. The sailors cast lots, discovering that Jonah is the cause of the ship’s misfortune—so they chuck him overboard and the fish swallows him. After sojourning in the giant fish’s belly and praying to God in repentance, the fish pukes Jonah safely back onto shore. Somewhat chastened, Jonah journeys to Nineveh (also in present day Iraq) to preach against the Assyrians, predicting their imminent destruction and the visitation of God’s Wrath.

Far from freaking out, stuffing an apple in his mouth, and impaling Jonah on the nearest spit, the Assyrians wise up. They cease persecuting the innocent or having crazy S&M parties or whatever unspeakable Biblical barbarities they were celebrating. They change their ways, pull a complete one-eighty, and the disaster Jonah predicted never occurs. Rather than being pleased at this outcome, Jonah is outraged. He predicted a disaster—which didn’t happen. God has undercut Jonah’s prophetic authority by forgiving the Assyrians. Jonah can’t bear this insult to his reputation for accuracy and retreats to the desert to sulk.

Despite the mythological prestige of the whale’s belly episode, the conclusion to the book is, in my opinion, the most interesting part. While Jonah is sulking, he complains to God in prayer. God responds with a majestic query, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (4:4). Despite earlier enduring the discomfort of living inside a fish for three days, Jonah’s lesson-time isn’t quite over yet. God causes a bush to grow and stretch above Jonah as he sits out in the wasteland, and Jonah is quite pleased with the shade. But the next day, God appoints a worm to kill the bush and makes the weather grow hot and windy, which sends Jonah into histrionics. “It is better for me to die than to live,” he says. (4:8)

God responds to Jonah with a final burst of divine eloquence: “But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’” (4:9-11). And that’s where the book ends. God poses a rhetorical question: clearly the fate of these people is more important than Jonah’s shade or his reputation for prophetic accuracy. But we don’t learn how Jonah responds—if he continues his self-centered sulking, or if he widens the scope of his vision and submits to a higher, merciful purpose. It’s as though God poses his question to the reader and the real conclusion must be found in the reader’s response.

Jonah is a brilliant little book, subtly but surely subverting the Biblical Prophetic tradition. Jonah’s typically Prophetic call for wrath is answered with forgiveness, and God, rather than appearing in the form of a hyper-violent bully (as in the books of Ezekiel and Jeremiah), manifests as a benevolent prankster, teaching the arrogant and stubborn Jonah a lesson by leading him through a series of comic tribulations.

William Blake would later allude to God’s description of the bush as something that “came into being in a night and perished in a night,” by writing in “Auguries of Innocence,” “We are led to Believe a Lie / When we see not Thro the Eye / Which was Born in a Night to perish in a Night / When the Soul Slept in beams of light.” Blake means that the human eye, which gazes on the natural world, is impermanent, as is the world on which it gazes (one needs to see “through” the natural eye, to witness the eternal world lying beyond, rather than merely looking “with” it, as he notes in his essay on “The Vision of the Last Judgment). Like Jonah’s shade, the material world is an impermanent illusion, a temporary shelter and not the native climate of the soul. The soul exists in the physical world as though in a dream—a universe of fluctuating desires.

All of this indicates that the rather Buddhist notion of “impermanence” isn’t foreign to the Western and Islamic traditions. Jonah is clear evidence of this as is Plato’s statement that ours is a “world of fleeting shadows.” And the idea that this realm is one of ceaseless mutability is common to Medieval and Renaissance speculation, as well. The Koran records the words “All except God doth perish,” and states that Abraham discovered the worship of One God by observing natural phenomena like the sun and the moon, before noting that they all had their rising and setting, leaving only a single Deity worthy of worship, existing beyond change. Bearing all this in mind, God’s great question to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry?” means that Jonah has no right to be angry over concerns about the impermanent aspects of reality, like his reputation as a prophet or his desire for shade. He’s failed to place the primary concerns of humanity—in this case, human life itself, as represented by the lives of the people from Nineveh—above his own egocentric, secondary concerns.

In contrast to the news about ISIS destroying Jonah’s tomb—along with the unending and numbing parade of news from the Ukraine, from Gaza and Israel, from Nigeria, from Syria, and elsewhere—I read an article detailing a quite different set of circumstances in The New York Times. (

Since the city of Yushu was devastated by an earthquake that killed three thousand people four years ago, local Tibetan Buddhists have been making a large-scale effort to buy animals from area markets and set them free. In one of the strangest and most striking cases, they’ve been attempting to save trapped river-shrimp—barely perceptible creatures—from the mud. Much of this has been due to the teachings of Chatral Rinpoche, a 101-year-old Tibetan lama who the Catholic-Trappist monk and writer, Thomas Merton, described (in 1968) as “the greatest man I ever met.”

Some Americans and Europeans might find this absurd, or complain that the Tibetans should be helping humans instead of river shrimp—but the basic sense of this compassionate activity, especially given that it arose in reaction to something so traumatic as an earthquake, is so manifestly pure that it seems, to my mind, beyond criticism. It’s certainly different from ISIS’s standard mode of operation, for one thing. However, as Jonah amply demonstrates, the tools to fashion such a compassionate response to trauma are wholly present in the Abrahamic religions, as well—yet, despite the efforts of many great and sincere souls, this authentic spirit never seems overwhelmingly present on the world stage. It is simply too easy to join the side of an ideology that sets its own peculiar goals and principles above the fundamental concerns of life—you relish the feeling in your bleeding gums as you gnaw on the bit presented by one set of dogmas or another. A supposedly “idolatrous” religious and historical site explodes—and this is labeled a “victory.” But aren’t the real holy warriors the people siding with life itself, as the essential, the unshakeable value? Like Pinocchio and Jonah, such people get to exit the whale.


2 thoughts on “Notes from the Whale’s Belly

  1. Enjoyed the article on Jonah. Just one technicality. If one turns 360 degrees, you are headed the same direction you were originally. I think you meant to turn 180 which puts you in the direct opposite direction.

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