Yes he did, and it can happen to you too.
The story in a nutshell is about an obscure prophet named Jonah who was sent by Yahweh to change hearts in the rough town of Nineveh. Jonah tried to escape in the opposite direction but his ship was hit by a storm at sea, a storm so wild that the men on board thought they would die that day. The crew threw Jonah overboard to save their lives.
Jonah subsequently got eaten by a whale but managed to stay alive inside its belly for three days, after which Jonah was spit back onto dry land, ready to preach to Nineveh at last.
The implausible part of the story comes next:
“Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city and then proclaimed, ‘Only forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.’ And the people of Nineveh believed in God; they proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least.” (Jonah 3:4-5).
Maybe I’m wrong, but the story telling turns pretty thin at the moment of Jonah’s crowning achievement, his conversion of the city of Nineveh. The apparently effortless conversion doesn’t feel like real life. Every other prophet in scripture begins his teaching: “The word of the LORD spoke to me thus…”
Jonah did not use such a phrase. He seems almost detached from his message. “Nineveh will be overthrown.”
Would a warrior people surrender themselves so readily to a prophet from Israel without some claim of authority? I don’t believe so. I think it is noteworthy that Jonah’s rhetorical technique is understated. It means something else might account for his success. Certainly the story is about how God accomplished his purpose through the feckless Jonah in spite of him. But there seems to be more. What is the point of describing a harrowing adventure at sea if it added nothing to the story?
Jonah’s close encounter with death inside the whale has to be about a personal journey, a quest, and yes, it might very well have involved his becoming fish bait. In any event, whatever happened to him during his three days at sea was so life-changing that once he appeared in Nineveh he stood as a man fully alive, a man whose eyes were wide open. By his face alone these people could see that he was speaking the truth. This would explain the unlikely conversion of Nineveh.
Mind you the power of a transformed face in scripture is not without precedent. Recall that when Moses came down from Mount Sinai after 40 days, it wasn’t the tablets in his hand that suggested something great had happened, it was the fact that “his face was as radiant as the sun” (Exodus 34:29).
Can a human face move an entire nation? Think of how Jacqueline Kennedy appeared in pictures on the way home to Washington D.C. hours after her husband President Kennedy was shot in Dallas in 1963. She intentionally remained in the pink dress she wore that day, a dress now spattered with blood. The expression on her face conveyed the totality of the meaning of a suffering wife, and this image was assimilated and transformed overnight into the suffering of a nation. This is the kind of immediacy I am talking about, a presence that is self-interpreting due to its transparency.
The Spiritual Meaning of Jonah
The incredible story of Jonah is something we could dismiss as a flight of fancy on the part of a humorous author, but alas, the story actually increased in importance in the centuries after it was written, with the whale incident intact, ultimately becoming part of one of Jesus’ most astonishing teachings.
In the Gospel of Matthew, there is a section where the tension between Jesus and the Pharisees has reached a boiling point over questions about the Sabbath. The frustrated Pharisees gave Jesus an ultimatum. The Pharisees say they have seen no sign that Jesus’ words were trustworthy. Jesus had in fact given them many signs, but they refused to see them in the light of faith. They said, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”
Jesus replied: “None will be given except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:38-41).
The belly of a fish, and the heart of the earth. The Church has always recognized this as a reference to Christ’s descent into hell, which we observe during the Liturgical season of the Triduum.
Here is how I interpret this astonishing allusion of Christ. Jonah had converted Nineveh because he had descended to the depths of his own sinfulness and was transformed, and the people of Nineveh knew it. Yet Jesus, who was greater than Jonah, would literally descend into hell, into the heart of the earth, taking on the sinfulness of all humanity, yet he could not turn the hearts of the Pharisees. The Ninevites were from the powerful empire of Assyria, and were Israel’s sworn enemy and yet they were converted by a mere “good man.”
Jesus therefore adds this solemn warning, “The people of Nineveh will rise up in judgment of this wicked generation” because all the Ninevites had to work with was Jonah, “and there is something much greater than Jonah here.”
St. Symeon Metaphrastis in the Philokalia of the Eastern Orthodox Church sheds some light on the mystical meaning of Christ’s descent into hell for us today. It seems germane to what I am getting at here:
When you hear that Christ descended into hell in order to deliver the souls dwelling there, do not think that what happens now is very different.
The heart is a tomb and there our thoughts and our intellect are buried, imprisoned in heavy darkness. And so Christ comes to the souls in hell that call upon Him, descending, that is to say, into the depths of the heart; and there He commands death to release the imprisoned souls that call upon Him, for He has the power to deliver us.
In some mystical way the descent into the belly of the whale is an honest descent into the depths of our hearts without pretense or defense. A good psychologist can tell you that most of us have attachments that drive us away from what we genuinely need. These attachments are so deep that we develop habits of dismissing them automatically before they can even form clearly in our minds, so they control us to greater and lesser extents without our full awareness.
These disordered attachments trap us in addiction, narrowness of thought, and recklessness that hurts the people around us. The Christian life calls us to a personal inventory so thorough that we couldn’t bear it were it not for the divine mercy that flows from the side of the crucified Christ. This is why such a journey into the dark night can only be completed inside the Church, with the Sacraments, aided by Grace and the Holy Spirit.
Jonah’s story is my story and your story. Read it carefully, and have mercy on those who believe they are perfectly self-sufficient and self-aware, who say they have no need for God, who think the Book of Jonah is just a fairy tale about a man and a big fish. We know better.