A Whale of a Tale that Misses the Point

Pink Whale

Last week I finally took down the remaining Christmas decorations, including this glass whale ornament. It reminded me of the Biblical story of Jonah, which most people know but few understand. What is the actual point of the story?

You may recall that Jonah is called by God to go to Nineveh and proclaim that God is going to wipe out the city unless they repent of their thuggish ways. Jonah, an Israelite, loathes these violent oppressors and hops on a ship going the opposite direction.

Soon a whale of a storm arises, and Jonah fesses up that he’s the likely cause of it. The sailors reluctantly throw him overboard, and the seas calm. If not for a great fish swallowing him whole and subsequently puking him onto dry land, Jonah would have drown.

After cleaning himself off, Jonah trudges to Nineveh and delivers the message. Shockingly, the king and the entire city believe Jonah’s message and repent of their wicked ways.  God decides to have mercy on the people of Nineveh and does not destroy them.

The End, right? Not so fast. There’s one final chapter, and without it, we easily miss the punchline.

After delivering his message,  Jonah sets up camp just outside the city, finding shelter under a fast-growing shade plant. And Jonah starts to pout: “God I should have known you’d do something like this. I wanted fireworks. I wanted you to exterminate them. But God, You’re a soft touch. You’re gracious, compassion and overflowing with love. This isn’t fair!” Jonah grumbles himself to sleep.

The next morning, Jonah awakens to discover that a worm has eaten his beloved shade plant. Jonah rails against God over the plant: “I’m so mad. I wish I were dead.”

God’s reply: “You’re this worked up over a plant? And yet you gripe at me because I have compassion on 120,000 people and their animals? Get a grip!”

The story of Jonah is really a mirror. Insert your own loathsome group for Nineveh: bigots, terrorists, Republicans, Democrats…and see how the tale morphs if you then put yourself in Jonah’s place. However far your mercy extends, the message is to stretch compassion and forgiveness until no one is left out, especially your enemies.

It’s easy to make this a miracle story about a big fish that saves a man by swallowing him whole. It’s far more difficult to take a serious look at the limits of our compassion and forgiveness. Perhaps that’s why few people make it to the final chapter.

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9 Responses to A Whale of a Tale that Misses the Point

  1. Earl Ray says:

    Thought provoking as usual. But, just suppose [the] “…bigots, terrorists, Republicans, Democrats…” et al, are as un-repentant as the Amalekites were, what then? Or, am I just mixing my Ammonites and Trilobites? Could be.

    • scott says:

      Dear Earl, great point! I think that might be part of the evolution in thinking that this ancient literature was trying to evoke. How could the readers be called from this tribal view where God loves us and should smite everyone else to a more inclusive world view in which even the despised other might be worth saving? Still seems relevant today…

  2. Cariadne says:

    What beautiful writing to make the story so relevant…and my difficulty with compassion for the politicians I blame is a constant challenge. And I didn’t know the end of the story either, so thank you for it. And for the wonderful photograph of the whale ornament against that perfect background! Many blessings to you Scot.

    • scott says:

      Thank you Cariadne. I struggle with that same blame…and for those behind the scenes influencing those politicians. When I can muster enough compassion to see this as systemic, and that I’m part of that system, and therefore, I can with compassion on myself and other, take one small action each day toward a more just world. that feels much more empowered and liberating. Working on that….much love!

  3. Cheryl Driscoll says:

    Hmmmm. Worthy of thought. I am trying to put myself in that place and personally there is not one person or one group or several even, that I would wish to see exterminated off the face of this earth. Oh, hold on, Cheryl Jane – what about the terriorists who are kidnapping or beheading innocent people or shooting or bombing, etc. Well, now I do have something to think of.

    • scott says:

      You’re so right. I’ve easy to have compassion on everyone in theory. It’s when we get down to the particular groups and individuals that it gets tricky. As Lucy from “Peanuts” used to say, “I love humanity. It’s people I can’t stand!” Much love to you and Terry!

  4. Great story! Thanks for sharing. I did not know the complete version of this story!

  5. Dan Williams says:

    Thx for the retelling. Part of the story was recently a reading for Catholic Sunday Mass – impeccable timing on your part! ;-). That reading, tho, only went through the saving of the city. And then was connected with Jesus calling the first disciples. Again, thx for the full story.

    Thought of you when there were so many storms in your area. Hope you didn’t have much damage.

    • scott says:

      Hi Dan. Thank you for your thoughtful reply. No damage here. And yes, what synchronistic timing! It’s one of those stories that always gets short shrift in church lectionaries. Much love to you and Pam!

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