3 Lessons From The Tale of Jonah

It is no mystery that increasingly fewer people read the Holy Bible. One might guess that this has much to do with the rise of science, which has become the new benchmark for ‘truth’ in the modern era.

However, most people do not differentiate between ‘scientific truth’ and ‘spiritual truth’. One teaches us about the material universe and the other about the human condition. Importantly, a person cannot make do with only one.

That is why, despite our technological progress, we continually struggle to understand ourselves.

This article offers a practical analysis of The Book of Jonah. A brief insight into this ancient story from the Hebrew Bible, whether judged religiously or not, can help to pass on wisdom that is in danger of being forgotten.

Don’t Betray Your Conscience

“But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” — Jonah 1:3

Jonah finds himself in a circumstance with which we are all familiar: avoiding responsibility. God has tasked him with foretelling the coming destruction of Nineveh. Perhaps motivated by the fear of social judgment, Jonah boards a ship in an attempt to forgo his duty.

Takeaway #1: To tell the truth can be difficult, especially when to do so would make us unpopular. Oftentimes we are motivated to procrastinate, if not elude the responsibility altogether. As we shall see, this is a big mistake.

For the sake of understanding, a parallel might be drawn between ‘God’ and the human ‘conscience’. Indeed, there is a similarity in our experience of each as authoritative, all-knowing, and distinctive from personal consciousness.

Take Responsibility

“But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up.” — Jonah 1:4

Having been sleeping below decks, Jonah awakes to panic. Fearing for their lives, the sailors cast lots to learn who among them is responsible for the present catastrophe. Through this form of divination, Jonah is revealed to be the guilty party. Despite their hesitation to sacrifice him to the roaring sea, Jonah convinces the crew that he ought to be thrown overboard.

Takeaway #2: ‘The storm’ is a metaphor intended to convey the danger of betraying one’s moral obligation. Interestingly, repercussions are not limited to a single perpetrator but are extended to the innocent. In these circumstances, the best that a person can do is admit to their wrongdoing—and, if necessary, sacrifice him or herself for the sake of the greater good.

Be Transformed by Your Mistakes

“But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” — Jonah 1:17

Jonah is swallowed by a large fish (or whale) and held captive in the depths of the ocean. He makes a prayer of thanksgiving to God and vows to remedy his faults. Following this, Jonah is delivered to the shore so that he might finally make his proclamation to the people of Nineveh.

Takeaway #3: Despite its association with religion, the notion of repentance remains universally practical. Much like Jonah, occasionally we mess up in a way that is not easily rectified. During moments like these, we are humbled and brought low. Where we are might be lonely and dark, just as it is at the bottom of the ocean. But it is in the depths of despair that we have the opportunity to be made new.

Conclusion

Albeit clothed in symbolic language, the message of Jonah’s story is one of self-transformation.

That this idea has been made a cliché should not be mistaken as a sign of its simplicity or unimportance. Generally speaking, what is believed to be obvious is for that very reason ignored.

We cannot afford to forget the central myths of our culture. They remind us who we are.

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