This post is a transcript of a video from October 2020.
Thanks to Magda Andronache for the transcription and JP Marceau for the edition.
I’m sure none of you will be surprised to find out that the story of Jonah is one of my favorites in Scripture. It is a story that I have thought about for many, many years, and that I have also explored in iconography. I made a few versions of the icon of St. Jonah in the fish, and I also recently made an ink drawing that I colored. It just kind of plunged me back into the story of Jonah, so I thought we could go over the story, especially looking at how it shows us the interesting inversions or flips that happen at the edge of the world. We see it very clearly in the story of Jonah. We see how it is related to resurrection and to repentance as well.
For those who do not know the story of Jonah, I will try to recap it as fast as I can. Jonah is a prophet; he is a prophet of God, and God calls upon him to go to Nineveh and to tell the people of Nineveh that the city is going to be destroyed. But Jonah doesn’t want to go. He doesn’t want to go to Nineveh. It doesn’t say in the text why he doesn’t want to go, but there’s a few things you need to understand. Nineveh is the enemy of Israel at the time. In fact, if you had to name Israel’s biggest enemy, it would’ve been the Syrian empire, of which the capital is Nineveh. God is telling Jonah to go there and tell them that God will destroy the city.
Instead of going East, which is where he would be going if he went to Nineveh, Jonah ends up going West. He goes to Tarshish, which is related, it seems, to Spain. So, he leaves in the Mediterranean on a boat to go to Spain, going the opposite direction of where he’s supposed to go. You have to see it in terms of cosmic symbolism already: instead of going East towards, let’s say, the rising of the sun, he goes West, towards the setting of the sun, and ultimately to the dark place or the bottom of the world, the bottom of the ocean, which is also related to the West. Especially for people at the time, the West would have been seen ultimately as the place where the ocean is. The great Leviathan is the great serpent of the Oceanus, is at the edge of the world, because the western ocean was seen as this massive flowing ocean that’s on the edge of the cosmos.
So Jonah goes out, gets on a boat and leaves. While he’s on a boat, there is a storm, a massive storm. But interestingly enough, Jonah is asleep at the bottom of the boat. During that time, the people in the boat are freaking out, and they’re invoking their god. They’re praying and thinking: “What’s going on? Why are the gods angry at us? What have we done to anger the gods?” And then they realize that there’s one character who’s not there yet, who’s not with them. He’s asleep at the bottom of the boat, and that is in fact Jonah. So, they pull Jonah out, and they say, “Why, you have to invoke your god as well, because we need to figure out what’s going on. If one of our gods is angry…”
Jonah says, “Look, I don’t even have to do that. I’m not going to invoke my God anyways.” He doesn’t want to. He says, “I’m the reason. I’m the reason why the storm is coming, because I disobeyed my God.” So Jonah says, “Toss me over the boat, and everything will be fine.” But the foreign mariners—these guys who are not at all Israelite—they don’t want to do it; they don’t want to throw him over the boat. That would be horrible. Rather, they try to find other solutions—they try to pray, they do all these other things—but ultimately they have no choice, and they end up listening to what Jonah says. They throw him over the boat.
When they throw him over the boat, Jonah is swallowed by a giant fish. The fish takes him down into the water, and he stays there for three days. At the end of the third day, Jonah repents. So he goes to the bottom of the ocean, and he has this transformation. What I’m going to do for you is I’m going to read Jonah’s prayer, and we’ll come back to it afterwards in terms of interpretation. It is one of the most beautiful texts to try to understand this flip that happens at the bottom, this flip that happens at the end.
I called out to the Lord out of my distress, and He answered me. Out of the belly of death I cried, and you heard my voice. For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me. All your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said, “I am driven away from your sight, yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.” The waters close in over me to take my life. The deep surrounded me. Weeds were wrapped around my head at the root of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever. Yet You brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God. When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to You, unto Your holy temple. Those who pay regards to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love, but I, with the voice of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to You. What I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord.
And then God spoke to the fish, and the fish vomited Jonah onto the dry land.
So of course now Jonah has no choice. He goes to Nineveh to warn the city that God will destroy it. But when Jonah gets to Nineveh and tells the people of the city that God will destroy it, the king tears his clothes and puts ash on his head and does all these penitent gestures. Plus, he tells the whole city that they need to repent. So the whole city fasts. It says in the Scripture even the animals fast. The entire city fasts because of this news that the city is going to be destroyed—and then God doesn’t destroy the city.
You’d think Jonah would be happy, but of course Jonah is not happy. He says, “I knew You would do this. I knew You would not destroy the city if they repented, because You are a merciful God.” So he’s extremely annoyed, and he decides to leave and goes east of the city; he goes out of the city. Then he comes to a place that is not covered. He sits there, and there’s the wind and the sun. He said, “You know what, I just want to die. I’m just going to die here.” So he sits there, and during the night God makes a plant grow, and this plant grows up kind of like a vine and ends up acting like a shade over Jonah’s head. It covers him from the sun and the wind.
Jonah feels good about that; he’s happy to have this tree. But then, again, during the next night, God destroys the plant. So he wakes up and the plant is dead. Now Jonah is extremely angry, and once again he says, “That’s it. I’m done. I just want to die. This is over.” Then God answers him and says, “You were so annoyed that I destroyed this plant, yet you would want Me to destroy this city which has countless people and animals?” And then He says a strange thing about how they do not know their left from their right. That is how the story ends.
Now, there’s so much in this story that I will not be able to go through all its symbolic elements. I just want to draw a thread through it, so don’t call me out and tell me I forgot some elements, because I’m going to try to remember as much as possible, try to get into as much as possible, but obviously there’s a limit.
One of the interesting and important things about the text is that it seems very much to be a comedy, that everything about it is kind of upside-down. It’s meant to be funny, because everything Jonah does is kind of upside-down. We’ll see it as we go through: everything manifests itself in a funny, upside-down way. This comedic aspect is related to the turning. We’ve talked about this in terms of the notion of the fool, the world of the fool. This turning is relating to the comedy, and we’ll see how this turning shows us some aspect of the mystery of the Resurrection and of repentance as well.
Of course, the first thing that I mentioned is that, right away at the beginning, Jonah decides to go the other way. He goes West instead of going East, and then he ends up on the waters. So being on the waters and being in the land of the foreigner from now on, he’s going to face a kind of upside-down world, but not necessarily in a negative sense, just in the sense that he is going to be constantly in a strange, upside-down position compared to the people.
Here he is in this boat. He is, of course, asleep in the boat. Being asleep in the boat is already related to death. Him being down, asleep at the bottom of the boat, relates this to the ark, the ark of Noah, which had the animals inside the boat. His body is related to the boat; the idea of the bottom of the boat is related to the body. You have to understand also that when Christ is also asleep in the boat during the storm, this is all connected to Jonah.
For example, in the story of the flood, Noah is the innocent one, and he goes through the flood on the ark to survive the flood. Noah does so to move away from the strange hybrid mixture of these warrior-like foreign tribes that are Cain’s descendants. Now, in Jonah’s story, this is upside-down: Jonah is responsible for the flood. He’s the one hiding in the boat and the foreigners are the ones invoking God and trying to find the reason why there’s a punishment on their boat.
Jonah has to say, “I’m the one responsible” and “Toss me out.” They tell him to invoke his god, to get God’s mercy, but he says, “Just toss me out into the water,” and the people don’t want to do it. They don’t want to toss him out into the waters. You have to see this structure as opposite and as a kind of a mirror image of what’s going to happen when Jonah goes to the city, because in the city he then blames the people of the city for the disaster that’s about to happen, and when God saves them Jonah is angry. Jonah wants God to destroy the city, whereas here he is with these foreigners who don’t even believe in God, and they don’t want to destroy him who is the cause of the suffering. You have to see the whole story of Jonah as this kind of strange flip.
But they finally accept to throw Jonah overboard, and then he is swallowed by this monster which brings him down into the bottom of the ocean. Of course, he stays there for three days. This is something which will be brought back into Christianity in terms of the three days in the fish. But one thing I didn’t notice when I told you the story is that when Jonah goes to Nineveh, it says that it takes him three days to cross the city and to give his message. These three days are the same. There’s a relationship between death, this animal garment of skin that he’s now wearing—Jonah is actually wearing a garment of skin, as this fish, which is protecting him underwater—and the city, which is, let’s say, this ultimate garment of skin, which he’s going to face later. So, three days down in death in the garment of skin as the fish; three days crossing the city, which is also related, like I said before: when you talk about the city and the foreign city, it is related to Cain, to all this imagery which comes from before the flood.
After three days, Jonah finally has his moment of repentance, and in this moment of repentance there are very powerful, beautiful jewels in the prayer that Jonah utters; some amazing analogies about death, covering and garments of skin. He says, “I called out to the Lord out of my distress.” We have to understand the importance of the idea that calling out unto the Lord is also an acknowledgment of distance. When you are far from the center, that is when you call out unto the Lord. This is something which happens in Scripture. For example, after the Fall, we see the murder of Abel, the descendants of Cain, the building of city. As they’re leaving the garden and getting farther and farther away, it says, “This is when men started to call unto the Lord,” because there’s this relationship between distance and calling to that which is high. It says, “I called out to the Lord in my distress, and He answered me.”
Then he repeats it, and he says it in a different way for you to understand the distress. He says, “I called out of the belly of death, and You heard my voice. For You had cast me into the deep.” Distress, death, deep, the heart of the seas, this idea of the bottom of the ocean or the edge, the bottom of the world. And it says, “The flood has surrounded me.” Look at all the images, the amazing images which are brought together: distress, death, deep, flood. And then he talks about these “billows that have passed over me,” being underground, under the water. And this is related: he says, “I am driven away from Your sight.” Here again is the distance. “I am very far away from You; You cannot see me.”
But he says, “I shall again look upon Your holy temple.” He’s at the bottom, he’s given you all these images of the bottom, and now he’s going to start to show you what are the images of what is above. He says, “I will look upon Your holy temple”. Here the temple becomes an image of the place from which the voice of God comes, or the place from where Jonah’s voice that is calling to God is heard.
So, he says again: “The waters have closed in and take my life. The deep has surrounded me,” this idea of being around, of wrapping around: the deep, the fish, all of this. I keep repeating, but there you go. But then he says, “Weeds were wrapped around my head at the root of the mountains.” Remember again the image of the high place and the low place. He’s descended at the bottom of the waters. He is down at the bottom of the mountain.
And he talks about the place “where the bars closed upon me forever.” The bottom of the world, the bottom of the ocean. At the bottom of the mountain is also a prison, hence why he talks of bars. Plus, the bars are also related to iron, this idea of the city. We’ll see it; it comes back later in terms of the city of Nineveh. What are the other images he talks about? He turns away and says “Then You brought up my life from the pit. O Lord my God, when my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to You into Your holy temple.”
Remember, this is what I’ve been telling you guys from the beginning. The relationship between the margin and the center, between the low place and the high place, is memory. If you remember God, if you remember the thing that unites you, remember the thing that unites us together, it doesn’t matter, to a certain extent, how far you are. It’s the connection. Memory is being connected to something even if you’re far away from that. So, remembering God is right away being connected to God.
It depends on different places. For example, in the story of Noah, after the flood and after they’ve been in the ark for very long, instead of saying, “[Noah] remembered God,” it said, “God remembered Noah.” Remembering Noah, and then [Noah] remembering God is this connection. You can express it from one way to the other. You could express it kind of bottom-up, as emergence, if you will, and you can express it top-down, in a more hierarchical manner. So, he remembers, and his prayer goes up to the holy temple. Once again, I told you: imagine the connection to the place of God as the holy temple like the garden of Eden at the top of the hill.
Then he talks about “those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love, but with the voice of thanksgiving I will sacrifice to You. What I have vowed, I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord.” So he talks about a fake world of idols, but what’s important to understand is the idea of thanksgiving, because one of the things that connects you to the center and also connects you to God, is the idea of giving thanks for that which you have received. When you are bitter, when you forget what you have, when you forget what you have received, that’s when you fall into fragmentation and death. When you remember what you have received, when you remember how you’re connected together and you’re connected to your origin, then you have hope, and you have hope of love, hope of steadfast love.
He says, “What I have vowed, I will pay.” He is actually saying, basically: “I’m supposed to go to Nineveh. I haven’t done what I said I would do. I will do.”
And then, of course, “Salvation belongs to the Lord,” and that is when God speaks to the fish. It’s important that he speaks to the fish, because it’s the creation of the world, but represented in a very beautiful, upside-down way. It says the fish vomited Jonah up onto the dry land. You could imagine the fish as kind of the earth coming up above. As God speaks the fish comes up above, but then he vomits Jonah over onto the ground, so the humor continues right after this very powerful and beautiful prayer.
There’s this upside-down: vomiting is kind of this meaninglessness. It’s like spouting gibberish. As something which was supposed to go into your belly to be integrated is not integrated and is thrown out as trash. So here’s Jonah as trash on the side of the ocean, the side of the sea, and he decides to now go to Nineveh.
When he gets to Nineveh, this is of course what I mentioned before. There’s a very strange thing which happens: Jonah is made to be a false prophet. This is where all the upside-down thing just becomes hilarious. A lot of people say that Jonah told the city to repent, and that if they don’t repent God will destroy the city, but that’s nowhere in the text. It doesn’t say that; it just says “Tell Nineveh I’m going to destroy the city.” And so he goes and says that he’s going to destroy the city, they repent, and then God doesn’t destroy the city. So Jonah is actually made to be a false prophet, and this is the strange upside-down thing where, in becoming a false prophet, he actually ends up saving the city. Being what looks like a false prophet, he ends up being the one who saves the city, but also the one who saves the foreigner. He is actually saving the foreigner by going through these weird tipsy-turvy things.
Now this is a little contentious for some people, but you can understand that there’s something about that in the story of Christ. To the Jews, Christ appeared as a false prophet and they condemned Him as a false prophet, but Christ ended up saving the foreigner. He ended up not just saving the foreigner but ended up saving the city. Christ saved Rome, and Rome is really the ultimate image of the city. I’ve mentioned to you before that there’s a relationship between Romulus and Cain in wanting to kill your brother, and then after killing your brother, founding a city. There is a direct relationship. This is a relationship that is still understood by Jewish scholars today. They see Rome as being related to Cain and also to Esau, this older brother who falls. Anyways, I don’t want to go too much into that, but this is the interesting part.
He becomes a false prophet, and then the city is saved—the foreign city is saved—and of course Jonah is not happy with that, because he’s been made a joke. He’s been turned into a joke. So he goes now. It’s really, really fascinating. He actually follows the backward movement into the garden of Eden. You have to see that this is what has been happening all along. Jonah leaves the bottom of the flood, leaves the bottom of the water, is “thrown up,” upside-down. He goes into the city, which precedes the flood—Cain builds the city and the technology which has brought about the flood—goes into the city, saves the city despite himself, then moves out, goes East out of the city, and goes into the land where it says that the light is hitting him and the wind is blowing. He’s actually moving towards the Spirit, but it’s all in a kind of weird, ironic, and upside-down kind of way.
He’s moving closer to the Spirit, but he’s not happy with that. He’s not happy, so God makes this garden for him; He makes a tree grow. And there he is under the shade of the tree. Being in the shade of the tree or the shade of the vine is not just about being in the garden but is mostly about covering. So now we have come to a little mystery which is also hidden in the story, namely the three coverings. Just like in the temple there are different veils—a veil of linen and a veil of wool and a veil of animal skins—here again we also have the three coverings. We have a covering leaf, just like the fig leaf that Adam and Eve put on themselves as they were falling. Then we have the covering of the city, a covering which comes later as Cain falls and creates a social covering. And then at the edge of the world, you have this kind of monstrous covering, which is kind of this covering of death itself, which is represented in the tabernacle as these strange gopher-skins, or these skins of an unknown animal. So, the structure of the different coverings in the story of Jonah is the same as the coverings that are found in the Genesis story but are also the very structure of the tabernacle itself.
Alright, so back to the description. God kills the tree, puts him again directly in contact with the Spirit and the sun, but he can’t handle it, and so he wants to die. He wants to go back down! He’s actually in the garden, in the presence of God, in the Spirit and the light, and he’s like, “No, man. I want the tree. I want to die. I want to go back down into the belly of the whale.” So the whole thing is as in the garden of Eden. God told Adam and Eve, “If you eat this fruit, you will die”. Well, here’s Jonah, who’s passed all this, who’s gone all the way up, and now he actually wants to die.
So God reproves him and says—and this is one of the greatest mysteries—”I’m going to save the city. Are you angry that you don’t even have the garden? I don’t want to just save the garden. I don’t want to just save the high place. I want to save the low place. I actually want to save the city, not just the garden.” This is a very profound mystery.
He says the strange thing about not being able to tell the difference between your right and your left hand. Now, this is a little more speculative on my part, but I think that this is referring directly to the garden of Eden. It’s referring directly to the idea that there’s an analogy between these people that have repented and now they can’t tell the difference between the right and the left hand, that is, the tree of knowledge of good and evil—they can’t tell the difference—and there’s a strange analogy between that and, let’s say, being saved and being above the difference between good and evil. That is at least what seems to be being suggested, and also because God says he’s going to also save the animals, which is related to this notion of death and the garments of skin.
Well, it’s something that I’ve talked about quite a few times. I’ve talked about how the mystic goes up the mountain. Like Moses, he sheds his garments of skin, but when he reaches the very top he receives them again in the pattern of the temple. So too, in the end, God says not to be angry about the tree. He wants to save the city and he wants to save the animal, even the outer covering.
You can see why it’s really one of my favorite stories. Like I said, I just skimmed across the surface. There is so much more that is going on in that story that we could talk about, but it is definitely one of my favorite stories. If you like this story, go ahead and check out. Like I said, I put out this image like a print, and I’ve also put it out on different apparel that you can get. I’m just excited. Hopefully I’ll have the chance to make another version of this carving, because it is really not only one of my favorite stories, but also one of my favorite images. As you know, everything I do here on The Symbolic World is thanks to your support. Don’t forget that, apart from just these videos, there’s also a podcast which you can find on your different podcast platforms. There’s also a clips channel which is run by an amazing person and is organizing my talks in terms of different subjects. There’s a Facebook group where very lively and powerful discussion is happening, out of which is coming also a series of articles that you can find on my website, thesymbolicworld.com. I’ve just decided with the editor of the blog, J.P. Marceau, and also Christian Roy, which you’ve seen on my channel, that we are going to make a French version of the blog and we’re going to try to add some more French content. We are continuously expanding here at The Symbolic World. There’s a lot more in the works, so thank you for your support, and thank you for your attention. I will talk to you very soon.