Why Did The Big Fish Swallow Jonah?

Yonah (in English known as the prophet Jonah) is sent to the people of the big city of Ninve, to ask them to repent. Yonah runs from the mission, and goes to the city of Jaffa to catch a ship that sails towards tarshishah (roughly meaning westwards). One should note that in Hebrew the number 6 is called shesh. The number six symbolizes the material world that has six edges like a die, a cube sealed and closed from all directions where nothing higher can penetrate.

Reading the bible, we need to know one simple fact: The bible is not a collection of mythological stories, nor is it a geography or history book. The bible stories are dressed in a way that through the process of reading them, we follow the voyage of the human soul coming down from heaven to experience life on earth.

Now, lets go back to Yonah. He is waiting at the harbor of Jaffa. As you might know, he has been asked to go to the people of Ninve, which is east from the land of Israel, and instead of going east as he was asked, he is running away from his mission, to the opposite direction, westwards (tarshishah) through the port of Jaffa. Moreover, it’s not just that he runs away, he also thinks that paying the fee of the cruise before he reaches the destination will buy him some peace.

Yonah pays the fee of the cruise and falls asleep in the stern of the ship, while a great storm is breaking. The captain comes and wakes Yonah, saying: “What about you a sleepy guy, go and call your God maybe he will change his mind and we won’t be lost in the storm!” The other sailors are in a panic and they are trying to find out for what reason the storm broke.

They roll the dice, and the lot falls upon Yonah. He confesses to the sailors that he’s a Hebrew man who was called to save the people of Ninve, but he ran away.

In order to stop the storm which Yonah interprets as the rage of God, he suggests to the sailors to be thrown overboard, so that they will continue on their journey unharmed.

Afraid to murder him, the sailors refuse Yonah’s request and try to steer back to the shore, but the storm was just getting worse.

Not seeing any other alternative, the sailors call: “Let not this man’s blood be upon our hands”, and throw Yonah overboard, where – as we all know – a big fish (often translated as whale) swallows him.

Since the Bible does not actually talk about the life of people but their attributes, each figure has to be understood as a certain quality. Yonah symbolizes the mechanical thought, the “cost-benefit calculation” so to speak. He was asked to go east, where the sun is rising (an analogy to human growth) but instead he went west, where the sun sets, a sign of deterioration and darkness. In avoiding his mission he thought to benefit himself. It’s what we could call the natural laziness of a person which drags us away from inner growth (east) towards a state of apathy and dullness of spirit (west).

Just like in the biological food chain, each little thought is swallowed by a bigger thought. In our case, the mechanical thinking (Yonah) is swallowed by a big fish (a bigger thought). The ocean (Hebrew: yam) represents the fact that there is always a bigger thought. The Hebrew word for right is yameen. The right side represent unlimited grace, like an ocean. It says in the Bible that the big fish was “sent” or “appointed” to swallow Yonah. The Hebrew word for that is “vay-man“. Just like the word for ocean yam, it has the letters Yud and Mem (y and m), which means that the ocean of wisdom (yam ha chochmah) always appoints a bigger force for the right side.

As the story goes, the big fish is the force which not only saves Yonah from drowning but consequently prevented the whole city of Ninve from destruction, since Yonah (the mechanical thinking) was reversed and used for the good, or right purpose.

illustration: Some rights reserved by del.art.ful
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About Eti Shani

Eti Shani was born in Israel and has been teaching Hebrew for more than 10 years with a special interest and experience in ancient Hebrew scriptures and culture. She's also the author of a series of books for novice and intermediate Hebrew learners.

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